It’s been a torrent of thoughts and feelings over the past week: sudden reactive skepticism to the alarm, personal worry about my aging parents, sinking fear watching the market plummet, concern about my students and colleagues with what might have been the final day of school for the entire semester. The entire nation is sharing the same conversation. It’s frighteningly palatable. One can feel the presence of uncertainty and concern extending across the globe.
I am a history teacher at a little environmental charter school in Chattanooga, TN. We just got our first case of COVID-19 just a week ago – a beloved, local priest. On Monday we got the news that our county closed schools for the next three weeks. I’ve been glued to the news and twitter to get updates from around the globe. We live in a time of such unprecedented information sharing – global communications have exploded through the interwebs of crowd-sharing apps. I’m linked-up to thoughtful, intelligent people all over the planet, and though I don’t personally know the doctor working at a prominent hospital in NYC I’m receiving his tweets via my colleague in San Francisco. I’m just two degrees of separation from being on the ground in the Colorado testing clinic through a random “for you” page on tiktok.
Since all the schools are moving to online classes, my routines have all but evaporated. All of a sudden, I’ve got time. What are we citizens to do while our main sources of catharsis (pro sports among them) have been suspended? Can I just drink? Or binge watch GOT again? I am part of an entire culture medicating, repressing, integrating, coping with societal fear through hyper-distraction. Have you noticed the sheer volume of penetrating comedy coming out? It’s staggering and hilarious and cathartic all at once. Though perhaps, it’s not a lost effort – art and comedy are needed now more than ever. Well timed comedy can be one of humanity’s greatest pathways into deeper reflection, even aestheticism, stillness, contemplation and care.
Now more than ever we might have the quarantined moments we need to practice deeper relationships with one another – to grieve, to feel our feelings, to forgive and be forgiven, to heal and love each other and our Earth, our home.
At one point in my life I was working on a Ph.D. in Ecology and Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. My area of my expertise was in worldview mapping; I was trained to use ecology, psychology, and evolutionary theory to analyze and reconstruct world views. Since I’ve been slowing down and can hear myself think – currently my vampire 8th graders aren’t demanding my attention (I do love them) – I’ve been surrendering to personal retreat time, deep meditation, embodied healing, contemplative writing. I’ve been asking myself what opportunities there are within a crisis. Might we look back and see the coronavirus as one of the defining moments in human history? Is this an opportunity for collective spiritual growth, for a new maturation process on a global scale, for new ecological health and localized restorative practice…beyond the obligatory hand washing and social distancing?
I want to present a hypothesis to you – the reason for the season so-to-speak. Some of the most relevant, provocative tweets, posts, tags I’ve seen over the past week have asked two recurring questions:
- Why does it feel like we’re over-reacting to a virus that seems much more like a bad case of the flu than something else?
- How is it we can mobilize a massive global response to a virus – including a 1.5 trillion dollar Fed dump – and can’t seem to mobilize on a similar scale for some of the most pressing issues of our time?
Yes, the coronavirus is definitely worse than the flu for a lot reasons – higher RO number (rate of reproduction), higher incubation times and hospitalization rates, no vaccine, unknown to science, can overrun health care facilities, and according to projected numbers, it will be about double the annual death rates as the flu – but the margins are still very narrow. I submit that these two issues are intimately linked and better understood when we interpret the coronavirus as an ecological disaster rather than a “national emergency.” It is a global pandemic, but the more we interpret the coronavirus from an ecological framework, the more our collective experience makes sense and the greater opportunity for healing and transformation become available.
Firstly, the over-reaction to the virus, (as evidenced by the toilet paper buying frenzy) is a classic example of collective compensation on a social scale. Compensation takes place by attempting to cover up a weakness or fear by taking control in another unrelated area. Everyone is frightened because they’re experiencing societal fear and disorder so in an effort to remedy the fear they buy in bulk (social empowerment through the market) to create a feeling of self-sufficiency, control, and order. This seems obvious enough, but compensation often happens unconsciously and will be repeated until the fundamental condition is revealed and corrected. We’re still seeing informed, bold decisions taking place to make safe our society – travel restrictions, non-essential market closures, social distancing, medical escalations – that fall under the category of compensation (not because they are bad – it’s all in due order) but because they all fail to address the fundamental condition – ecological devastation; it is akin to putting a bandaid on a sore caused by cancer.
