Humankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature but of itself. Rachel Carson — 1962
On July 14th, 1789 the French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille. At the end of that significant day, King Louis XVI of France wrote in his diary, Rien. “Nothing happened.”
Most of us live in blissful ignorance, surfing on a wave of repetitive tasks, untouched by more arcane tides. It is not that we prefer or want it that way — though some do. Simply dealing with everything that life throws at us — earning a decent living to feed our family, pay the rent, and spend a little time with friends — demands our complete attention. There is not much time left to concern ourselves with anything else, particularly if we have no influence over it.
As a result we rarely notice momentous transitions until long after they have become history. The things we cannot see are what should most concern us. But they rarely do. The gradual increase in atmospheric concentrations of CO2, for example. The increasing frequency and severity of fires, floods and droughts. The collapse of insect colonies. The death of corals.
In that context, the collective awareness and individual acuity attending COVID-19 — including the potential for a titanic societal phase shift — is remarkable. Instead of writing in the diary that nothing happened, we could be seeing the signs of a potential paradigm shift. We are making the invisible visible.
It still feels unlikely and surreal. Could it really be that so much we have taken for granted, and with which we are so familiar, is coming to an end? If so, it is also unaccountably reassuring in the recognition that life for many people might be about to change for the better. For in spite of all the euphemistic rhetoric aimed at calming the populace and reassuring the plutocratic elite that a return to business-as-usual is the light at the end of the tunnel, it is most unlikely that even our most venerable institutions will come through this unscathed, or that a majority of our daily routines can remain intact.
A new reality is attempting to be born out of the virus-shedding death of the post-modern era. It is not something we can control — although we can try to ignore this genesis of a new society, embrace it, or sign its death warrant. Many present will advocate abortion — politicians who have more skeletons in their collective closets than synapses in their brains, for example, and a handful of neo-feudal plutocrats who prefer that the world genuflects when they so demand.
As a Buddhist two principles guide my interactions with others. Being intimately connected to the Earth rather than separate from it, other species, and each other, is the most fundamental of these. In addition, I want to see clearly what is going on around me. In other words, I want to perceive reality as it actually is — in all its psychedelic pain and joy, rather than trying to make sense of life through the constant flow of received, often redundant, and certainly obfuscating, versions of the truth. This is never easy. One by one these fictional scraps pile up and sift the actuality of life. There is no escape. We are constantly exposed to a disconcerting array of conflicting messages, values and events. They often give a distorted view of reality, resulting in confusion and anxiety. Inevitably, too, we tend to pay greater attention to any information that confirms our own previous and evolving prejudices. It is called confirmation bias.
Diagnosing these filters for what they are and abandoning any faith I might once have had in them, helps bring both clarity and serenity to my life experience. Then the problem becomes how to express and communicate an authenticity few others see, least of all comprehend.
In order to clearly grasp what is really going on in the world we need to learn to look at it all without the additional overlay of distractions and deceptive narratives that take us in other directions. And just at the moment we are subject to a tsunami of misinformation.
Almost everything we read or hear in the news is fluff — an amusing mix of attention-grabbing captions, conspiracy theories, absurd opinions, carefully-crafted outrage, deception, and tittle-tattle. It rarely tells us what is really happening. Or why. Today, the role played by the news is not to provide us with neutral information about what is happening, but to influence how we think about what is happening. And it has us transfixed.
So how is it possible to determine the truth underpinning the truth? How can we dodge the spin meant to mislead or distract us? In terms of our current predicament we cannot even be sure that we know the facts about the COVID-19 pandemic. We have chosen to ignore much of the scientific evidence in preference to complying with decisions that are purely political.
For example, there is no hard evidence suggesting that masks help prevent the spread of the disease. Indeed the established medical view is that healthy people should not wear them. In some cases the use of ventilators can be harmful. The idea of social distancing too, relative to the model allowing a population to develop herd immunity, is unproven. Likewise there is no verification that contact tracing apps are effective. The most likely outcome of that strategy is the normalisation of mass surveillance in the name of public health.
On top of all that, because of inadequate testing, we are not even sure that the numbers of infections and deaths are accurate. Just yesterday, for example, all 40 new cases of COVID-19 in Thailand’s Yala province were found to be false positives. Patients who would be dying from pre-existing conditions, those who have contracted pneumonia, higher than normal mortality rates from the seasonal flu, and asymptomatic carriers of the virus, all contrive to make the real situation tenuous at best.
At the same time one needs to ask why the (almost) universal official response to this corona virus outbreak which, admittedly, has some unique characteristics, has been to bring in social austerity and slow down production — all the while keeping large companies and the banks afloat, and urging Big Pharma to find treatments and vaccines as rapidly as possible.
Is there an inherent contradiction here? Could the field effect resulting from the dysfunctional impacts of disaster capitalism now be fuelling widespread deception? And, if that is the case, how can we discern and appreciate the deeper news, particularly when the established order is under threat, government directives are used to orchestrate community behaviour, and we are all utterly disoriented and fearful as a result?
The unanticipated outcome of fractured global supply chains, fragile just-in-time inventories, uncoordinated agendas, the collapse of travel and trade, threats to industrial production, and halting the manufacture of unnecessary accessories, might be leading us to a new realisation: that with the exception of food, potable water, and clean air, our material needs are actually very few.
After the panic subsides it is feasible we might decide the daily commute into the city office is just too much to bear. We might conclude that the trade-off between work and play needs to be recalibrated; that we enjoy home-schooling the kids; that paying those who cannot find work a basic living wage is both sensible and humane; and that a majority of the goods and services we found indispensable before the lockdown are nothing more than props in a life-style that brings few joys and much unhappiness.
Those revelations will be good for the planet and good for humanity, though not so good for large business corporations who need to keep us trapped in a perpetual cycle of desire and consumption in order to sell their products, nor the wealthy billionaire class that owns the means of production.
As an exponent of game theory it will be fascinating to see who makes the next move. Will it be the establishment? Or have the people had enough of neoliberal sedatives?