COVID World, COVID Mind:
Toward a New Consciousness
By Scott Slovic
Although the current pandemic is a relatively acute moment of crisis rather than a sprawling, diffuse accumulation of social and ecological concerns, this phenomenon is akin to the “new world” authors Paul Ehrlich and Robert Ornstein recognized in the late 1980s when they published their 1989 book New World, New Mind: Toward a Conscious Evolution. These writers — one a population biologist, the other a psychologist — felt that the modern world had come to pose existential challenges to the human species, from the proliferation of handguns among ordinary citizens in countries like the United States to the nuclear arms race. They also recognized the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, a possible precursor to today’s zoonotic pandemic, as a grave threat to human survival. They understood that human beings could not evolve biologically, in the short term, in order to respond to threats we had created through our own cultural and technological advances. For Ehrlich and Ornstein, the human species needed to evolve intentionally, through our own consciousness, in order to have a reasonable possibility of persisting in the face of the very challenges we had created for ourselves. This conscious evolution is what they called “new mind.” As we experience this new “COVID world,” this COVID reality that is likely to be an ongoing reality, not a short-lived disturbance, we should be trying to figure out what we can learn from this experience in order to develop new ways of thinking. Together these constitute “COVID Mind.”
For the past thirty years, scholars, writers, and artists, many of them working in disciplines associated with the environmental humanities, have taken encouragement from Ehrlich and Ornstein’s notion of a potential “conscious evolution,” but despite dramatic advances in the environmental humanities, little progress has actually occurred in the realms of industry, economics, and politics. Steady planetary degradation has unfolded as we plunge ever more deeply into the sixth mega-extinction, spewing toxins into the biosphere and CO2 into the atmosphere. The arrival of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, in November 2019 has led to the global pandemic which is not only a tremendous public health and economic crisis, but a unique opportunity for conscious evolution, a moment to reflect and reboot and potentially embrace certain cognitive skills that may help us to be a more resilient species moving forward. These cognitive traits include: 1) a sense of universal vulnerability; 2) a heightened awareness of the human mind’s insensitivity to exponential — and potentially catastrophic — change; 3) a growing awareness that our interactions with the animal world have genuine consequences for human beings; and 4) an appreciation of what it means to put on the socio-cultural brakes and change the way we live. These ideas have already been explored in such books and articles as Pramod K. Nayar’s Ecoprecarity: Vulnerable Lives in Literature and Culture (2019); Arundhati Roy’s “The Pandemic Is a Portal” (2020); Howard Kunreuther and Paul Slovic’s “What the Coronavirus Curve Teaches Us About Climate Change” (2020); David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (2012); Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (2014); and Lewis Dartnell’s The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm (2015). But the Ehrlich and Ornstein model of fundamentally reimagining ourselves and our minds is perhaps the most relevant approach to self- and societal-reinvention as we chart the coronavirus terrain.
At a time when corporate and political forces are pressing desperately for a “return to normal,” I believe we should use whatever social support systems we have available to us as a way of stabilizing those in our societies who are most economically and medically at risk. At the same time, we must also recognize that there will never be a truly “post-coronavirus world.” Even an eventual vaccine and a widely available and effective treatment protocol will not free us from other zoonotic threats. For the sake of our species and for the sake of the many other species with whom we share the planet, we should use this moment as an uninvited but nonetheless necessary opportunity to practice new ways of thinking, to consciously evolve. The COVID world is also the climate-change world, the world of mass extinction and devastating toxicity. We must learn to live with and within this reality — we must “mind COVID,” not merely overcome it.
My own experience of the current crisis is, paradoxically, one of normalcy and peril. Yes, of course, there is nothing normal about the constant barrage of information about the public health crisis, the suffering of so many people who have contracted the COVID-19 disease, the strain and despair experienced by those serving these patients as medical personnel, or the desperation of those who are suffering from intensified economic distress and hunger. And yet for those of us who have experienced our home confinement, our self-isolation, in reasonably good health — and who have managed to continue our working lives “remotely” — there is a kind of normalcy to our lives, even in the midst of the COVID crisis. Yet I still find myself thinking about the peril of our species in a more acute and visceral way than is normally the case, even though I know the world is fraught with peril, with risk and danger, with uncertainty.