Secondly, collective transference. Transference in the individual is the attempt to cope with a challenging repressed/ignored feeling by projecting those feelings onto a different person or object. In our case, transference is occurring by transferring our repressed/ignored ecological responsibility toward our Earth onto our response to the coronavirus. This is why it feels that we’re all overreacting… because the symptom, COVID-19, fails to account for the intense doses of fear flooding our collective mind. We have this suspicion that the law of compensation can’t account for our hyper-frenzied reaction to the COVID-19 virus because it can’t, but there is an ever-present, increasingly dire global threat that can – an ecological crisis on a planetary scale.
Again what we think is the trauma – COVID-19 – is also an external ecological symptom of a much, much larger problem of massive ecological devastation. The real global catastrophe is that we are killing the very life systems that have sustained biological diversity on planet Earth on an unprecedented scale. We have fundamentally altered the entire biosphere so significantly that geologists have labeled our time an entirely new geological epoch – the anthropocene – an era marked by what ecologists have defined as a 6th mass extinction, a devastation so demoralizing, so thorough, we simply don’t believe it. Thus, our need for transference and compensation.
Our society is sick – addictively driven by hyper-consumerist, materialist-market culture and all the dysfunction necessary to keep it running. Global contemporary society does create exceptional beauty, fluid systems, unified and effective city-scapes, homes, health, innovation and plenty of hope. Markets still trend upward, but our indexes fall short of the big picture. In our centers – in the locus of our power – we produce and engineer dysfunction and suffering. In our centers, we are still overworked, stressed and overpopulated. We continue to pollute and outsource ecological responsibility to future generations and by-in-large neglect our poor. This society, our society, is built upon a paradigm – a hyper-rational mode of consciousness – so heavily reliant on mentalism, hyper-materialism, data driven analysis, driven by the machine of markets, technology and an endless production of knowledge – disassociated, yet connected through the interwebs, spiritually insecure, yet so incredibly powerful that we continually miss the fundamental truths of our hearts – the spiritual or empathetic revelation of our experience. Who we are, the collective effects of our energies, though profound on many levels, have by-in-large become insufficient as the foundation upon which to organize society. Whatever the network of causes, either by our deeply unconscious condition or by our dogged neglect of our plant and animal Earth companions, the interbeing that sustains global ecological harmony is evaporating.
Taking a step back and looking at the big picture in the light of the 6th mass extinction this virus can be read as a biological autoimmune response issued forth by the Earth itself – hearing the unified, deafening cries from the countless non-human and human members of our planet whose lives have been unthinkingly sacrificed on behalf of untethered economic and material growth. On a collective scale the coronavirus is teaching us that it is our responsibility to both acknowledge the truth of what’s happening and respond – take responsibility – for our planet. We are a planetary species now. Gone are the days we can ignore and repress our responsibility.
Wake-up calls are like this – they’re always traumatic, disorienting, and at first seem random – making it reasonable to assume that we’ve become “victims of unfortunate circumstances,” yet upon deeper reflection it becomes clear that we have indeed “set the ball rolling” and must own our part in attracting the thing – our traumas are opportunities for reflection, for learning, and with a little grace the beginning of significant social and ecological transformation.
A New Vision For You
I’m an educator. I’ve always loved learning and the idea of transformation. The one thing that I’ve learned over and over is that true education, true transformation is always preceded by significant disorientation, contraction, urgency and pain. Individually it often looks like the loss of a job, marriage, or dream; it’s a major injury, illness or addiction that requires a fundamental reorientation to life. And it is terrifying, and it feels like a death because it is; it is the death of a former version of life and all that went with it – the identity, thoughts, habits, the commitments, friends, the place, the labor and behavior. Mine was a bottom so complete that I faced two alternatives: either go on to the bitter end medicating and repressing my issues or accept spiritual help. Under the weight of my addiction and broken heart, facing the loss of my Ph.D., and all the dreams I held connected with that path I left my studies and entered the only fellowship that seemed appropriate for my condition – Alcoholics Anonymous. And I grieved for years… and I healed and grew.
