“Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world.
This is as marvelous as being there in the beginning”
Many past cultures have thought that they lived in apocalyptic times and expressed a foreboding sense of doom and ending. From the Book of Revelations to cyberpunk, apocalyptic visions have been a mainstay of human culture. In contemporary 21st century conditions, the signs of apocalypse are everywhere, from collapsing ice shelves in the Arctic to wildfires raging in California, Australia, and Brazil; from superstorms pummeling coastal towns and island communities to millions of refugees fleeing the ravages of drought, poverty, famine, and conflict; from lingering specters of nuclear annihilation and (bio)terrorist attacks to species extinction, and runaway climate change. And now the scourge of a global pandemic inflicting suffering and death around the globe, a massive economic meltdown, and cities turned into ghost towns or petri dishes. Authoritarianism rises, democracy wanes, power concentrates into ever fewer hands.
Whereas all the apocalyptic visions of the past were rooted in fear, paranoia, fantasy, and superstition, visions of chaos and collapse today find grounding in mathematical projections and scientific facts. In our current era, apocalypse is an immanently unfolding objective reality that we are accelerating toward at breakneck speed. For the last 50 years or so, postmodern forms of culture and theory have articulated pronounced feelings of exhaustion and endings. We have heard much about the death of metanarratives; the end of history; the disappearance of the social; the demise of truth, reality, and the subject; and of course, the death of postmodernism itself. Postmodernism arises amidst paradigm shifts that register across the disciplines. but these changes barely scratched the surface of seismic changes unfolding in society and the objective world that had allegedly disappeared into the text. For what we are witnessing is not the end of modernism or modernity, but rather the inevitable collapse of the expansionistic, growth-oriented enterprise we call civilization — the dominant institutional structures and ideologies that human beings have built over the last 10,000 years during the Holocene epoch.
Our present moment is so radically novel and extreme we have to think of it in geological, not merely historical terms, for we have created a new geological epoch — we are transitioning from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. Humans have expanded their technological and world-altering prowess to such an extent they have disrupted every living system on the planet – most evidently in the emergence of a sixth (human-caused) mass extinction (right now, 150 species go extinct every day) and with the rise of fossil capitalism and its causal effect in global warming – and created a radical break in the history of humanity and the earth itself.
As we glean by its name, Anthropocene means “age of the human” (literally, “Anthropos,” human, and “cene,” new”) and it marks the time when human beings became the main driving force of natural change on the planet, surpassing or equal to the powers of nature itself. Humans have become a powerful super-agent driving changes in the planet, and there is no natural process – not wind, not rain, not tides and sea levels – that humans have not altered. Today, “natural disasters” are really social disasters – disasters caused by human disruption and degradation of natural processes. Indeed, we have pushed back the next anticipated Ice Age by some 50,000 years and possibly the ones that would come after that. In contrast to the stability of the Holocene, the current Anthropocene epoch is highly unstable and extremely hostile to humans and other life forms. By 2050, vast areas of the earth will be uninhabitable; indeed, many areas today are already.
Baudrillard asks, “What would life look like after the orgy?” Well, let’s open our eyes and look around at the detritus and decay. What is the orgy but the last 10,000 years of wanton growth, extraction, plunder, slaughter, colonization, consumption, and destruction of the predatory, growth-oriented, ever-expanding and globalizing system we now call advanced capitalism? And what we’re witnessing now is not the collapse of a local ecosystem, but of the planetary ecosystem, not any particular empire – Roman, Mayan, and so on – but of the human empire itself.
Viruses are parasites who depend on a host they hijack and take over for their own purposes, with no mind of the sustainability of the enterprise, until the host dies. Humans too, although they have their own reproductive machinery, are parasites, and our host is planet earth, its “resources,” and all of its resplendent biodiversity. We have hijacked this planet, exploited its animals, and we are mindlessly killing our host and thus killing ourselves. Viruses act only to reproduce, humans often seem to operate with similar lack of consciousness. A smart virus spares its host, at least until it can spread to other hosts, but earth-bound humans do not.
What happens after we indulge in a prolonged orgy? Well, one likelihood is that we contract a disease. After centuries of ever-increasing slaughter, plunder, population growth, territorial expansion, relentless consumption of the earth’s finite resources, habitat destruction, and species extinction, Western civilization has contracted many diseases, the latest being COVID-19.
“All societies end up wearing masks,” Baudrillard says in his book, America, and now this is literally true in the streets and stores around the world, where people are not confined to home. We are all carriers or potential carriers, but no one is safe because the clever virus delays symptoms, some people are symptomatic, and the seemingly healthy person next to you could be an infected host. This uncertainty, danger, and enforced distancing breads paranoia, isolation, mental illness, and the degradation of social existence. And because we live in a globalized world, a supersonically-connected planet packed with densely inhabitable urban zones, it is axiomatic that a virus anywhere is a virus everywhere, and thus we share the same fate.
