Our Lives Undone

– essay by Peter Lang for Marvels & Catastrophes as part of the Listen-project

Few of us could have anticipated that an unusually  lethal sickness that once seemed so remote would turn the entire world upside down within a short span of a year. As we would all discover,  the foreboding Corona virus was neither so remote, nor so unusual. It's impact, nonetheless, has had very everyday consequences. The most familiar things changed in very big ways, if for no other reason that we lost our basic routines, we could not even count on completing the most banal of daily chores. No school, no cinemas or museums, no travel, no escape. We felt trapped, while we were cut off from family and friends. Our lives were coming undone.


As things began to sink in, the shock of Covid-19 turned instead into a kind of dire premonition: the pandemic was not a singular event, but a part of a chain reaction set off by more than a century's worth of reckless human activities, reaching the kind of hapless crescendo where we find ourselves today.  Climate change is having an unquestionable impact on our lives, and we are literally going from "out of the frying pan into the fire," a highly appropriate metaphor if there ever has been one.

By now many consider the changes in our everyday lives to make up this thing we call the "new normal," a condition that means we are no longer comfortable in whatever situation we find ourselves. Many populations across the globe have been already deeply impacted by climate change, well before this pandemic, and the massive numbers of refugees, asylum seekers, migrant victims attest to the scale of the global crisis. But in becoming universal, the condition becomes undeniable. The invisibility of the virus, its silent ability to move across borders and territorial confines, is the absolute proof that "man" is not in charge of his destiny, but rather he is the subject of a much greater force, nature.

So is there the possibility of picking up the pieces and going back to some altered kind of basics? It's all a matter of how we can imagine ourselves in this kind of future.

Every child knows it is dangerous to venture into the dark forest. Timeless fables and  fairy tales from across the world remind children to be careful. Today's young kids, who shouldn't be much different from the Hansels and Gretels of lore, simply don't have the same opportunities to get lost anymore. There are fewer and fewer truly dark forests left. The great continental woodlands are gradually being cleared away, or are being brought down by fire or tempest,  leaving large swaths of deep forest landscapes unrecognizable. One can only wonder where children can go with their imagination, if there are no uncharted worlds out there anymore. What is it like  to wander aimlessly into the unknown?

“...we will take the children early in the
morning into the forest, where it is
thickest; we will make them a fire, and
we will give each of them a piece of
bread, then we will go to our work and
leave them alone; they will never find
the way home again, and we shall be
quit of them.”
Grimm Brothers, Hansel and Gretel, 1812.


The coming-of-age message is no longer about the fear of getting lost, but instead it is about the inability to get lost. As humans push past the last natural frontiers they do more than just damage precious ecosystems, they remove vital spaces for our human imagination. Robert Pogue Harrison, a professor at Stanford,  wrote about  forests under threat back in 1992, arguing that forests play an important role in forming the human cultural tradition: "how many untold memories, ancient fears and dreams, popular traditions, and more recent myths and symbols are going up in the fires of deforestation ?”* 
The old growth forests are living cultural depositories for the whole of humanity, but as they shrink away, where will these bio-archives end up? Will they simply vanish from our collective consciousness? Or it may be that we will not be able to recognize ourselves in these old stories at all, leaving us strangely diminished.

Where would the demons hide in this altered landscape anyway? Would they become invisible, like the Corona virus that is now upon us? We have come to define the pandemic in terms of an ongoing war against a stealthful enemy, but the condition people are now facing is nothing like a war zone. Covid-19 is a global pandemic linked to a particularly insidious collateral effect that is all too human,  the persistent and unrestrained conquest of nature. We as humans should have known better, but then again, that’s the “human” part of human nature. Now we are really feeling the sting, and we are forced to take notice in a big way. 
 
We were not good at connecting the dots, we continued to ignore how serious the human dimension to this crisis would become, how environmental disasters and climate change would push populations to the brink of collapse. Behind these unsettling events are undoubtedly the human transgressions into the remote hinterlands, the extensive destruction of rainforests, wetlands, permafrost and tundra for human exploitation and profit that are bringing our species into every more direct contact with what once was considered wild--the wilderness. 
 
