How do we get beyond ‘business as usual’ after the pandemic?

The novel coronavirus has brought suffering with it, but it has also given humanity the rare chance to take a good, and honest, look at itself with a view to eradicating bad habits and replacing  them with good, life-promoting ones. There is a plethora of WhatsApp messages circulating with this theme; some in writing, some graphically depicting the present quandary and ways of precluding it from happening again. 

Some of these reflections come from prominent individuals. For example, in a recent article for Time magazine titled “It’s the Best of Times, It’s the Worst of Times. Make the Most of It”, Margaret Atwood — the celebrated author of, among many other books, The Handmaid’s Tale — reflects on the opportunities that the debilitating global pandemic has brought in its wake. 

She compares humanity to a knight on a steed, galloping furiously to jump the widening gap of a castle’s drawbridge being pulled up, and sailing across this chasm successfully, landing safely on the other side. Chasing us, of course, is the coronavirus, and the question is not merely whether we’ll bridge the gap and land squarely, but where we would land. It’s unlikely to the point of impossibility that we’ll find ourselves on exactly the same terrain as before the virus struck. The question then becomes: How we are going to renegotiate the new or changed terrain? Or, in Atwood’s terms: What would we want to be there?

To my surprise, what Atwood writes in this regard is less imaginative than I would have expected, or perhaps she’s just more realistic than most would-be “visionaries” as they imagine a radically different world, in the “positive”, drastically revised sense. She invites us to think of everything that we hope will still be there when we get beyond the present nightmare, and then do all we can to ensure this will be the case. For example, Atwood imagines that, in the castle of the future, she would still want health care-workers (a no-brainer); her favourite restaurants, bookstores and art organisations; and reliable newspapers and magazines — particularly at a time when unscrupulous governments could use the excuse of an emergency to tighten their power in undemocratic ways. And then she gets to what I regard as the most important of her wish list.

“Your planet. One you can live on. Short form: kill the ocean, and there goes your oxygen supply. Many have commented on the fact that during this pandemic, global emissions and global pollution have actually gone down. Will we live differently, to make that a reality in the castle of the future? Will we source energy and food in better ways? Or will we simply revert?”

Many, if not most, of WhatsApp messages I alluded to above dwell on this, often with breathtaking photographic or video sequences extolling the beauties of the planet or, alternatively, the damage inflicted on it by deforestation, shortsighted industrial development and global-warming-related fires. Their obvious aim — and a laudable one, at that — is to sensitise viewers to the desirability of a planetary home free from the ravages that Homo economicus has caused.  

Hence the proverbial $64 000 question: Can humanity come up with a concerted effort to rewrite the rules of “business as usual” in a radically different format, in this way avoiding a return to the wasteful, polluting, nature-destroying (and new virus-cultivating) ways that have been brought into focus by the present pandemic? Personally, although I believe that some members of our species have the ability and the resolve to do so, all the signs point to the fact that most people, and governments, cannot wait to return to “business as usual” — techno-capitalism in all its dubious, and destructive, glory. 

So, for example, reading the former secretary general of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon’s recent piece in Time magazine, it is clear that — despite his demonstrated gender equality-oriented goodwill and concern about global warming during his tenure — he has no inkling of the need for a fundamental sociopolitical, economic and, crucially, ecological reorientation on the part of our species. In other words, everything he writes about the necessary relief for the world’s countries during the pandemic is phrased in terms of the tired old economic paradigm: financial relief programmes, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank

To be sure, at present, relief efforts and financial assistance have to be carried out by means of existing aid systems. But could one not expect that someone who has had experience of catastrophic global events, in the context of UN operations operations, would also be receptive to the idea of fundamental change, particularly in light of his past commitment to fighting climate change? The coronavirus crisis has foregrounded, like nothing else in the past century, the urgency to rethink and reshape our role as a species on planet Earth, as I have argued in two recent articles

‘Sacred economics’ 

It is not for lack of alternatives to the present, globally dominant neoliberal (economic-political) system that most people cling to it, although Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron would have us believe otherwise. One of my erstwhile PhD students, now a prolific researcher and teacher of philosophy, introduced me to the economic theory of Charles Eisenstein. It is broadly termed “sacred economics” and informs the title of his 2011 book, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition. 

Eisenstein has been described as a profoundly integrative thinker, which rings true when you read passages such as this one: “If the sacred is the gateway to the underlying unity of all things, it is equally a gateway to the uniqueness and specialness of each thing. A sacred object is one of a kind; it carries a unique essence that cannot be reduced to a set of generic qualities. That is why reductionist science seems to rob the world of its sacredness, since everything becomes one or another combination of a handful of generic building blocks. This conception mirrors our economic system, itself consisting mainly of standardised, generic commodities, job descriptions, processes, data, inputs and outputs, and — most generic of all — money, the ultimate abstraction. 

“In earlier times it was not so. Tribal peoples saw each being not primarily as a member of a category, but as a unique, enspirited individual. Even rocks, clouds and seemingly identical drops of water were thought to be sentient, unique beings. The products of the human hand were unique as well, bearing through their distinguishing irregularities the signature of the maker. Here was the link between the two qualities of the sacred, connectedness and uniqueness: unique objects retain the mark of their origin, their unique place in the great matrix of being, their dependency on the rest of creation for their existence. Standardised objects, commodities, are uniform and, therefore, disembedded from relationship.”

It requires no genius to grasp the truth of Eisenstein’s implied claim that an awareness of the “sacred” in this sense is hardly anywhere in evidence in our global capitalist culture today, although this does not mean that it cannot be experienced any longer. I recall diving in the Red Sea off Egypt in 2005 with my partner, and being astonished at the copious numbers of sea creatures of all colours and sizes around us — a veritable cornucopia of marine life; each one of these beings instantiating something unique, yet ecologically interconnected. 

But all aspects of our culture seems to be intent on denying and subverting this knowledge of the interconnectedness of all things (so graphically demonstrated by the global spread of the virus); if that had not been the case, humans would not go about hunting animals to extinction, and destroying their habitat to plant what the economy demands, such as trees for harvesting palm oil. 

Yet, Eisenstein is not averse to using money: “In this book I will describe a vision of a money system and an economy that is sacred; that embodies the interrelatedness and the uniqueness of all things. No longer will it be separate, in fact or in perception, from the natural matrix that underlies it. It reunites the long-sundered realms of human and nature; it is an extension of ecology that obeys all of its laws and bears all of its beauty.

“Within every institution of our civilisation, no matter how ugly or corrupt, there is the germ of something beautiful: the same note at a higher octave. Money is no exception. Its original purpose is simply to connect human gifts with human needs, so that we might all live in greater abundance. How instead money has come to generate scarcity rather than abundance, separation rather than connection, is one of the threads of this book. 

“Yet, despite what it has become, in that original ideal of money as an agent of the gift we can catch a glimpse of what will one day make it sacred again. We recognise the exchange of gifts as a sacred occasion, which is why we instinctively make a ceremony out of gift giving. Sacred money, then, will be a medium of giving, a means to imbue the global economy with the spirit of the gift that governed tribal and village cultures, and still does today wherever people do things for each other outside the money economy.” 

Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics is not a pipe dream. He is convinced that books of this kind are useless unless, in the place of the system they criticise, they propose something different and better. In his own book, he not only evokes a better social, economic and cultural future, but also indicates a practical way to get there. There is an alternative to neoliberal capitalism. It is not difficult to get hold of this book — if you can, read it.

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