This is the end
My only friend
The global spread of the Covid-19 disease within only a few weeks is only the most recent episode that emphasizes the fragility of our world. So far, phenomena such as natural disasters or the global financial crisis already indicated that we are neither the masters of our own creations nor of nature. Nevertheless, mankind keeps clinging to this illusion. Advocates of the era of the Anthropocene claim that the influence of human ingenuity on earth’s ecosystem and our inability to control its fatal consequences represent undeniable evidence that we already live in a world that is beyond human control. Now, the Covid-19 disease and our difficulties to control it are another urgent call to affirm the Anthropocene and to discard modernity’s presumptuous claims of human domination of nature and society. A resulting more modest view of the natural and the man-made world has substantial consequences for reasoning about society and politics. After all, it ceases to subject the particular and the local to abstract categories and thus rediscovers the infinite individualities, particularities, and peculiarities of nature and human life.
First, most countries tried to ignore the virus as long as possible in order to prevent detrimental economic repercussions. Once it was clear, that the health risk was far more threatening than an eventual economic downturn, China, Hong Kong, South Korea reacted quickly and massively restricted human movement. Most EU countries followed suit seeing the disastrous consequences of halfhearted measures to control the spread of the Covid-19 virus in Italy. While those first drastic measures of containing people’s movements through restricting their freedoms showed first success in fighting the spread of the disease, it is far from clear if the measures will have a desirable long-term impact and how it will look like. Of course, all current policies presuppose that the virus does not mutate. A vaccine is still months away.
Human Domination and Exploitation in the Holocene
History of mankind following Enlightenment is often portrayed as a success story of human ingenuity by mastering nature and making the world a hospitable home for human beings. Mankind became that confident into its mastery of earth and the universe that many physicists at the end of the 19th century even thought that it had already unraveled the final mysteries of the universe – until quantum theory came up. Also politically the world had become unusually stable throughout the second half of the 19th century at least until the 1910s. While cities grew at enormous pace, mass production and electricity dominated daily life and globalization already brought meat from Canada and Russia to Central Europe, mankind was confident about human ingenuity. Intellectuals at that time saw the Holocene culminating in the triumph of human brainpower shaping its own destiny. The Holocene marks the past ten to twelve thousand years since the end of the last ice age, which allowed for the dawn of human civilization. However, since human doing has a geological and ecological significant long-term impact, Paul Crutzen proposed the term Anthropocene to describe the current era of mankind.
The Anthropocene’s subtle notion of unease already accompanied the seemingly unbound dynamics of continuous change and innovation at the beginning of the 20th century. Would mankind be able to control everything that it is capable of unleashing? Optimism was buried deep underneath the ashes of both world wars and the holocaust. Nevertheless, the confidence in modernity as the unshakeable foundation of mankind’s ever-prosperous life remained fully intact, even though the threat of nuclear mutually assured destruction cast its long shadows. Neither phenomena such as colonialism, holocaust, fascism, or the always present possibility of a third and last worldwide war could endanger mankind’s trust in modernity and in human ingenuity to provide a quick and solid fix to all our problems.
The Anthropocene acknowledges that the world is beyond human control
While most historic episodes leave room to debate about modernity’s role, the catastrophic human influence on earth’s geology and ecology does not. After all, the image of nature as an object that is subject mankind’s desire for progress and wealth is at least epistemologically wrong. Given the fact that mankind is unable to control what it unleashed on the path of exploitation of nature, nature itself has undeniably revealed itself as a subject of human history at last. Thus, any other image of nature represents a modern myth that provides reduced and thus distorted images of natural and social reality. Thus, affirming the Anthropocene asks for acknowledging that modern divide of nature – culture divide at the conceptual heart of modernity is fundamentally flawed. Rather, there are no objects at the hand of human subjects. Instead, the world at any moment is the unintelligible result of the momentous interactions between all its subject – any entity is a subject.
The current pandemic is another preview of man’s inability to comprehend the complex entwinements between the natural and the man-made world and control the processes such as those that make the ecosystem a less habitable sphere every day. Similarly, the current crisis is a product of infinitely complex entwinements between the Covid-19 virus and the global economic, social, political and cultural interrelations. The political counter measures rely on mathematical simulations on the background of up-to-date microbiological and pharmaceutical research. Neither is the virus predictable nor are the human dynamics. Any claims to master the situation are nothing but futile attempts to reassert epistemological superiority which never existed.
Rediscovering Nature and the Human after the End
However, affirming the Anthropocene does not only mean that modernity’s claim of human mastery is an epistemological illusion that underlies the exploitation of the natural world, but also that human life is subjected to far too simple and thus distorted images. Accordingly, affirming the Anthropocene allows to see and respect the world’s individualities, particularities, and peculiarities without subjecting them to a general image and thus distorting it. It withdraws the veil of presumption and recognizes the distinct character of the single individual, the specific community or the exceptionality of a certain local situation. That also allows rediscover life and thus irreducible individuality beyond categories such as identity or sexual orientation or the peculiarity of local processes beyond the all-absorbing image of the national.
It is indisputable that the Covid-19 pandemic will be of fundamental relevance for humanity and the perception about its abilities and limits. The social restrictions following the worldwide spread affect too many people in too many parts of the world at the same time to a too similar extent in order to not be able to foster a paradigmatic shift. Thus, the current crisis presents an opportunity to discard modernity’s presumptuous claims of human mastery of the natural as well as the man-made world. It would allow to discover nature and the human in its irreducibility.
About the author
Maximilian Lakitsch is a postdoctoral lecturer at the Institute of the Foundations of Law (Department of Comparative Political and Legal Studies) at the University of Graz. His research focuses on issues of authority, legitimacy, and violence in conflict, peacebuilding, and religion.