There’s a poignant scene in the 1970s classic Soylent Green that has relevance for our own time. The movie is set in a future dystopia in which dazed survivors wander aimlessly down litter-strewn streets midst rundown buildings under a murky sky, sleeping in doorways and fighting over scraps of food. The main protagonists are an aged detective old enough to remember how the world was when he was young and his partner, too young to have experienced “the good old days”. One emotive scene has the two acquiring some fresh strawberries, the older man savoring them with nostalgic relish, while the younger, who has never seen a strawberry before, gets a taste, literally, of the world that has been lost. (I won’t reveal what “soylent green” refers to in case you are inspired to watch the movie.)
The scene I found especially poignant for us comes when the old man, haunted by memories too painful to bear, decides to take advantage of the government-sponsored option of euthanasia. The life-ending procedure involves the soon-to-be departed lying comfortably on a bed while scenes from the world of his youth are projected on the death-room wall: a field of poppies nodding in the wind under a deep blue sky flecked with billowing white clouds; a sylvan brook babbling its way to the sea, its sparkling water pure enough to drink; a city of gleaming skyscrapers where happy pedestrians amble down well-ordered streets, window-shopping the bounteous offerings of a prosperous economy. Remembered joys light up the old man’s face as he slips painlessly into eternal repose.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all experiencing something similar to what the old man felt. With air and water pollution lessened consequent to reduced economic activity, we are seeing our world as it once was: mountains ringing cities, not seen for decades because of a shrouding smog, now visible on the horizon; the canals of Venice clarifying with the drop in tourism, causing fish to return to the now clean water highways; sea turtles returning to the beaches where they once laid their eggs as cautious sunbathers choose to forego a vacation in favor of staying at home.
Unlike in the movie, where the cause of the societal and environmental deterioration is not made clear, we know, or should know, the cause of our own malaise, a malaise inadvertently revealed by the side effects of the pandemic. It’s our addiction to economic growth. How much simpler would it be to deal with problems like pollution, climate change, resource exhaustion, even a pandemic, if we (by which I mean mankind) were not committed to an ever-expanding production of more and more goods to sustain an ever more numerous population.
Twenty years ago I wrote a manifesto entitled The Ethic of Zero Growth, in which I argued for replacing our growth-based economy with one based on what I call “ecostasis”: living in balance with the ecosystem. Obviously, the banner of ecostasis has not been picked up by many. Critics argued (illogically, in my opinion, but apparently persuasively) that only a growing economy in a world of finite resources can assure prosperity. But maybe the shock of seeing all of a sudden what we have lost gradually, imperceptibly, over time will rally more dreamers to the cause (If you want to delve deeper into my proposal, you can read The Ethic of Zero Growth here or buy the booklet online.)
A post-pandemic coronatopia based on ecostasis is my dream. Here’s my nightmare. Imagine if the second wave of the pandemic, as postulated by the experts, is even more devastating than the first. Imagine the death count in this country reaching as high, proportionally, as that experienced in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918: 1 to 2 million Americans dead. Imagine the economy so completely shut-down that more important necessities than toilet paper—food, for example—is in short supply. Imagine rioting in the streets by frustrated, desperate people that far exceeds anything engendered by police killings. Imagine the whole nation looking for a scapegoat to blame their troubles on. Who would they choose?
No, not the Jews. The Chinese. After months of hearing the president refer to SARS-CofV-2 as the “Chinese virus” and blaming China for its spread around the world, the electorate would demand that China be punished—a call already voiced by some—so loudly, so rabidly, so venomously the president would be compelled to take some punitive action. Like the Japanese militarists who had instilled such a fervor for imperial conquest in the Japanese that when the United State demanded Japan withdraw from China, they felt they had no other option but to go to war, even though they knew that, barring a miracle, they would lose it, Trump would not be able to calm the masses he had stirred up by claiming he was just kidding about China being responsible (he doesn’t kid, remember). He would be forced to take some unwise military action, perhaps a confrontation in the South China Sea, which could quickly escalate into all-out combat.
To prevent such a disaster—compared to which the pandemic pales—it is incumbent on us all to do two things to counter the “Blame China” mantra:
- Point out that where an epidemic first breaks out is not necessarily where the virus causing the epidemic originated; for instance, the Spanish Flu, whose first epicenter was in Europe, originated in Kansas. If it comes to be proven, or just believed, that the SARS-CofV-2 virus was manmade, it will be considered by most an indictment of the Chinese biolab in Wuhan. But this is not the only logical sequitur, as I’ll discuss in my next point. (One indication how widespread is the logic “Manmade virus = originated in China” came when a prominent alt-media journalist suggested the virus might be manmade and was roundly criticized by his fellow progressives for supporting Trump’s “Blame China” rhetoric.)
- Demand to know why the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shutdown the US army biolab at Ft. Detrick, Maryland in August 2019, shortly after an unknown pathogen killed a number of residents of a nursing home. The lab remained closed till November, suspiciously contemporaneous with the appearance of the SARS-CofV-2 virus in China (For further discussion of the possibility the virus originated at Ft. Detrick, see my posting “The Virus of Nationalism”).
Our demanding to know what’s going on in our biodefense (sic) labs is not without precedent. Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) attached an amendment to last year’s National Defense Authorization Act calling on the Pentagon to say whether they had experimented with using ticks as disseminators of bioweapons at a lab on Plum Island, which is across Long Island Sound from Lyme, Connecticut . Many people believe, along with Rep. Smith, that Lyme disease originated at that lab. Because of the hotly debated issue over where the COVID-19 virus originated, we’re not likely to hear much about Plum Island any time soon; as, if it was revealed Lyme disease did come from there, too many people might ponder whether another disease might have been released, inadvertently, from another US government lab, say, one in Maryland.
To avoid a coronapocalypse we must act now, before the dire conditions I have postulated have pushed us so far down the path to war that those who oppose it are outshouted, ostracized, silenced. You can do your part by signing the petition calling for an international commission to investigate the origin of the SARS-CofV-2 virus here. That’s a first step. Don’t let it be your last.