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The Plague, Ecocide, Thanatos and Gaia

Coronavirus shows that our self-destructive civilisation is fragile. But the earth may be on our side.

by Vita Golden.

This article argues that self-destructiveness including neo-liberalism facilitates twin scourges: plagues and environmental catastrophe (“ecocide”). In reacting, as you would expect, against ecocide Gaia, the force that regulates the earth’s environment, also attacks plagues and those that cause or facilitate them.

I’m going to take you on a journey through plagues; humans’ self-destructiveness; neoliberalism as a manifestation of that self-destructiveness; how countries have performed on both Coronavirus and ecocide in ways that reflect their self-destructiveness; and how ultimately Gaia is responsible for the Coronavirus and is a warning to us to take better care of our exhausted earth.

Plagues

Coronavirus and plagues

Coronavirus is not the first plague to bring civilisation to a standstill. But looked at from the perspective of the planet forcing a standstill is a cry for help that, rather than bringing down our civilisation, affords us the chance to reflect on our selfdestructiveness and maybe save it.

Particular human civilisations – as opposed to humanity itself – assailed by plagues have not always had that chance.

Historical Plagues

In 430 BC during the Peloponnesian War typhoid crossed the Athenian walls as the frugal Spartans laid siege, killing two-thirds of the population of the cradle of democracy.

The first appearance of the bubonic plague in 541 AD stopped the Emperor Justinian from saving the Western Roman Empire and expedited the ascent of Goths and Vandals and the so-called ‘dark ages’.

In the fourteen century bubonic plague put an end to England’s feudal system with its moribund social rigidity.

In 1520 the death-worshipping Aztec empire was destroyed by colonists’ smallpox.

So…plagues are dangerous to the very survival of particular civilisations.


Human Ecocide

Human driving of species loss and climate change is self-destructive.

In the last fifty years humans have damaged the earth so much that most life forms are under existential threat.

Humans have wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles and threatened a million species with extinction to the point where we are
facing the sixth Great Extinction.

Since 1906, the global average temperature has increased by more than 1.1 degrees. A further .4 of a degree rise may put 20-30% of species at risk of extinction. Climate change generates rising seas, hurricanes, floods, droughts and desertification.

Self-evidently it is self-destructive to have manufactured a future of this.

It is, then, extraordinary that we are currently accelerating towards probably 3 to 4 degrees and perhaps, in places, 10 degrees centigrade of warming by the end of the century. A quarter of a billion years ago, a rich and wonderful world was annihilated in the end-Permian extinction when the world warmed the same amount, 10 degrees.

It is a simple truth that most humans have not synthesised that this bears on our civilisation.

We’ve known about climate change since the 1860s. We’ve really known about it since around 1988. Yet since then global emissions have risen
by 50% and continue to rise, causing and threatening all this, to the point that over the last dozen years it has become a clear and overarching existential threat.

Society has failed to recognise, still less control, this momentous threat. Some countries are worse than others in their approach to climate change.

So…ecocide is dangerous to the very survival of the whole of human civilisation.

We have discussed the dangers of plague and ecocide. But human self-destructiveness compounds the dangers of both plague and ecocide.


Self-destructiveness

Self-destructive societies are open to plague and ecocide

Societies that are self-destructive tend to make mistakes. They open themselves to predation, to attack – to plague, to ecocide.

Already-self-destructive societies are more likely to generate plague and ecocide. Societies that are underprepared, licentious, self-absorbed, intolerant, arrogant, profligate, reckless, short-termist, greedy, laissez-faire, uneducated, anti-scientific or ignorant. That, in Freudian psychoanalytical
terms, have clinched Thanatos – the death wish. Self-destructiveness.

Humankind has always had a destructive side but it really lost its existential caution, and became self-destructive from, at the latest, the beginning of the twentieth century after which it fought two ‘world wars’ and entered an epoch of nuclear and now environmental threat to the continuation of the human species.

But some societies and some people within those societies are particular vectors of self-destructiveness – and of plagues and ecocide.

