The End of Something: On Radical Change in a Time of Pandemic

Ben Ehrenreich Considers What Might Come Next

My daughter, our first and only child, was born in the middle of January, a few days after the World Health Organization confirmed that there had been “limited human-to-human transmission” of a strange new virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Much of Australia was on fire at the time and clouds of locusts were darkening the skies of East Africa. It was the warmest January on record, but I was not thinking about these things. As my partner and I walked to the hospital, I was focused on her hand squeezing mine and on timing the breaks between contractions on my phone: two minutes every time. A thin red thread of a moon hung low in the sky. I was thinking about the whole planet spinning beneath that moon, and somewhere on it, everyone I loved.

For more than a year, I’ve lived in Barcelona. Our daughter was born here—healthy, perfect, beautiful—in the Hospital de Sant Pau, the old campus of which was built in the early 1900s at what was then the edge of the city to replace the far older Hospital de la Santa Creu. The hard fist of disease has again and again shaped this city, and our world: construction of the latter hospital began in 1401, after repeated outbreaks of bubonic plague wiped out as much as much as 40 percent of the region’s population. It was at the edge of the city then too. The infected had to be kept outside.

On March 15, when the baby was nearly two months old, we went for one last walk in the park. She slept through it, but we knew we would not have another chance for a while: nationwide emergency orders were to take effect the next morning, requiring all residents to stay indoors except for the most essential outings. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, but even then, when we were all still free to move, the park nearest our apartment, usually crowded with tourists, was almost empty. No one was wearing masks yet but everyone we encountered did the same anxious dance to avoid getting too close and the walk, in the end, did not calm us. But we couldn’t get over the birds: the city was already so free of traffic that without the usual background din of engines, brakes and horns, all we could hear was the wind, and everywhere, birdsong. We heard them from our balcony too, in stereo: blackbirds singing, and mourning doves, and magpies, as if their health and happiness were inversely related to the frenzy of commerce that normally animated the city.

Epidemics map our relations—with each other and with other forms of life. Like the current coronavirus, the plague that reduced the population of Europe and the Middle East by at least a third in the mid-14th century—and China’s perhaps by even more—was zoonotic, or transmitted to people from other animals. It was carried by rats and other rodents, and jumped to humans by means of fleas. The original outbreak likely occurred in Central Asia in the early 1330s. Some blame marmots. Others suspect that Yersinia pestis’s first hosts may have been gerbils and that abrupt shifts in climate—drought—spurred the inter-species leap. “As gerbil populations collapse in response to climatic changes,” researchers found in 2015, “the density of fleas per gerbil increases dramatically … causing fleas to seek out alternate hosts.”

Things were slower then. Fleas caught rides with humans, rodents, and perhaps with camels too, along the trade network known as the Silk Road and with the armies of the Mongols, who ruled over lands stretching from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Contemporary Arab chroniclers believed the plague originated in Central Asia before moving south and east to China and then west across Asia, leaving that continent all but depopulated in its wake. By 1339 Yersinia pestis had reached what is now Kyrgyzstan. By 1343 it was in the Crimean. It hit Constantinople in 1347, and Greece, the Levant, Egypt, and Sicily that same year. By 1348 it was in Florence, here in Barcelona, as far north as London.

What is this “economy” that can live only by growing endlessly but a virus of the most dead-end sort, the kind that too hastily kills its host?

Microbes don’t have to wait for the next caravan anymore. Last year nearly 190,000 flights took off each day. International finance bubbles through once-isolated rural markets, connecting them to global networks. Wild lands disappear as agribusiness, logging, and mining advance, spurred by the hungers of corporate boards continents away. Microbes that never before encountered a human immune system catch easy rides down roads that a year ago were forest.

An economy based—with a faith that must count as religious—on the possibility of eternal growth by necessity widens the interface between humans and wild animals as it burns through natural resources, giving microbes that once interacted harmlessly within isolated ecosystems a chance to move, mutate, and spread. Factory farms have created such ideal conditions for the rapid spread of zoonotic pathogens, writes the evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace, that agribusiness is, “now working with influenza as much as against it.” After HIV, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika, and an unprecedented proliferation of new strains of influenza, Covid-19 can hardly count as a surprise.

