Life and Death in the Time of the Coronavirus
Last November, on our annual Fukushima Learning Journey I met Sugeno-san. He’s a rice farmer who almost left Fukushima after the disasters of March 11, 2011. But he realized that he was part of Fukushima and it was part of him. He decided to learn how to live well, in completely new times. We met just after the fall typhoon had blasted his rice fields. When Sugeno-san said “I’ve realized that I am not alive to fix problems, I am here to do what’s truly important each day with joy,” he had my complete attention.
We cannot “fix” the coronavirus. It is here. To be sure, there are many things we can do to mitigate the speed with which the virus spreads. I’m deeply appreciative of the many announcements helping us learn what we can do. CDC’s guidelines are one comprehensive source. But what about Sugeno-san’s invitation to do what’s important each day, with joy?
Let me step back from that important question for a moment and take a deeper look at the current situation.
Today, March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization has declared the Coronavirus a Pandemic. What does this mean to all of us? In his recent blog on NewStories, Michael Lerner referred to this as “the Global Challenge—the completely unpredictable interaction of several dozen global stressors—environmental, social, and technological.” Indeed, while many of us have been focused on Climate Crises, the Planetary Boundaries analysis by the Stockholm Resilience Center in 2009 points to loss of biodiversity and increases of atmospheric nitrogen and phosphorus as much more advanced catastrophes.
It is critical that we understand this is not just something that just randomly happened and got out of control in China, spreading to the rest of the world. A recent blog by Nafeez Ahmed on Medium.com is one of the most useful articles I’ve seen. In terms of origins of this pandemic, his perspective is very useful. This is a zoonotic virus, meaning it is one spread from animals to humans.
There are as many as 600,000 species of mammal virus circulating in wildlife which could potentially spread to humans, but which are largely undetected. The combination of climate change and land use changes driven by industrial expansion is creating geographic range shifts in wildlife which can produce “novel species assemblages and opportunities for viral sharing between previously isolated species. In some cases, this will inevitably facilitate spillover into humans — a possible mechanistic link between global environmental change and emerging zoonotic disease.”
This virus is anything but random. It is a direct consequence of the choices those of us with money have been making to consume, consume and then consume some more. The idea that happiness is a commodity that can be purchased by having and spending lots of money is an idea disproven time and time again. Twenty years ago, Yale Professor Robert Lane in his book Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies clearly demonstrated that wealth and happiness grow together for a time and they progressively diverge. We can’t “fix” the coronavirus. It is the likely first of many. What we can do is transform the way we are living our lives. We can find more reliable paths to joy and happiness. We can regenerate community. We can live into new stories of our lives that we actually want to author.
What’s this require? Facing truth without denial. Grieving what is being lost. Turning to one another and step-by-step figuring out how to live our lives doing what’s important and doing it in ways which bring us joy. Josie McLean’s article from Australia I just saw today sees this as a time when we each can develop our leadership and our capacity to innovate.
We must learn to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty. Lot’s more of that coming. We must develop the capacity to trust ourselves and each other. We have to become more and more comfortable with not-knowing. We’ve got to abandon the judgments we make about ourselves and others which are just simply old stories. We have to step beyond fear and into true community.
For me it means I’ve put myself on an indefinite air travel ban — a huge change for me. And I am figuring out what I can do safely with my proximate community. As a 70 year old with asthma and other respiratory problems, it looks like I’ve got a 10+% likelihood of death if infected. I want to be along for several more decades. This also means I’m reaching out to everyone I know to see what sense they are making of their lives in these times.
I plan to pass on what I am learning!