Neo-liberal self-destructiveness: Britain, the US, Brazil

The most self-destructive, though of course certainly not the most evil, ethos to have arisen in the history of humanity is globalised capitalism, market-deferential laissez-faire that I shall call, denigratingly, neo-liberalism.

It originated in Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s USA forty years ago.

It promoted capital over humans. It stopped those countries investing in their populations, including in their education. It promoted irresponsible laissez-faire. It celebrated inequality. It was a form of death worship. After
a while society and many citizens became self-destructive.

After a generation of social, environmental and cultural decay countries that had been beacons for much of the twentieth century turned to populist authoritarianism, xenophobia, racism and narcissistic leadership: the UK elected hedonistic Brexit Boris; and the USA racist, sexist Trump. A similar but accelerated process threw up proto-fascist Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Self-destructive leaders and Coronavirus

Boris Johnson is so self-destructive he did not even protect himself or, apparently, his heavily pregnant partner, against Coronavirus. He nearly died. His chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, who advised a lax approach to the disease, then discovered he had it and travelled and picknicked half way across England risking multiple infections in search of law-breaking
isolation.

Trump’s deathly instincts have helped make the US the worst mortality victim of Coronavirus. They spawned his initial denial of the disease – a “Democratic hoax” and his subsequent obsession with prematurely reopening his country. He believes Coronavirus can be cured by applying light and injecting disinfectant. On a personal level he continues to shake hands, does little to social distance, ingests insidious malaria drugs, and refuses to wear a mask. Reflecting this puerile vanity, Vice-President Pence too was slow to don protection.

Press conferences where Trump bullied experts, officials, journalists and states to go back to work, claimed “total authority” but “no responsibility”, boasts in the face of carnage, lies, makes up medicine and science, whines,
vilifies and cavorts are a definitive signal of a decadent society. Governors open beaches and nail salons in breach of safety guidelines. Armed libertarians demonstrate on the streets in favour of liberty from the disease, as if America’s greatness trumped the plague. All this is definitively self-destructive.

Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, called Coronavirus “the little flu” and a media trick, refused to implement a lockdown, wondered aloud “who cares?”, and travelled around the world with an infected entourage; his Ministers for Health and Justice resigned because of his hardchaw heedlessness; and in the end his government simply stopped reporting the
country’s death rates.

Correlation between countries’ handling of Coronavirus and ecocide

Moreover, there’s something of a correlation between countries that can’t handle Coronavirus and ecocide.

Self-destructive leaders and climate change. The US, Brazil and climate change

This is most dramatic with the US which has the highest cumulative carbon emissions, where the governing Republican Party denies climate change, where the Environmental Protection Agency has announced a freeze on
enforcing environmental penalties during the pandemic.

In the UK Johnson calls environmentalists “crusties”, was the only party leader not to take part in a television climate debate during the recent election and wants to jettison high EU environmental standards evolved over a generation. David King, the government’s chief scientific adviser on, and a champion for, the climate until 2017, questioned whether Boris
Johnson could be trusted on the environment. He oversaw “devastating” cuts in efforts to tackle the climate crisis when he was foreign secretary and then wanted to hush them up.

King said he would give the Conservatives no more than three or four out of 10 for their record on tackling the climate crisis.

And Brazil has a President who revels in the destruction of the Amazon, which he denies is the heritage of humankind and over most of which the country has dominion. In August 2019 the Brazilian deforestation rate was 222 percent above the 2018 values. Its leadership blames NGOs and greenies for the forest fires it facilitates.

At the moment the highest cases in the world rank as follows: the US, Brazil, Russia, India and the UK. These countries – the UK less than the others – all have populist right-wing xenophobic governments that systematically lie. Four of them are proto-fascist.

The correlation between malign governance and coronavirus delinquency is dramatic.

Can there be anything more self-destructive than the richest country on earth ignoring existential threats and electing a leader who doesn’t care about anything including future human life but only about himself and ‘Making America Great’? Or a UK Prime Minister, with brains to immolate and a family and fiancée who are obsessively concerned with the climate, who has written that winter snow heralds a “new mini ice age”. Or a country that hosts the earth’s lungs electing a leader who wants to destroy them.