Demagogic politicians were quick to assign the new coronavirus a nationality. Early media reports fed orientalist prejudices by focusing on a cluster of cases originating in a Wuhan seafood market where exotic animals were sold, but few bothered to mention that the earliest identified case occurred a month before the cluster there emerged. It was undoubtedly the market, though, broadly conceived, that enabled the virus to spread. Whether SARS-CoV-2 leaped to humans from a pig or a pangolin, it was ensnared in the same circuits of capital that entangle the entire planet. The breeding and sale of wild animals is a $57-billion industry in China, promoted by the government as a means of rural development. In China and elsewhere, small-scale farmers dislodged by agribusiness and extractive industry are pushed into wild lands in search of animals that have become commodities in globalized urban markets.

If pathogens will travel anywhere, profits stick to well-defended paths. They flow to corporations that may have Chinese or American names but are owned by international investment firms and incorporated in offshore tax havens. The earliest cases of the H1N1 influenza epidemic of 2009 emerged in the Mexican state of Veracruz, in a community adjacent to an industrialized pig farm owned by the Virginia-based Smithfield Foods. Smithfield has since been absorbed by the Chinese pork giant the WH Group, which until 2013 was primarily owned by Goldman Sachs and the Chinese asset management firm CDH. Epidemiologists believe that H1N1 may have killed as many as 575,000 people, most of them in Africa and Southeast Asia.

Other potentially pandemic strains of influenza have emerged in poultry farms in Pennsylvania and Guandong, but the immediate locations and proximate causes of individual outbreaks matter less in the end, Wallace argues, than the underlying relationships and structures that link them. In that sense, he was saying long before Covid-19 was killing hundreds each day in New York hospitals, control nodes of global capital like New York, London, and Hong Kong should be understood as major epicenters of infection.

In other words this pandemic is no fluke. Like the fires in Australia and the melt waters that roared from Greenland’s glaciers last summer, this is what happens when we allow the planet and all the life on it to be regarded only as an abstraction to be transformed into dollars in a digital account. More pandemics, worse ones, almost certainly await us. The fires, storms, and droughts won’t stop just because the ICUs are already overloaded. Normal is done. This is the end of something.

*

It is also, of course, a beginning. In mid-March, when we were still free to walk in the park, the bare branches of the sycamore trees on the sidewalk outside our apartment were just beginning to bud. They are now heavy with leaves, the brilliant early green of spring. We don’t have a scale and haven’t been able to weigh our daughter, but the muscles in my arms can tell that she has gained a pound or two, and some mornings when she wakes with a smile she seems a full inch longer than she did when we put her down to sleep. She smiles a lot—wide-eyed and open-mouthed, her whole body squirming with delight. She is hungry most of the time: if not for more milk, for more world, to see and hear and feel it. When she is awake she is always moving: wriggling, thrashing, kicking her feet, building muscles that she is not yet ready to use.

It’s easy to forget this now, but for a few months late last year people all around the planet appeared to be doing something similar: writhing, kicking out, struggling to prepare themselves for a world none of us could yet see. At the very time that the first victims of Covid-19 began to appear in the hospitals of Wuhan, mass protests were breaking out around the planet, in more than two dozen countries from Chile to Lebanon and Hong Kong to Haiti. The proximate causes were different in different places—in many it was hikes in the price of fuel or transportation—but the outrage was general, as were the structures and relationships that caused it. On five continents, people were protesting against their own immiseration, against outrageous inequalities, against years of austerity and the selective deafness of governments that answered to financial elites but not to their own people, against a system animated by a concept of growth that appeared to leave almost everybody out.

That system was the same one that has brought us here, that regards the pandemics it helps breed as externalities that can be omitted from the annual reports, that views the loss of Arctic ice as an opportunity for more drilling, that submits always to the whims of a cruel god called “economy,” whose health requires the open sacrifice of the most vulnerable among us. (As one slogan that came out of the Yellow Vest protests in France put it: “End of the month, end of the world, same struggle.”) Most of these movements sputtered out before the virus turned mass gatherings into a different sort of risk. It is worth remembering, though, what “normal” felt like to millions of people around the planet before any of this began. We were already on the brink of something. We still are.

At the very time that the first victims of Covid-19 began to appear in the hospitals of Wuhan, mass protests were breaking out around the planet, in more than two dozen countries.

