Thoughts on the Anthropocene in the time of COVID

The weekend was quiet, with no noise or distractions. It was “lockdown time.”

I had time to think. To think about the terrible things we humans have been doing, are doing – and worse still, intend to continue doing – to the Planet. We are living with the pandemic we created.

Earth Day (April 22) is just round the corner. It used to be a fairly hopeful, optimistic experience: “Look at all this global activity! We’re doing something for the Earth!” For the past few years it has had a different aura for me: a mixture of sadness and bitterness (a “what might have been” feeling). And a touch of weariness.

I have no problem with getting emotional about Mother Earth. We are the Earth; it is us. So if we cannot feel it, very deeply, in our hearts (to me, it feels more like the pit of my stomach) then what is the point of our cold existence?

So, a couple of things struck me doing my musings during the exquisitely quiet “lockdown weekend.”

Firstly, I strongly believe in the power of art (of all kinds) to convey environmental messages: art in all its forms and permutations. Art and emotion go hand in hand – differently with different people. Some may be stirred by a compelling street mural; others may feel energized by a dub poem; or it could be a music video.

A scene from “Back to Nature” by Nightmares on Wax.

Music videos are not always trivial or ephemeral. Our son shared one with me recently. It is by British producer George Evelyn, better known as Nightmares On Wax, who has all kinds of hip hop, soul and other influences. The art work is by Carlos Quitério and João Pombeiro and direction is by Pombeiro. This song, “Back to Nature,” is a slow-moving kaleidoscope of technicolor images, depicting Man’s relationship with Earth. It progresses from happy human families going for picnics in the woods, relaxing in the sun by a lake, messing around fishing in a river, tilling the soil. Hawaiian dancers smile, lush forests are filled with life.

Such innocence. But, the relationship has changed; humans have moved away from “sharing” and “gathering” and saying “thank you,” the narrator suggests. Now, “they take, they take, they take.” Cold urban landscapes emerge. Strings of cars, bleak distorted landscapes populated by machines. There is, towards the end, a glimpse of hope – a glowing, calm, futuristic existence (the happy picnic people are there again, in the background).

The narrated thoughts are by Kuauhtli Vasquez, accompanied by a murmuring chant from a member of the Wixarika tribe (an indigenous people of Mexico, direct descendants of the Aztecs, whose sacred mountain is currently being purchased by a Canadian silver mining company). Here is a snippet of the narrative:

You don’t need to say please

Everything is there for you

You just need to know how to ask for it, in a respectful way

With love.

You ask for it with love, you accept it with love,

And you will give love back.

You don’t give trash or pollution back to Nature, you give love back.

You give some of your energetic goodness back to the Earth.

Narration by Kuauhtli Vasquez

This reminds me of the Native American philosophies embedded in one of my favorite books of recent years – “Braiding Sweetgrass” by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer. I loved it so much I have spilt coffee over the cover – not once, but twice, while reading it slowly, one chapter at a time. This is a picture of a clean book.

So much for the power of artistic expression. However, sometimes words of astonishing energy come from the most unexpected places. I was brought up sharply a little while back when the doctor who usually sits hunched over a large plastic desk at every World Health Organization (WHO) press briefing on COVID-19, spoke at a meeting of the Irish charity Trócaire.

Executive Director of the World Health Organisation’s Health Emergencies Programme, Dr. Mike Ryan, has tough words for us humans. One thing he is sure of, we cannot continue down the path of (self) destruction we have chosen. (Photo: Getty Images)

Dr. Mike Ryan said this (I transcribed it from the short video, where he spoke most passionately):

We are pushing Nature to its limit. We are pushing communities to their limits. We’re stressing the environment. We’re stressing populations and communities. We are creating the conditions in which epidemics flourish, we’re forcing and pushing people away from their homes because of climate stress. We’re doing so much, and we’re doing it in the name of globalization and some sense of chasing that wonderful thing that people call economic growth.

Well, in my view, that’s becoming a malignancy, not growth, because what it’s doing is driving unsustainable practices in terms of how we manage communities, how we manage development, how we manage prosperity, we are generating – we are writing cheques that we cannot cash as a civilization for the future, and they’re going to bounce.

And my fear is that our children are going to pay that price. Some day when we’re not here, our children will wake up in a world where there is a pandemic that has a much higher case fatality rate, and that could bring our civilization down to its very knees. We need a world that is more sustainable, where profit is not put before communities. Where that is not the bottom line, where the slavery to economic growth is taken out of the equation. We need sustainable growth in our communities. We need sustainable livelihoods for our people, and we are taking huge risks. And I mean, massive risks with our future. If we don’t manage the biome that we live in on the planet in which we live – and we’re being extremely irresponsible right now.

Dr. Mike Ryan, World Health Organization

Finally, I want to pay tribute to two English naturalists whose words and actions have resonated with me for my whole life. They both, at some point during their lives, recognized their roles as advocates – or “messengers” as Dr. Goodall says. They are both beloved elders now.

Dr. Jane Goodall.

One is Dr. Jane Goodall, whose awareness, clear-headed and unsentimental, of humans’ connectedness to (and oneness with) life on Earth, is expressed in her ground-breaking work with chimpanzees and her advocacy for the animals we share the planet with. These are beautiful words:

“Oh, the world needs those standing on the Bridge, For they know how Eternity reaches to earth In the wind that brings music to the leaves Of the forest: in the drops of rain that caress The sleeping life of the desert: in the sunbeams Of the first spring day in an alpine meadow. Only they can blow the dust from the seeing eyes Of those who are blind.”

Dr. Jane Goodall, “Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey”
David Attenborough has been involved in the study of the natural world for seventy-odd years. If you have not seen his documentary on Netflix, it is deeply personal, and not quite what you might expect.

My other companion over many years of caring and speaking up for the Planet has been David Attenborough. It is hard to choose one of his many words of wisdom…

“We have come as far as we have because we are the cleverest creatures to have ever lived on Earth. But if we are to continue to exist, we will require more than intelligence. We will require wisdom.”

David Attenborough, A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future

Are we ready to stand on the Bridge? Do we possess that wisdom?

I hope all of this gives you food for thought, and that we can all explore further, and consider the terrifying power we wield on Earth – the power to destroy and “take, take, take” – or to preserve, create, restore.

What will humans’ legacy be? We may not be around to see it.

From “Back to Nature” by Nightmares on Wax.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Anthropocene in the time of COVID

  1. Once again, you have touched my heart with a post. This is an issue very close to my soul. I see it, I feel it, it makes my extremely depressed. I live in Canada and I see a different perspective to this. I see the effect that it all has on humanity itself. We are literally committing suicide by our destruction of our home. It all makes no sense. I grew up in Jamaica and no word of a lie I had a dream this morning of being in a good ole time community like Eccleston in St. Ann or Watt Town in St. Ann where my family hails from. I did not want to wake up. It was beautiful; rustic, unbothered, free….

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words – I am very happy that you found it touching. Yes – the impact on all humanity was what I was trying to convey. How can we be doing this to ourselves – and to the planet, as a result? I know how you must feel about your beautiful St. Ann home. It may be a little too romantic but we do long for those simpler, happy days. That is one of the messages in the video I described. I know it wasn’t perfect then. Now it just seems to be greed and disrespect for our Mother Earth that is fueling our behavior. BUT I don’t want to depress readers so I will try to post more positive and happy stories in the next week or two!

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