That laissez-faire ideology causes deaths is illustrated by the fact that last year the Global Health Security Index ranked the US and UK first and second in the world for pandemic readiness. According to George Monbiot
writing in The Guardian:

Broadly speaking, in both nations the necessary systems were in place [and] none of these are failures of knowledge or capacity. They are de preparations, conscious decisions not to act. They start to become explicable only when we recognise what they have in common: a refusal to frontload the costs. This refusal is common in countries whose governments fetishise what we call ‘the market’…
Johnson’s government, like that of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, represents a particular kind of economic interest. For years politicians of their stripe have been in conflict with people who perform useful services…on behalf of the same group: those who extract wealth…Working through the billionaire press and political systems that are highly vulnerable to capture by money, in the UK, US and Brazil they have helped ensure that cavalier and reckless people are elected.

The civilised response to Coronavirus and ecocide

The most civilised societies led by Germany, the Scandinavian countries and some tigers in Asia have maintained high educational standards, are economically successful and largely eschew intolerant populism.

Of all countries they have best handled a lockdown and instigated radical regimes of testing.

And the countries that are doing best with reversing their environmental profligacy ar Scandinavia and Germany.

It is also the case that countries led by women – including New Zealand, Taiwan, Finland, Iceland and Germany have done well recently in dealing with both Coronavirus and with the environment.

Gaia

Definition

The Gaia theory maintains that the earth is itself alive and is a self regulating mechanism. Author of the modern theory, James Lovelock, claims:

Unfortunately, we are a species with schizoid tendencies, and like an
old lady who has to share her house with a growing and destructive group of teenagers, Gaia grows angry, and if they do not mend their ways she will evict them.

Some dismiss this as the deification of the planet but in fact it seems to be the case that if a part of the planet is damaged it will facilitate species better adapted to the new reality, and damage species that had overspecialised
in the benefits of the earlier situation. Reckless, over-ambitious species
risk collapse on the basic Darwinian principle that the fittest survive. Survival and thriving of the most cautious species conduces to planetary self-regulation. You don’t have to fetishise the Gaia theory to see its strength
and beauty.

Gaia and self-destructiveness

If a civilisation, of which Gaia has seen many, is so self-destructive that it will not take action to avert climate breakdown and a corollary extinction so dramatic that is not just of a civilisation but of the ascendant species,
Gaia – the self-regulator – may be expected to effect an implosion.

Classicist John Dillon recently told The Irish Times that while “essentially a positive and nurturing force”, Gaia “is yet not prepared to stand by and allow the carefully fostered ecological balance that it has achieved on this
planet over so many millions of years be overthrown by the recklessly expansive and unbalanced behaviour of one species that it has brought into being…The Earth, as a living system, is capable of taking steps, instinctively, to preserve its equilibrium, even at the cost of decimating its most potent
species”. In Greek mythology Gaia infamously arranged for one of her sons. Kronos, to castrate another, Uranus – the god of the sky who had abused her.

The way this works is that if a civilisation is so ill-focused that it does not see the need to arrest the most important thing, the decline of life itself on the planet, it will necessarily not take precautions across a range of other
activities, creating multiple Achilles’ heels that may ultimately pre-empt the bigger catastrophe of climate change.

In his recent book ‘Pandemic Century’, Mark Honigsbaum demonstrates that “‘nature’ is the greatest bioterrorist of them all”. He shows that some of the central facets of contemporary life: roads and transportation; urbanisation; the media; and globalisation and some of its greatest dysfunctions: crowding; healthcare deficiencies; religious and ethnic tensions; and climate change have helped to fuel modern pandemics.

Humanity’s self-destructiveness created the Achilles’ heel that precipitated the rampage of a plague, Coronavirus, and could precipitate even worse plagues.

As The Guardian reported on 27 April,

the coronavirus pandemic is likely to be followed by even more deadly and destructive disease outbreaks unless their root cause – the rampant destruction of the natural world – is rapidly halted, the world’s leading biodiversity experts have warned.

