What would nature think of our response to COVID?
For almost two years we have been living through a health crisis that has elicited responses on an unprecedented scale: government measures, economic sacrifices, and social resistance are more extreme than ever. The emotional charge surrounding all issues related to COVID is such that it is difficult to even ask questions that expose dogmatic fault lines… even when the intention is to overcome them for the sake of social reconciliation. But when questioning and debating are no longer allowed, the whole culture suffers.
Ten years of practicing permaculture have allowed me to develop a ‘reflex of nature’ that helps me to adopt a fresh and non-partisan perspective to address delicate social issues. Permaculture is not just an ‘innovative way of gardening’, but a practical tool for evolving our way thinking and adopting an ecocentric perspective (i.e. seeing our context from the perspective of the ecosystem and nature): using its triple ethic (caring for the planet, caring for the people, and sharing abundance) and its 12 principles, it gives us a framework for judging the long-term benefits of the actions we undertake.
Let Nature tell us if our actions are aligned with its operating principles, and if they will have sustainable and regenerative consequences.
Let’s see what this analysis looks like when applied to our response to the current health crisis.
An ethical analysis
The triple ethics of permaculture is based on the assumption that any thriving system must honor and nurture the planet, the people, and create a fairly shared abundance.
In the current situation, the planet seems to have weathered the crisis rather well: if observations are to be believed, many ecosystems have been able to enjoy a period of rest due to the absence of visitors, and many animals have been observed in places where they had learned to be shy. In terms of energy consumption, however, there were few significant changes: the overshoot day (the date on which all the natural resources produced in the year have been consumed) changed little or not at all in 2020 compared to 2019 and before.
As for caring for humans, some would argue that keeping the world’s (Western’s) population locked up has protected them from the damages of the virus, others that confinement, fear, masks, and vaccines are an unbearable threat to the sovereignty over our own bodies. Both argue on scientific facts, and both ideas are probably simultaneously true.
What about creating abundance and fair share? Many have had no or little social interactions for months, empathy is hidden by masks, there is unprecedented censorship in media, and the people is being divided between pro and anti… I fear that the health response has seriously damaged our ability to be a social entity, to be supportive, fraternal, and compassionate, qualities that will be crucial to us in the face of the challenges we face as a species and that they may soon be sorely lacking in our society.
A permaculture analysis
What would Nature say about the human response to the health crisis? An analysis in 12 principles:
(The 12 Principles of Permaculture are identified operating rules for resilient and thriving systems.
- Observe and Interact: since the beginning of this crisis, clean observation has been made almost impossible by the double phenomenon of fake-news and censorship. Interaction has also been severely limited by the prohibitions on gathering and the fact that any opposition has been systematically ignored and stigmatised.
- Collect and store energy: between repeated confinement, regular stress and fear, and constant doubt, I think that people’s physical and mental energy is much lower than it was. Social connections and connections to nature are also weakened. In other words, we are now weaker on all levels and have fewer resources to face other challenges that are sure to come.
- Produce a yield: Not applicable to analysis.
- Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: our response to the virus has been to apply maximum control over all dimensions of our lives, and never to question this initial coercive impulse. Neither self-regulation nor feedback has been allowed.
- Use and value renewable resources and services: from the first days of the crisis onward, the vaccine response was widely favoured over natural treatments and the human capacity to develop immunity. Two years later, those who claim that maintaining good health can prevent the most serious cases of COVID are still being mocked.
- Create no waste/ dont externalize costs: What about the long-term psychological effects of wearing a mask, the risks of mass application of a technology as young as RNA vaccines, the damage to national economies?
- Design from pattern to details : is there a long-term vision of what we are doing in the face of this challenge? Is our response aligned with a set of values that allow us to navigate uncertainty? The answer is no. Measures are decided in a hurry, without consideration for the long term and the ethics of life.
- Integrate rather than separate: I believe that the state of society today speaks for itself. The lines of division run so deep that even within family and friendships the fractures are clear and painful. Rather than unifying our diverse experiences and opinions we divide ourselves by contracting on uniformity and conformity.
- Use solutions on small scales and with patience: Forcing the entire population to accept a vaccine developed in a hurry, taking our basic civil rights hostage, is the opposite of this natural principle.
- Use and value diversity: same thing: we have developed a single solution and imposed it on everyone. Instead, nature would have encouraged us to develop a range of responses to see which ones work best. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, in case the basket gives way…
- Use the interfaces and value the edges: this principle invites us to listen to the small voices of subversion, those that tell a slightly different narrative because it is by integrating them that we can evolve, grow and strengthen the whole. But we have stifled these voices, forbidden anyone to disagree with the official narrative and question the measures taken. The fringe elements can no longer play their role and the whole social system is weakened by it.
- Use and respond to change creatively: this is perhaps what saddens me most personally: in this crisis and in the face of these unprecedented measures, we have been given the opportunity to challenge our cultural model. Modern industrial society that is suffocating humans and the planet. It breaks my heart that so many of us are voting for a quick fix to get things back to ‘normal’. What a dramatic lack of imagination. Why not take chance to question ourselves, to identify what we would like to change, what we can do for what we believe in, what we can do to strengthen our capacity to respond to other crises that are sure to shake our lives in the years to come? This would be a creative response to build our collective immunity and resilience, not a cheap quick fix that fails to look at the root causes of the crisis.
Much more could be said in this analysis, which I have deliberately kept concise. One thing is obvious: we have not respected any of the operating principles of resilient and thriving natural systems. There are many reasons for this: historical (deep disconnection from nature), psychological (supremacy of the mind over the senses), political (power & control), etc.
The fact is that these measures have weakened us (health, social cohesion, psycho-emotional resilience) without eradicating the problem: we are therefore more exposed to a threat (health) that is likely to recur, and to other threats (economic in particular) that are sure to come.
What would Nature have done? Without pretending to know, I can nevertheless guess that it would have preferred
- a diversity of responses of different kinds rather than a single obligation for all;
- slow solutions on small scales, whose effects can be measured and on which progressive corrections can be applied
- interactions with other living things (animals, plants, bacteria, fungi) rather than relying on a new technology that has not yet proved to be effective or safe.
- An approach that strengthens the cohesion of the human species rather than the division and discord fuelled by a radical and partisan approach.
Nature has been creating and flourishing abundant and resilient systems for 4 billion years, it would be good for humans to remember that they belong to the living and to draw inspiration from these principles to imagine creative and ambitious responses to the crises that are shaking them. It is not too late…