I’M WRITING TO YOU FROM the middle of COVID-19—a new geography, Earth’s new moon. So, this is how it feels to have history—some event, some condition—press in and surround us as foreground, instead of “over” or “out” there; to have normalcy vanish, as fast as a channel change. Honestly, can you even remember normal? It was just a click ago.
We reach for metaphor, explanation—we can’t help it. What is this? Biblically foretold payback for our sins? Ecological retribution? Have we failed to use the world well? A message about our over-presence and a reminder about limits? Or just some event in a “shit happens” universe?
In a late-March New York Times column, Roger Cohen captured the mood:
This is the silent spring. The planet has gone quiet, so quiet you can almost hear it whirling around the sun, feel its smallness, picture for once the loneliness and fleetingness of being alive.
This is the spring of fears. A scratchy throat, a sniffle, and the mind races. I see a single rat ambling around at dusk on Front Street in Brooklyn, a garbage bag ripped open by a dog, and experience an apocalyptic vision of vermin and filth.
Scattered masked pedestrians on empty streets look like the survivors of a neutron bomb. Something has shifted. The earth has struck back. Exacting breathlessness, it has asserted its demand to breathe.
Do things differently at the other end of this scourge, some mystic voice murmurs, do them more equitably, more ecologically, with greater respect for the environment, or you will be smitten again.
The lurking, lethal virus imposes on each of us a long, meaning-of-life parenthesis filled with groping worries about humanity’s nature and qualities; and how fragile, how much a candidate for risk, “normal” actually is; how, seemingly, human appetites cannot be met without beating the crap out of everything on and in the planet (and, often enough, each other).
If a moment ever existed for a respected global leader—person, government or institution—to promote a compelling, irresistible, commonsense image or idea of a better way for humanity to continue its presence as a planetary tenant, this is that moment. (Thanks for your entreaty, and I would rise to the task, but I’ve committed all of my time to reorganizing the contents of my basement storage locker.)
The latest news does not paint a promising near-term picture. We may be tired of the virus, but it isn’t tired of us. Numbers of infected and dead still expanding quickly; global economy in shambles. Now, in May, the war of words between China and others, notably the US—about sources, causes and failed or delayed warnings, and obligations moral and financial—is intensifying and taking on some worryingly aggressive vocabulary.
And let me alert you to a concern which I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere. First, I need to table-set with this squib from Michelle Goldberg’s truly ominous April 25 New York Times column titled “Coronavirus and the Price of Trump’s Delusions”: “Chernobyl is now widely seen as a signal event on the road to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Coronavirus may someday be seen as a similar inflection point in the story of American decline. A country that could be brought to its knees this quickly was sick well before the virus arrived.”
Capturing light from Goldberg’s diagnosis, the concern is that Canada’s complicated, long-enduring, ‘sticky’ and impactful social, cultural, economic relationship with the US is about to change; is changing now. Canada increasingly finds itself living beside a country going through a terrifying social collapse, and is entering a fluid, risky, soon likely to be post-American or less-American world. That outcome next door is sure to be messy and eruptive and, based on current evidence, free of nuance, courtesy or respect for boundary.
However whispered, Canada needs to have a conversation with itself and to consider the ways in which Canadian social tissue and economic/political health and prospects might be less tightly and riskily bound to the US if some implosive near-term social plunge takes place there. Honestly, this needs a careful evaluation of Canadian resilience and lots of strategic planning. And if Biden is the next president and things blow over down south, well, no harm done, and what are we guilty of—an abundance of caution? Duh, Canada.
B.T.A. Griffith’s “The Death of Captain McNeale,” a depiction of the the War of 1812
If you take this as just a writer’s attraction to hyperbole and a flair for the dramatic, please spend some time reading about the increasing divide between what Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole portrays as a “concoction of conspiracy theories, hatred of science, paranoia about the ‘deep state’ and religious providentialism (God will protect the good folks) that is now deeply embedded in the mindset of the American right,” along with a strong pro-white racial bias, a predilection for gun-totin’ and a sense of biblical destiny (not to mention blind voter loyalty to that psychopath, boy-in-a-man-suit president) on one side, and moderate/liberal, progressive and multi-ethnic centre-left, government-trusting America—Canadian America, if you’ll permit—on the other. From the perspective of a map of values, beliefs and concerns, the US is even now these two distinct and intensifying social geographies, two utterly different and irreconcilable Americas. While reluctant to predict an outright civil war, I do anticipate continuing, intensifying social, economic and ideological fisticuffs in the US that might easily march or simply drift across our border.
Piffle, you say? You have no idea of such incendiary conditions in the US? For a truly eye-opening short course, google George Packer’s “We Are Living in a Failed State” in The Atlantic, June, 2020,
This might be a good time for us to let go of indefensible conceits about historical continuity or the durability of “forever;” to stop imagining that any human community can simply relax because history offers a guarantee of constancy. No assurances, no certainties. Isn’t that the (hardly) coded message of this pandemic?
Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.