So the particular form of self-destructiveness that facilitated Coronavirus is the rampant destruction of the natural world.

Coronavirus seems to have been spawned in the unnatural capture for food of wild animals on the borders of recently-damaged ancient ecosystems. It has been aided by pollution which weakens the lungs of potential victims of the disease. It has been spread by air travel, the most unsustainable form of
transportation ever invented.

How Gaia sees Coronavirus

So we have established that Coronavirus is being perpetuated in the societies which happen to be the most self-destructive including neo-liberal; and derives from affronts to nature.

What would you expect Gaia, self-regulating earth, to do?

Revenge of Gaia

You would expect it to regulate, that is to say damage, the societies which happen to be the most neoliberal and the most self-destructive for a) their self-destructiveness including neoliberalism and b) affronting nature.

More particularly you would expect it to damage those people within those societies who are the most self-destructive, neo-liberal and nature-affronting. The fools who undermine public health services, cut the budgets for epidemics, who don’t recognise a pandemic, who gallivant undistanced and umasked around courthouses waving flags, who fly to race meetings, who travel in packed cars to holiday homes during a plague, who relax environmental regulation including during a pandemic, who destroy their natural environments, deny climate-change and fail to cut their emissions.

And what has in fact happened? Hardest hit has been the generation and the electorate that did most to damage the planet in its history, that was climate-sceptic in the teeth of evidence, that spawned Thatcherite neoliberalism, and voted for Brexit and Trump and Bolsonaro; but their victims too: Coronavirus has ravaged the poorest in these societies, the people with the worst health, the most obese, racial minorities, indigenous
people, the homeless – all victims of the neoliberal embrace of iniquity. In Chicago, for instance, black people are 30% of its population but 60% of its Covid-19 deaths.

In the early stages of the lockdown in the UK, there was a strong correlation between Brexit-voting areas and lower levels of compliance with social distancing. Christian Science Monitor reports that in the US Democrats are more likely than Republicans to disapprove of such protests, 67% to 51%. In
2016 Trump won 58 percent of the vote in US counties with the poorest 10 percent of the population. In the richest, his share was 31 percent. In 2018, according to Pew Research, 54 percent of college graduates either identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic, compared to 39 percent who identified or leaned Republican. One-third of Americans have a college degree.

25 years before that, those numbers were perfectly reversed in the Pew survey, with the GOP holding a 54-39 advantage among people with college degrees.

Gaia stops the plundering for a while

You would also expect Gaia, the self-regulator, to stop the plunderings of the
earth. Sure enough the stock and oil markets are down or not functioning, the airports are empty, the streets without cars, the use of energy down. Indeed short-term, as a result of the pandemic, carbon output could fall by
more than 5% year-on-year – the first dip since a 1.4% reduction after the 2008 financial crisis. And as a result of all this the birds are singing in the trees and we can all see the rise of wildlife in our deserted habitats. Temporarily.

Gaia may spawn change

But, and this is crucial, you would expect Gaia, the regulator, to jolt the self-destructive and neo-liberal who screwed up on Coronavirus, but survived, to change for the medium and long term. Some evidence of this is in the stream of Sunday supplements devoted to lessons from Coronavirus for the
future, most of which involve what might be termed less self-destruction and less neo-liberalism.

We have yet to see how our fright manifests. Perhaps the willingness to adopt the Greens’ policies on climate change signals a revolution in thought. Perhaps not.

So, where has our long journey taken us? We have established that self-destructiveness and neoliberalism facilitate both plagues and ecocide. Gaia, if it exists, rallies in protection of nature. In societies that are self-destructive the plague can run rampant. But Gaia exacts a revenge on those societies.

Listen to the planet!

Gaia abhors those who damage the planet and it doesn’t like the self-destructive including neo-liberals. It can be expected to militate against them. Gaia is the natural order, the survival of those who are fittest, meaning not the most macho but those equipped to survive within the bounds of nature. It is ugly and it is beautiful. It is everywhere and always. Gaia may not even exist. It is a metaphor. We should listen.