“The entire inhabited world changed,” wrote the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun of the outbreak of Yersinia pestis that would become known as the Black Death. Ibn Khaldun was a teenager when the plague hit Tunisia in 1348. He lost both parents, teachers, friends. Empires also fell. The pandemic so decimated the lands to the east that the Mongol kingdoms ruling Persia and China were toppled. Egypt, where Ibn Khaldun spent the final decades of his life, was so severely depopulated that the labor-intensive irrigation system on which the Nile basin’s agricultural economy depended could not be maintained. Crop yields fell by half, and would not recover for centuries. In Western Europe, peasants were able to use their reduced numbers to their advantage, wrestling concessions from feudal lords. Within weeks of the arrival of the Black Death in Barcelona, mobs attacked the city’s Jewish quarter, blaming Europe’s favorite scapegoat for the plague. Over the next year, Jews would be massacred throughout the continent in a wave of anti-Semitic violence that would remain unrivaled until the 1930s.

The contours of the new world delivered by SARS-CoV-2 are hazy, but something is already taking shape. Borders have slammed shut. The World Trade Organization is forecasting that global commerce may fall by as much as 32 percent this year, and Goldman Sachs has predicted that the US economy will contract by 34 percent in the second quarter of 2020, nearly three times its decline in the first year of the Great Depression. Tens of millions have already been thrown out of work. Authoritarian realpolitik continues: Saudi and Russian brinksmanship pushed oil prices to new lows, further shattering the financial markets. The prime ministers of Hungary and Cambodia have granted themselves broad dictatorial powers without expiration dates. China and Israel have extended already frightening regimes of digital surveillance. The Trump administration has found in the pandemic an opportunity to turn away asylum seekers. Emergency legislation passed in the UK gives the British government the authority to detain people indefinitely, a power the Trump administration has also sought. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are spreading as usual.

Most of that was easy to foresee, but the virus has also brought about policy reversals that would have been unthinkable even in January. In Britain, a Conservative government agreed to pay 80 percent of the wages of all workers who lose their jobs to the pandemic. Here in Spain, the center-right People’s Party, which imposed harsh austerity measures and privatization policies for most of the last decade, consented—for the first few weeks anyway—to the current left wing government’s emergency measures, including a 200-billion euro rescue package, freezes on evictions, mortgage payments, and utility cut-offs, and the nationalization of private hospitals. In the US, emergency relief legislation has been generous to big corporations and to Jared Kushner’s friends in private equity, but laughably parsimonious to all of us who were not already rich.

Ordinary workers, though, in both the old industrial working class and in the most precarious sectors of the service economy, are already feeling their own power, and their rage. Since mid-March, the US has seen strikes and walkouts by American bus drivers, nurses, trash collectors, delivery drivers and workers in grocery stores, Amazon “fulfillment centers,” auto and poultry plants, shipyards, and fast-food restaurants. Tenants around the country, and the world, are organizing rent strikes.

If we didn’t before, we know now that everything can change, radically, almost overnight. The only certainty is that everything is uncertain. So few people have been tested that even the death counts are unreliable. We don’t know what we’ve lost yet, what’s recoverable, what is simply gone. Self-isolation on a mass scale means that, except for those in hospitals or prisons or nursing homes, this crisis mainly happens out of sight. Zoom and Twitter notwithstanding, most of us suffer the dread and anxiety alone.

We might get sick, we might recover. We might lose jobs or we might lose everyone we love. How to plan around the likelihood of disabling grief? Will borders open? Will we be able to travel again? To earn a living? We check in on friends by text and parents by phone. The baby learns to laugh and suck her thumb and lift her head, to deliver long, cooing monologues in an alien language composed entirely of vowels and the odd avian squawk. We stand on the narrow balcony, soaking up what little sun we can. We hear the sirens and sometimes even see the ambulances, but mainly the city stays quiet except for the buzzing of our thoughts.

The virus and the wildfires and the melting glaciers all bear a single message: Nothing grows and grows forever.

Even with this constricted perspective on the world, it is obvious that things have changed. The birds are bolder than they used to be, no longer frightened by all the noises that we make. Blackbirds keep settling on our balcony, warbling on the rail even if we’re standing a yard away. A pair of hoopoes—strange, gorgeous birds with wild orange crests and wings striped black and white—have nested beside our building. Until last month, I had seen them only rarely, in the least peopled corners of the park. From the rooftop we can make out the Mediterranean, a strip of distant blue. There are no planes in the sky, no ships waiting at anchor to enter the harbor. For once there is no smog. Why did it take this, more than 325,000 premature deaths and counting, for us to stop befouling the air we breathe? In its silence the city beckons, inviting us to run, skip, dance through the empty streets, to start over and build everything anew, if only we could walk out the door.