Addiction and recovery have become some of the most helpful lenses I have to diagnose many of my grosser handicaps in life. The spiritual path laid before me in the 12-steps was built upon the same spiritual foundations that each major world religion and secular therapy makes available to their practitioners. What I found on this path was a restoration of my character and my power – my response-ability to care for myself and to be of service to others. I began developing an intimate relationship with the spiritual principles necessary to fundamentally resurrect, reorient, and restore my life.
Each time I thoroughly consider society’s grosser dysfunctions it becomes very clear that we are an addicted society and the coronavirus is but a symptom. We are sick – spiritually ill. And just like any addict, we must hit bottom in order to experience enough of a wake-up call to enact fundamental change – to heal. If COVID-19 is teaching us anything it’s teaching us that despite all of our powers we still face insurmountable, systemic, unmanageability and powerlessness. Revealed in each of my terrible bottoms was a deep call to reorder my life upon more skillful principles and practice – the religiously inclined would rightly call it a spiritual experience. If the coronavirus is seen as a societal bottom then in my humble opinion the opportunity that lies before the entire human condition is a call to recover, to deeply reflect and reorder ourselves upon a new ecological and empathetic foundation.
Individual transformation looks different for each of us, but it begins with having a clear vision of the problem. If we – the Earth community – are unwilling to collectively grasp the difference between a symptom (coronavirus) and the causal conditions (systemic ecological destruction) we will never be able to sufficiently meet the mandate of our time put forth by the UN and the Earth Charter. We are facing nothing short of a call to transform the very character and power that drives human progress.
To that end we need something like the twelve steps of AA for social and political institutions. We have to admit that we were powerless to overcome the obsessive drive to place short-term political and economic desire above ecological long-term health. The results of that powerlessness are continued environmental devastation and increasing systemic unmanageability.
To that end we need something like the principles in the 12-traditions of AA as guides for how to realign our democratic process upon a foundation of integrity. Remember, at some point, after many outrageous displays of dysfunction and abuse our leaders got honest with themselves and had to separate church and state; now we need to get honest with ourselves and to the extent that we are able, we must separate money and politics. We’ve got to be finished. Without that measure, we’re going to have a hard time making the difficult changes necessary to protect the environment.
To that end we need stringent taxation on companies that produce waste or any harmful effects to communities and the natural world. A symptom of our powerlessness has been our collective inability to eliminate all single use plastics. Why haven’t we done this? Why are we dragging our feet? We must begin to think differently about our trash, waste, pollution. We need new practices that revolutionize our ability to recycle, reuse, repurpose in an effort to end over-consumption.
To that end we must take seriously the formation of new global institutions like the Earth Charter and nations must begin to swiftly align their local and global practices upon those foundations. We agree that it is our responsibility to turn our lives and will over to higher order expressions of ecological empathy and global actions built upon the consciousness expressed in the Earth Charter.
To that end we need a massive effort to create sustainable local economies and remove over-dependency on globalization and over-consumption. We do need globalization, but currently individual regions and cities are like codependent relationships gone bad.
This ridiculously abbreviated list is but a call. Our global society has passed the point when we can allow fear and toilet paper buying frenzies to define our present moment. If the coronavirus has taught us anything it has reminded us that we are able, as an entire global community, to initiate massive action to make safe our life and world. I submit that our Earth community needs to take massive action to create an ecological empathetic revolution. It’s no wonder that the virus is the same as an ecological disaster – the Earth itself has produced it. From a radically ecological and interconnected view, it is us, calling to ourselves, beckoning us to take responsibility for our actions.
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