With the emergence and spread of their empire over this earth, Homo sapiens came into ever-more intimate contact with other animals and the viruses they carried, leading to the rise of zoonotic diseases – bacterial and viral diseases transferred from (nonhuman) animals to human (animals). Roughly three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate in animals. Older zoonotic diseases include the bubonic plague, rabies, and influenzas (including the “Spanish” flu of 1918-1919 that killed between 50-100 million people). Newer diseases originating from animals include AIDS, Ebola, Marburg, Lyme disease, West Nile fever, SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 — which most likely came from a live animal market in Wuhan, China.
Zoonotic diseases began with animal domestication, they have afflicted humanity throughout the history of civilization, and they will plague us long into the future, so long as we continue our rapacious extraction of resources, destruction of habitat, decimation of biodiversity, and exploitation of nonhuman animals. Infectious agents such as viruses involved in zoonotic diseases can hide or lurk within a reservoir host (like a bat), waiting patiently wait for a prolific host like humans to provide transport.
Microbes are everywhere in the bodies of species with which they have evolved but can cause disease or death in humans when there is a spillover. The Ebola virus, for instance, doesn’t cause disease in bats but is lethal when it crosses over into human bodies. Similarly, the West Nile virus doesn’t cause illness in birds, but does in humans, just as Lyme disease is an affliction of human beings, not ticks or rodents. In each case, there is a spillover when human beings encroach upon, disrupt, and degrade habitats and ecological systems – through logging, road building, mining, creating farmland, rapid urbanization, and population growth – and bring animals into closer contact with us.
Eating wild animals killed in the “wet markets” of Asia or as “bushmeat” in Asia and Africa are a more direct pathway of disease transmission. Intensive confinement of thousands of animals in factory farms provides a very efficient means of transmitting zoonotic diseases. We saw this in 1997-2009, when a highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 bird flu spread from poultry farms in China to numerous countries. In April 2009, a novel combination of swine virus genes – producing the H1N1 swine flu — circulated in pig farms in North Carolina then jumped to humans and quickly became a global pandemic, killing thousands of people, and still circulates seasonally worldwide. It is important to note also that we live in a post-antibiotic age, where the “miracle” cure for bacterial diseases is often no longer effective, to an important degree because of the overuse of antibiotics in feed to control disease spread in factory farms.
Like humans, pathogens do not respect species boundaries. Overall, nearly eight billion people, many with advanced technologies and rapacious appetites, are tearing ecosystems apart and within these ecosystems are millions of different kinds of viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. As Sonia Shah observes in her book Pandemic, society operates with an erroneous paradigm of disease, treating diseases as foreign invaders into our territory, when in fact we are the invading species encroaching on the habitat and communities of animals and ecosystems. It is wrong to say that these diseases are happening to us, rather they are the unintended results of what we are doing to the natural world. All too often, we are the causes, not effects, the culprits, not victims, of pandemic-inducing pathogens. Why is it, we must ask, that the microbes that have existed for ages suddenly begin “causing” diseases? In the last fifty years, we have lost over 60% of all wildlife, as over three hundred infectious diseases have emerged or remerged around the world. It is no coincidence this is happening as the human empire expands and globalization increases. Zoonotic diseases spillover to humans far more readily in disrupted and fragment systems than intact and diverse ecosystems.
Ironically, while the virus is hidden and invisible, it acts to make dramatically visible numerous crises and problems in nations such as the US. Better than any Marxist theory of crisis, the virus showed that the world capitalist system is extremely fragile and built on a house of cards that can be toppled by an ill-wind. More so than depressions, world wars, or terrorist attacks, COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill. It exposed the mighty US Empire as a third-rate power and a failed state in its inconceivably feeble response to the pandemic and the plight of its citizens. It revealed Emperor Trump to be without clothes — not only grossly incompetent as a leader, but a truly dangerous sociopath indifferent to the suffering he causes. Trump not only presides over the greatest health crisis in a century, he is a health hazard, a danger to public safety. The new pandemic laid bare our debilitating dependence on China for drugs and medical supplies. Moreover, the virus shed a blinding light on the already clear racial and class inequalities in the US, for the poor and people of color have the least resources, the worst access to healthy food and health care, and are the most vulnerable. As well, COVID-19 laid bare the nihilistic logic of capitalism, when anxious elites insisted that the elderly, the vulnerable, and “essential workers” will have to be sacrificed for the greater good of the economy and revivification of the sacred “American Way of Life.” Just as surely, the virus put on display the supremacy of politics over science, ideology over facts, and personal ambition over public health. The respect for and preeminence of science has never been lower in this country. Perhaps most of all, the virus pulled back the curtain on how radically unprepared the world is for crises, especially the much larger planetary crisis already unfolding. It surely is a vivid reminder of our dysfunctional relationship with nature, and a warning to be heeded.
- Climate Emergency
If a virus can stop the world in its tracks in just a few weeks – shutting down sports events, ending university classes, confining people to their homes, and throwing armies of workers into unemployment — what kind of chaos does the far greater challenge of runaway climate change portend? Flooding, superstorms, drought, desertification, asphyxiating heat, and so on – these are the conditions the earth is preparing for us. But the climate emergency is a problem of the present, and not the distant future. If the chaos and suffering we already are witnessing has occurred with the planet heating up just over one-degree Celsius average temperature since the Industrial Revolution, what lies ahead on the current trajectory leading to a possible 4-degree spike by the end of the century?
