There is a meme circulating online with a biblical quote that contains a message from Solomon’s god accepting the consecration of the temple as a place he will receive his sacrifice. Solomon’s god claims to have sent drought, locust and epidemics to drive his people to repentance and obedience. An obvious message for believers in the midst of a pandemic?
On the other side, amongst the enlightened, there are those who would ascribe this contagion as some sort of “Gaia’s Revenge,” with the earth extracting payment from this errant species that has so decimated this planet over the course of the last century. A vengeful ecosystem allowing a cosmic karma to overwhelm an arrogant civilization?
What is arrogant, of course, is our pretension to anthropomorphize the universe that surrounds us and to define everything in accordance with our own prejudices and understanding. We have created father gods and mother earths because the very idea that some things are beyond our understanding or control triggers a primitive, palpable fear. Whether through science or religion we, as a species, have always sought human supremacy in one form or another.
Indeed, as a species, we have come a long way from our primordial past to this 21st century present. We span the globe in hundreds of countries speaking thousands of languages and fueling our societies with a myriad of businesses and industries. A global economy worth well over $86 trillion touches in some form every person on this planet. Is arrogance appropriate for a civilization richer and more populous than at any point in our history?
There are answers to such questions in odd places such as within our literature and entertainment. Two stories that have gained interest and fame in recent years were the Star Wars saga and to a lesser degree Lord of the Rings. While here is not the place to rehash the entire lengthy narratives there is one common lesson hidden within the action and adventure that I believe is relevant to our subject.
In the sixth chapter of the Star Wars saga a seemingly insignificant species of beings, the Ewoks, play a pivotal role in the defeat of an empire. In the Lord of the Rings the little noticed Hobbits are the key to the defeat of the Dark Lord. Some nerdy details admittedly but they serve to illustrate the point that it can be the most seemingly inconsequential things that can totally alter the trajectory of the story.
So we come back to earth 2019; Russia is fighting alongside Syrian forces and saving the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia and Iran continue a proxy war against each other in Yemen. The United Kingdom exits the European Union. The American President is impeached but not removed from office. Amid these and more significant events an unknown and perhaps unknowable person among the 58 million people that populate the Hubei Province of China comes into contact with a novel strain of the corona virus.
The pathogen was zoonotic, passing into the human population from an animal. It has been theorized that its emergence can be traced to the consumption of an infected bat or pangolin. Whatever the exact source there is no denial of the effect. From what we can assume was seen as a simple, innocuous meal the earth population of over 7 billion people and its $86 trillion economy has been brought to it proverbial knees. So do we return to our original assumption of karma, divine retribution, or some cosmic game of chance upended by the appetite of an anonymous Chinese peasant?
There is a line from the Don Henley song “Goodbye to a River” that keeps repeating itself in my head, “In the damage done since we have gone where we ought not to be.” I can’t help but correlate this Covid-19 crisis with the issue of Climate Change that hangs above us like Dionysius’ sword over Damocles’ head except we fail to realize the precarious nature of the horse’s hair that holds it.
One of the most common misquotes of Christian scripture is that money is the root of all evil when, in fact, it says that the love of money is the root of all evil. While we won’t debate the nature of our conception of good and evil here we do have a common understanding that the drive for capital, the quest for economic expansion at all cost is the factor that has brought us to this precipice upon which we stand. The corona virus has made plain the faults in the foundation of not just our economic empire but of our flimsy grasp of life itself.
Not being an economist or a player in the stock market I was unaware of trading curbs built into the Wall Street Exchange since 1987 to prevent panic sell-offs. Described as “circuit breakers,” they kick in at certain percentage levels to stop trading temporarily to allow the market time to stabilize. We’ve seen them used recently to save the stock market from freefall as this Covid-19 crisis wreaks havoc on the American and world economies.
So what if this particular coronavirus preforms a similar function. Perhaps it is not the vengeance of an angry god or an indignant mother earth but rather just a component of a vast universal ecosystem of which we are a part. Could this be a “circuit breaker” kicking in because we have pushed past our boundaries going to those places where we should not have been? Can this serve as a reminder that we are not lords of this creation, that we do not have dominion over this earth and its inhabitants? Can we contain pride and hubris and find the understanding that all our indigenous ancestors once possessed the ability to live with the earth and not against it?
Eventually treatments and vaccines will be found and we will find our way out of this calamity but it will change us in ways we are not yet aware of. Once we make to the other side we will ask these and many more questions and how we answer them will determine our future to a great degree. As our economy has slowed we have gained new insights into our conception of critical infrastructure and we have found a new appreciation of not just doctors and nurses but also of teachers, store clerks, truck drivers, and warehouse workers. In our social isolation we are beginning to see a measure of our interdependence.
Beyond that we should come to understand that when it comes to our world, our ecosystem, perhaps we are not the critical infrastructure we took ourselves to be. If we continue to push those boundaries our arrogance encourages us to push we stand the chance of exposing even more virulent pathogens that could remove us from the equation entirely. Humanity depends on this earth for its existence; the earth existed for millennia without us and is more than capable of doing so again.