By Frank White
“When you go above the planet, what you see is a system that is highly connected and interwoven.”
Former astronaut Sandy Magnus, in The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution
At the outset of this post, I want to be clear that I am not dismissing the tragic human suffering and loss of life we are experiencing during this crisis as unimportant or as a good thing. Nor am I ignoring the economic stress all of us are experiencing. I am saying, however, that the lessons we draw from this moment are very important to our future and the future of the planet.
In an earlier version of this post, I talked about a phrase had come unbidden into my mind: “The virus is the immune system of the planet.” I supposed that happened because there have been so many discussions of human immune systems and their role in fighting off COVID-19.
One of my friends and colleagues (Felix Hoch) gently suggested a different metaphor (see “We’re All in this Together” (Part Three) and I think he was right. Also, I have just begun listening to an Audible version of an excellent book, Viruses, Plagues, & History, by Michael B. A. Oldstone, and I would change the phrase to “A virus is once again changing history.” This is not the place to go into detail about Oldstone’s thesis, but it gives the reader an “overview” of the struggle between humans and viruses over the centuries and the insight that our future is always affected by each skirmish, one way or another.
In regard to our current situation, our species has been pushing the Earth really hard in the past 200 years. Our population has grown almost exponentially, which in turn has required greater energy use, destruction of natural habitat, and continuing challenges to the carrying capacity of the planet.
Experts and activists alike have been warning of dire consequences if we don’t reverse course, reduce the use of fossil fuels, drive our different kinds of cars, use the land differently, fly less, and so on. We have indeed changed our behavior to some extent, and the messages of the astronauts about the Overview Effect have been important in that regard. However, we have resisted bold and dramatic proposals to change course.
Suddenly, in the space of a week, consider what has happened. Our entire global civilization has ground to a halt. We are not driving, we are not flying, we are not using as much energy. We are moving to alternatives that were there along, implementing telemedicine, online learning, and working from home. All of this is an inconvenience for us humans, but if you consider it from the Earth’s point of view, it’s very healthy. It is giving the planet breathing room. So the virus is not good for human health, and the pause has not been good for the economy, but the lessons learned from the pause could be good for the planet and ourselves.
At this point, of course, the virus is our enemy. We have the right to self-defense and our species is mobilizing for a war, World War III if you will. However, the virus can also be our teacher. What will we learn from this period of intense combat? When COVID-19 is defeated (and it will be) will we go back to our old behaviors, pushing Spaceship Earth to the max, expecting it to adjust to us, rather than behaving like its astronauts and taking good care of it?
One very good thing has already come of this crisis, which is a level of human unity and cooperation in the face of a common enemy, the kind of thing people have imagined would be the response to an attack by aliens from outer space. Suddenly, everyone is repeating the mantra that “We’re all in this together.” That is not just a cliche, it is the absolute truth and it should guide our actions even when we are not in a crisis.
Will we maintain today’s connection and collaboration when the enemy is no longer pushing us to do so?
Copyright, Frank White, 2020, All Rights Reserved
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