*

In the months before my daughter was born, I had time to think about the world she would be entering. I write about the climate crisis, and have reported from difficult places, so I had no illusions, or thought I didn’t. I thought a lot about a woman I met three years ago in the northern Somali city of Borau. I never learned her name. I was there to report on the drought that had struck the Horn of Africa, and the famine that came with it. I was visiting the pediatric malnutrition ward of the only hospital in the region, accompanying a doctor as he did the rounds from bed to bed, examining one listless infant after another. Many of them had a chance of recovery, he told me, but for this woman’s child it did not look good. He spoke to me and not to her and she, expecting nothing from the doctor, looked to me. I understood what her eyes were asking me. She wanted me to make some sign, to nod or smile, to reassure her that her child would be okay and her world was not about to end. I couldn’t. I should have lied to comfort her. Instead I froze, unable to respond.

I thought a lot also about a Syrian man I met last summer. For another story I had joined the crew of a rescue ship patrolling the southern Mediterranean in search of migrants, many thousands of whom have died attempting to cross the sea to Europe. This man was about my age, a little younger. He had fled Idlib to Libya, and married a Palestinian woman there. They had three children and fled again when the war in Libya got too close. We found him and his family crammed into a small wooden boat with 40 others. They had been drifting for a day already, out of food and out of gas. As soon as he reached our deck he broke down, trembling, squeezing his infant son to his chest.

Societies fall apart. Civilizations collapse. All of them, eventually. And in all of them, whatever else is happening, people go on living as best they can. They fall in love, give birth to children, love them with all their strength. We love children for who and what they are—this specific, gorgeous, wriggling, grinning, shitting being—and for the possibilities that they carry with them like a fragile, invisible shell, a future that we and they still have to fight to create.

It would be foolhardy not to consider the possibility—the inevitability even—that some more general societal disintegration will happen also to us, and perhaps sooner than we’d like. Seen from across the Atlantic, the United States has seemed to be slipping into collapse for some time. The infrastructure is dangerous and decrepit, the healthcare system unable to provide affordable care for even ordinary illnesses. Mass shootings are as normal as the weather, and the weather hasn’t been normal for years. Life expectancy has been falling since 2013, wages stagnant since 1973. For most young people a decent education means a lifetime of debt. Fundamental necessities like housing are in most large cities unaffordable and insecure.

In Los Angeles, where I lived for two decades, homeless encampments spread as rents went up, with conditions worse than I have seen in refugee camps sharing sidewalks with restaurants catering to a neurotic elite that has mastered the urban art of unseeing. Most politicians, meanwhile, are manacled to the very industries—real estate, finance, corporate agriculture, fossil fuels—that push our cities and our planet further into dystopia. The current president seems determined to poke and pull at every crack and seam in the existing order that he can find, testing the strength of institutions once thought sturdy, tugging almost methodically at every social divide, as if to see how much pressure it will bear before it all comes tumbling down.

Societies fall apart. Civilizations collapse. All of them, eventually. And in all of them, whatever else is happening, people go on living as best they can.

The rest of the world is little stabler. Neo-Nazi politicians are taking office in Germany, open nostalgists for fascism in Italy, France, Austria, and here in Spain. They don’t use the word, but it is fair to describe the ethno-nationalist and authoritarian leaders of Russia, Brazil, India, Israel, Hungary, Poland, and the Philippines as fascists too. The liberal order enforced in much of the world throughout the Cold War and later by uncontested US hegemony has ended. No one is in charge. Almost everyone is ready to fight.

“Civilizations,” the anthropologist Joseph Tainter wrote in 1988, “are fragile, impermanent things.” His The Collapse of Complex Societies, published that year, is still the classic scholarly text on civilizational decline. Tainter examined past civilizations—most closely the Romans, the lowland Maya, and the Chacoans of what is now northwestern New Mexico—and derived from their various disintegrations one simple and apparently unavoidable mechanism of collapse. The hierarchically organized human societies that have emerged over the last six millennia, Tainter argued, are characterized by an ineluctable tendency towards greater complexity. As societies grow, in other words, they develop more and more working parts. Specialization and stratification increase as logistical and administrative mandates expand.

