Reflections from isolation

80 years ago, Huxley warned us that we risked a cosmic revolution if we kept overusing oil, coal, and phosphorus. The world’s systems exist in a delicate balance, and there’d be consequences if we fuck with the equilibrium. He was right, of course. The climate apocalypse is here, whether we admit it or not. But as I watch three geriatric men campaign for the US Presidency—only one of whom has truly recognized how screwed we are—I wonder if the coronavirus is another aspect of that revolution, nature getting revenge on the generation that signed its death warrant. Not that I’m celebrating. I don’t want anything to happen to my family and friends who are older or immuno-compromised. Besides, all the talk of “humans being the real virus” is rank eco-fascism. We’re not viruses on the earth. The rotten system we call capitalism is. It’s capitalism that prioritizes overproduction and then institutes an ideology of consumption to mask what is happening. It’s also capitalism that requires stores never have more than exactly what they need, that has made our world so efficient that global supply chains are disrupted so easily, that produces a system where massive corporations are constantly overleveraged and at risk of collapse if forced to forgo a few weeks profit. It’s capital that pollutes the earth, capital that instrumentalizes nature, turning fossil fuels into a tool for production. And unfortunately, capital has infiltrated our healthcare and hospitals. Because of this, those who benefit the most from capital’s rapaciousness will likely be less scathed than the rest of us. Already we can see this happening in who does and does not get tests.

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For all that everything’s changed, my life isn’t significantly different than normal. I am astoundingly lucky and privileged. I stay home rather than walking to some coffee shop to write, my groceries list has more canned beans and less fresh veggies than usual, and I haven’t seen my friends in person in a couple weeks, but that’s about it. My schedule hasn’t changed; my thesis still takes up most of my time and energy. Most days are spent in front of my computer, pacing up and down my apartment, and putting off movies I want to see, just not right now, instead re-watching another episode of Brooklyn 99. I watch people walk from my window, go on walks myself.

Yet at the same time, everything is completely different. Construction has stopped on the myriad of new buildings going up around me, and strangers’ eyes project a mixture of fear and hope, holding within them a desire for community. We’ve lacked community for longer than just this crisis; social distancing has simply stripped away any last pretense. This is why the state of exemption[1] we’re in doesn’t feel completely foreign. It’s why people keep going out. If they don’t they might recognize how alienated we have become from each other, how empty and facile our connections are. Basketball and bars are the only things standing between us and recognition of our atomization. Asking people to give them up is asking them to acknowledge the loneliness of our age.

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            I’m sitting at my window, staring through bleary droplets. Outside, rain-soaked streets reflect light onto the ever-smaller brown snow piles in the parking lot across me. The wind throws a plastic bag around, spinning it for emphasis. It’s early March and this should be a false spring. A few days later snow will come, pointing at this weather and declaring it a trickster. But within hours it melts, and the temperatures rise. By the next day, it’s difficult to tell there had been a snowstorm to begin with.

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            The sublimated terror of the pandemic comes from our recognition that it holds the entire history of climate change within it, from its origins in an industrial region. As it spread, people denied the science, and even as we grapple with the visible effects, a segment of the population continues to prioritize the stock market. Not that it matters—like climate change, the pandemic will crash the economy. The question is how many people we can save, not how much money. Of course, there’s one big difference between Covid and climate change: the virus hit the global north first, wreaking havoc on industrial nations before turning its sights on the rest of the world. Climate change, on the other hand, is destroying the poorest, most exploited nations first. This is why we’ve responded with something almost resembling vigor to the pandemic, at least in comparison to the world’s response to climate apocalypse, which has been a collective shrug. Of course, the virus won’t stop at the borders of industrialized nations, just as climate change will one day destabilize the U.S. But I fear that we’re so wrapped up in our own issues we’ll ignore the destruction the virus will wreak on those less fortunate.

This inversion produces guilt; as we watch Covid-19 decimate our healthcare systems, we have the unconscious realization that this violence is an echo of what we’ve done to the developing world. Images of overcrowded hospitals and makeshift morgues call forth images from post-Maria Puerto Rico or the monsoons that killed 1,900 people in India. Hence our inability to recognize the stories about dolphins returning to Venice as fake; the gullibility points to how we desperately want to believe the pandemic resets the scoreboard, wiping away what we’ve done to others. Dolphins dancing in the clear water of the Adriatic would be a miracle, God telling us we’re forgiven. It doesn’t work like that, of course. Coronovirus victims are not Christ, redeeming us through their deaths. Particularly because city pollution is being linked to worse outcomes for those affected by the disease (just as cities that burned coal had higher fatality rates during the 1918 flue epidemic). They are being killed by the very thing we want them to absolve our guilt about.

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            The weather clears, and I go for a walk up to Parc Jarry. The neighborhood in between is a weird one, not quite mile-ex and not quite Villeray. It’s filled with warehouses from the 1940’s and 70’s, retrofitted to hold video game offices, upscale clothing store, and hip cafes. Except there’s no parking for customers, and it’s hard as hell wander into the area—it’s bounded on one side by train tracks, the Stade IGA (site of the Canadian Open) and Park Jarry on another, and a major artery on a third. Even when the sun is out and the park is full, the neighborhood seems empty, populated only by workers on their smoke breaks. Every warehouse is covered in “offices for rent” signs. It always struck me as a facsimile neighborhood, renovated on spec, not out of any need for more office space. This aspect now dominates, revealing the truth of the area—that it was not defined by our needs or desires, but rather those of capital. It’s a synecdoche of the world at large, where nothing is built on the human scale, because nothing is built for us. No wonder the ultra-rich are pushing for a return to normalcy, even if it kills the rest of us. We’ve let them build a world fit for capital, and they must be confused by this sudden push to prioritize the people.

A few days later, I go on a walk in the opposite direction, this time with a neighbor. We walk past abandoned construction site after abandoned construction site. Eventually, we reach a park, of sorts. On one side is a fountain area, with children playing around it. Across from it, two brand-new glass buildings squat, surrounded by dirt and grass. They seem out of place, alien structures imposed on this undeveloped area. Down the road, an old-style apartment block overlooks a dog park developers have their eye on.

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            I worry about the quarantine ending. Not only because we’ll finally have to survey the damage, but because I’m scared nothing will have changed. As long as the quarantine continues, I can dream that I’ll get around to watching the movies on my list or writing the backlog of essays that laugh at me from my living room whiteboard. More than this, however, I’m worried that we’ll enter an economic depression and yet no one will admit that it doesn’t have to be this way, that we’ll all go back to our old lives, that this state of exception will be squandered. As long as we’re in it, there’s the possibility that the world might change, that tomorrow is the day we realize how we’ve fucked ourselves, that another end of the world is possible (to quote some graffiti near my house). Yet deep in my heart I know that the most we’ll ask for is some minor social reforms, maybe a UBI (universal basic income) that later acts as an excuse to cut welfare. And if a worldwide pandemic is not enough to shake us from our malaise, then nothing will be. If this does not cause a radical reworking of the system, then climate change won’t either; the day this crisis ends is the day we admit the world is over, that nothing will wake us up to the violence enacted on us and others in our name. So I’m stuck, simultaneously hoping for end, for the sickness to fade and the dying to stop, and yet also dreading that day, the moment any dream of a better future dies.

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[1] I am playing off the much more common term “state of exception” here. The state of exception is when the government is able to supersede rule of law, to operate with more power than usual. But what is happening here is that the government has exempted some of us from the laws of capitalism. We are temporarily exempt from being exploited and alienated. Of course, this exemption still relies on the “essential workers” who can keep a skeleton system running, even as they are paid nowhere near what they’re worth.

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