In addition to the numerous forms of chaos climate change will unleash on the world, it will aggravate the problem of viral outbreaks. As temperatures climb higher, so too do diseases spread. Increasingly, mosquito-borne diseases such as yellow fever, Zika, and malaria will migrate northward. Malaria alone already kills a million people every year, and by 2030, the World Bank estimates that 3.6 billion people will have to reckon with it, 100 million of them as a direct result of climate change. And as humans continue to decimate forests and habitats, we will confront ever-new viruses hidden away, just as both old and new terrifying diseases are locked in the melting Artic ice.
Thus, COVID-19 is just a warm-up and trial run for the crises of far greater magnitude coming with climate change. Unlike COVID-19, however, there is no vaccine for runaway climate change, no technofix allowing global capitalism to ignore its addiction to growth. Both COVID-19 and climate change are global problems, but climate change is not solvable within capitalist society and demands far more radical vision and solutions to Anthropocene crises. Human beings globally will have to learn how to develop sustainable lifeways and to radically change both their social institutions and their anthropocentric and speciesist worldviews, values, and practices. If there is one positive development to emerge with this pandemic, it should be awareness of how complacent and humanity is for a crisis like a global pandemic and how urgent is the need to develop global cooperation, medical infrastructure, and support systems for the most vulnerable.
- Post-Human Postscript
“There is hope, though not for us.” – Kafka.
What is most surprising about this new global pandemic is many were surprised at all, given that we are doing everything necessary behaviorally, sociologically, and economically for such outbreaks to erupt. For decades, scientists have been warning about the imminent danger of pandemics, and with our ecologically alienated and disruptive lifeways we continue to ensure that there will be plenty more pandemics and catastrophes to come. Here in the US, Trump ignored urgent warnings of an emergent pandemic in the first two months of 2020, squandering two critical months needed to stop the spread of the virus. and when he took office in 2017 he gutted medical infrastructure and research projects on infectious diseases, moving critical resources from public health to the military and defense industry. Infectious diseases and climate change, however, force a radical rethinking of what we mean by “security” and there is surely no danger greater that pandemics and the furies of an unbalanced planet. In addition to new models of security that must include environmental components, we need new holistic models of health that recognize the interconnectedness of the well-being of humans, (nonhuman) animals, ecosystems, and the planet as a whole.
Short of a safe and effective vaccine, the coronavirus will never disappear, it will hide and emerge where there is opportunity, and exist alongside of newer and perhaps even more deadly viruses to come. Countless pathogens could evolve to become serious threats to humans, and must now be considered a cost of development. The constant danger, uncertainty, and need to contend with deadly viruses and infectious diseases, and above all with the catastrophic effects of climate change, is a fact of life in the disrupted world of the Anthropocene. We have turned a corner as a species, there is no going back.
To Baudrillard’s quote that opened this essay: exactly what “world” is ending and why? The physical “world”? The planet? Not likely – the earth is 4.6 billion years old, will exist for another 5 billion years before being devoured by the sun. The planet has survived and thrived through tremendous climatic and geological changes and five mass extinction events, and it will survive the current sixth mass extinction event and the Anthropocene epoch that humans are rapidly bringing about. The problem is these new planetary adaptation conditions will not be hospitable to human life.
Isn’t it rather that the “world” that is now ending is the Holocene epoch and the ten-thousand-year-old experiment we call “civilization,” an experiment that has not turned out well and now stands at a critical crossroads? Given the portentous changes still to come, I would hardly say that we are living after the apocalypse, but rather that we are living now during it, amidst its infant beginnings. Our brief window of opportunity is closing and by the end of this century infectious diseases, runaway climate change, drought, famine, scarcity, disease, and war will reveal their full horror. We are facing the greatest challenge in human history – are we up for the task? Or will this experiment of intelligent apes armed with potent technologies end tragically? We are well aware of the consequences of a failed state, but what if the true problem we face is the possibility that we will prove to be a failed species? If so, and we persist in being destructive parasites rather than responsible members of the global biocommunity (Gaia), the planet and its sundry life forms will only heal, revivify, and regenerate, but only in our wake.
“Nature’s Way,” by Spirit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f53Rfnilhww
 I am well aware of the intense debates raging about the semantics, periodization problems, and politics of the discourse of the Anthropocene, and can’t deal with them here. Suffice it to say, I believe the Anthropocene is an entrenched scientific and cultural concept here to stay, just like the discourse of the postmodern, which many thought was merely transient. The concept is useful in forcing us to grasp the magnitude of changes we are unleashing on the planet, and the need for radical changes.
 While human beings literally act like parasites, viruses, and cancers on the planet, such discourse are problematic in its association with the dismal position of eco-fascism, which by all means we want to avoid.