This can have its benefits—for some at least—but it is also a curse. Social complexity itself, Tainter argues, is subject to the law of diminishing returns: the solutions to yesterday’s crises quickly become hazards themselves. The Romans, for instance, solved the problem of limited agricultural resources through conquest—by stealing the wealth and manpower of their neighbors—but the growth of their empire, and the military necessary to sustain it, required greater and greater resources, and the stress of that requirement ultimately caused the entire system to collapse. Drought, invasion, disease, and sudden shifts in climate are never alone decisive. On the upswing, societies can withstand any of these challenges. But once “a complex society develops the vulnerabilities of declining marginal returns, collapse may merely require sufficient passage of time to render probable the occurrence of an insurmountable calamity.”

Tainter’s analysis is easy enough to apply to the United States, which for a century has poured more and more resources into the military in order to reap the benefits of control over the flow of global trade, and especially of oil—which, as the source of energy on which an entire world-system has been built, turns out to be subject to the law of diminishing returns as well. The US has already hit a wall—more than one trillion dollars thrown last year at costs related to the military, and the health of the population an unaffordable expense—but so has the world-system that grew over the course of the last century on the slippery and foul-smelling foundation that is petroleum. The virus and the wildfires and the melting glaciers all bear a single message: Nothing grows and grows forever. We have only so much planet, only so much forest, so much topsoil, so much ice. Even the most efficiently fierce virus eventually runs out of host. And when it does, as Tainter put it, “collapse becomes a matter of mathematical probability.”

That sounds, perhaps, worse than it is. Tainter’s overall view of human societies is optimistic. He is not a Marxist, and does not view societies as sites of class conflict, but as pragmatic, problem-solving entities. (In retrospect it seems that this optimism may have blinded him to the eventuality of ruling elites contriving to profit from a system that accelerated the exhaustion of vital resources. The notion “of idleness in the face of disaster,” he wrote, “requires a leap of faith at which we may rightly hesitate.”) What he calls collapse, then, is not necessarily a catastrophe for all. It is simply a decrease, albeit a sudden one, in societal complexity. When increased complexity—vast and expensive militaries, say, or unaccountable corporate bureaucracies—offers too few advantages, collapse emerges as “a rational, economizing process that may well benefit much of the population.” In some parts of the Roman Empire the invaders labeled “barbarians” by imperial historians were welcomed by local populations: “To many, there were simply no remaining benefits to the Empire.”

It’s been sunny lately and most afternoons we’ve been climbing up to the roof so that the baby—and we—can feel the sun and the breeze. Just breathing is a strange, new pleasure: I’ve never felt the air so clean. By one estimate, the reduction in air pollution that accompanied the virus-induced shutdown of industry in China may have prevented as many as 77,000 premature deaths, more than can be credited to Covid-19. When a deadly pandemic saves more lives than it steals by forcing a pause in a still-more deadly system, what sense does it mean to talk about benefit and loss? What is now collapsing, and for whom? I want my kid and every kid to breathe clean air every day of their lives. I want them to know what birds sound like. What does it mean that these modest wishes are in direct and obvious conflict with the economic system that has dominated for more than a century? What is this “economy” that can live only by growing endlessly but a virus of the most dead-end sort, the kind that too hastily kills its host? How do we wash our hands of this disease?

Momentous change does not occur without momentous loss. We are already experiencing both. If those birds and the clean breezes and not only the mirthful coos but the impatient, hungry cries of our children teach us anything, it should be that some things are worth fighting for, and fighting hard, and that the things that have been killing us for years should be allowed at last to die. In our restlessness and claustrophobia, in the loneliness of our homes and the relative calmness of our cities, it might not feel like it right now, but we have hard choices to make, and not much time. Before we can even touch each other again, we will have to decide whose hands we want to hold, and how to use the strength we can only find in one another. As always, we have a world to build.

________________________________

Ben Ehrenreich’s new book, Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time, is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press.

Ben Ehrenreich
Ben Ehrenreich
Ben Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of Desert Notebooks: A Roadmap for the End of Time and The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine, as well as of two novels, Ether and The Suitors. His writing appears regularly in The Nation, and has been published in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books, among other publications.





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