Something happening on a global scale like this should rather have been the stuff of science fiction: like facing annihilation under a brutal alien invasion, or extinction from a colossal meteorite strike.  Burning, mining, damming, dumping and everything else we do to maintain our material culture doesn’t look like a Hollywood spectacle or play like an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. But banal as it seems, our actions and inactions are leading to an unhappy ending all the same. We need to surrender some of our most cherished habits in order to gain back a more sustainable way of life.

It should have been plain to see the planet’s vital signs were rapidly worsening. But somehow most everyone thought we had more time to get our heads around the problem, keep the discussions rolling, or introduce some simple alternative energy schemes. Instead, it appears things have already gone too far. Have we naively crossed the climate Rubicon? The author Ian McEwan sees this debilitating pandemic as a kind of inauspicious prologue: “Covid is our mass tutorial, our dress rehearsal for all the depredations as well as tragedies that the climate emergency could bring.”**

Not unexpectedly, the seriousness of climate change, much like the devastating impact of Coronavirus hasn’t convinced everyone to come together and rally to save the planet. Rather, highly improbable speculations and baseless alarmist ideas are circulating everywhere.  Anything from basic conspiracy theories to doomsday predictions are competing head-to-head on social media with non-flourished straightforward science.  Whatever reasonable voices are out there have to deal with these much louder and loonier perspectives.

We know the planet has been much hotter before, and we have a decent picture of what the planet’s transformations over the eons would have looked like. Peter Brannen, author of The Ends of the World, takes the very long view on climate change. Brannen, looking over millions of years of earth’s history, considers the short spectrum during which humans have been around as a climatically comfortable period: “All of recorded human history—at only a few thousand years, a mere eyeblink in geologic time—has played out in perhaps the most stable climate window of the past 650,000 years. That was then, but this is now, and Brannen sees a radical change: “…humanity’s ongoing chemistry experiment on our planet could push the climate well beyond those slim historical parameters, into a state it hasn’t seen in tens of millions of years, a world for which Homo sapiens did not evolve. *** So, this time around, the planet might again be heating up, but the only caveat is the human species never was subjected to these conditions in the past, and it is unlikely that with these rapid changes taking place now we would be able to adapt to them before it will be already too late.
 
The more our lives have come undone, the more we yearn for the kind of cooperation that could help us make sense of all these uncertain developments. But it’s not enough to consider a fact a universal truth if half your audience remains incredulous. Marvels and Catastrophes is a program that attempts to reconcile rationalism with superstition, science fiction with fantasy, through new kinds of creative and critical processes. The human species has faced crises throughout its evolutionary history and has responded with both intellectual vigor and artistic vision. Pompeii offers us a curious documented precedent:  when the Vesuvius erupted people fled with their families, took their keys with them, brought along their dogs, gathered good luck charms, while a fleet of powerful naval boats came to the rescue. If you think about it, not much about the way we behave has changed in the interim.
 
Marvels and Catastrophes is about critically thinking and critically making a future rich with new possibilities. Under lockdown, walking the pet dog became more significant than ever. We took all sorts of strange protective measures, scoured the markets for miraculous disinfectants, decorated our masks, carried around bottles of hand wash, resorted to bumping our elbows. Meanwhile legions of scientists from within their laboratories laboured to produce an elixir in record time. But we face much greater challenges ahead, climate change is bearing down on us. The more we can stimulate our creative minds, the more we can gain consensus and gather together our strengths. Will it be possible to write an alternative kind of fairy tale with a much better ending? What kind of new adventures await today's Hansels and Gretels? 

/Peter Lang, Rome, Italy.



* Forests, the Shadow of Civilisation, Robert Pogue Harrison

** Ian  McEwan on the Pandemic Year:  Good Government  Is  the  Only  Solution, Wall Street Journal, Updated March 19, 2021 https://www.wsj.com/articles/ian-mcewan-on-the-pandemic-year-good-government-is-the-only-solution-11616173369

*** Peter Brennen, The Terrifying Warning Lurking in the Earth’s Ancient Rock Record, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/03/extreme-climate-change-history/617793/ This article was published online on February 3, 2021.