What we need to carry away from the current moment is the powerful idea that so-called normalcy and so-called peril co-exist in an uneasy tension. Today’s paradoxical mindset should be part of the COVID Mind, a way of thinking that helps us to be sensitive to the serious threats we and others are facing in the world, even if we do not feel ourselves to be in immediate danger of suffering death or loss in a given moment. While there are many people throughout the world for whom peril is an enduring condition of life, what’s different about the COVID World is the general sense of peril that now crosses the usual boundaries of race, class, gender, and culture. To me, “normalcy” enables us to conduct our daily lives with a certain effectiveness, but “peril” should keep us on our toes, vigilant and concerned. We are all vulnerable, albeit unequally. Pramod K. Nayar, in Ecoprecarity, points to Judith Butler’s 2004 argument that “our lives [depend] upon precarious environments, people and processes” (7). Ironically, the vulnerability of human lives threatened during the COVID-19 pandemic has also reminded us of the precarity experienced by other species, including the endangered pangolin, thought by some to be the source of the zoonotic transmission of the current contagion.
On April 21st, the eve of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, I watched a CNN documentary about global climate change called “The Road to Change: America’s Climate Crisis.” One especially interesting part of that report was an interview the filmmaker did with a Native American man on tiny Isle de Jean Charles in the Gulf of Mexico, the southernmost part of the state of Louisiana. The man, who lives in a simple, vulnerable house on stilts on this small island that is now only 400 meters wide and 4,000 meters long, insisted that he did not believe climate change would ever force him to leave his home and move back to the mainland. He seemed not to remember 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the island and shrunk it to its current size from its earlier 9,000-meter width and nearly 20,000-meter length. Nor could he imagine that there would ever be a time in the future when rising sea levels or battering storms would drive residents from their homes. He said, “Right at this moment my house is above water.” There may be various reasons why this resident resisted opportunities to resettle on the nearby mainland, including his uniquely indigenous identification with the place. Another factor may be susceptibility to a kind of “hyper-presentism,” an extreme focus on the present moment, unable to remember or imagine — this is what the interviewer, Bill Weir, seems to suggest. Many of us, in our busy, in-the-moment lives are prone to this kind of thinking. We are inclined to accept the present moment as stable and “normal,” as unchanging. And yet all around us there are potentially devastating socioeconomic changes, geopolitical changes, and environmental changes that are occurring at paces (fast and slow) and on scales (large and small) we can hardly detect.
Jared Diamond referred to such changes in his 2004 book Collapse as “creeping normalcy.” Rob Nixon, more recently, in the book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), coined the term “slow violence” to describe our species’ extraordinary and often tragic difficulty in apprehending such changes. Patrick D. Murphy uses the acronyms “PAN” (Present as Always Normal) and “DIM” (Discrete Incident Mentality) to characterize our cognitive failure to apprehend slow-moving social and environmental changes and to “connect the dots” between destructive incidents associated with anthropogenic causes.
With regard to the coronavirus pandemic, I hope we can surmount the excessive, even pathological, focus on the present as a stable “normal,” and instead find a way to remember that the pre-coronavirus “normal” was not a good normal for most people in the world, or for the planet itself, nor a stable, unchanging condition. I hope we can use the strangeness of the current pause in economic and social activity as a sign that human beings can adapt to new ways of living and thinking, responding mindfully to environmental changes. Perhaps one way of responding mindfully to such changes is to recognize, as demonstrated by a team of Dutch scientists in the 1970s (led by Willem Wagenaar), that human beings almost universally underestimate exponential growth, whether we’re thinking about air pollution or algae blooms, global climate change or viral pandemics — we are fated to respond flat-footedly, much too slowly, to extreme crises unless we recognize our inherent inability to think exponentially (see Kunreuther and Slovic).
Perhaps, in the coming months, we may achieve a situation where we won’t need to be in radical lockdown, as many of us are at the moment. However, we will never not have COVID-19 in our midst in the future. We will have to learn to live with the knowledge of this public health threat and all that it can teach us. Likewise, we will never not have to think about global climate change, our toxic land and air and water, mass extinction, human poverty, and so many other daunting and interconnected problems. What can we learn from COVID-19 that may help us to understand and respond appropriately to these other urgent challenges as well, without allowing the gravity of these problems to drive us to numbness and despair?
I take heart in a phrase Mitchell Thomashow used in his 2001 book Bringing the Biosphere Home: “You don’t have to be optimistic to be hopeful” (18). I often use this language, especially when talking with students. Even if there is no reason for us to be optimistic that we will thoroughly and permanently solve the world’s problems, we can live our lives in a hopeful way, doing our best to overcome small pieces of these larger challenges and doing our best to derive meaning from our troubles.
It is in this hopeful spirit that we are speaking to and writing for each other in the midst of a crisis we are only beginning to fathom.