THE REFLECTION POND – COVID-19, Climate Crisis and the Shape of History

We are re-sharing essays submitted to ‘The Reflection Pond,’ the opinion section of this past year’s ISEE newsletter. This submission was part of s series on Covid-19 and Environmental Ethics.

COVID-19, Climate Crisis and the Shape of History

by Byron Williston

What does the novel coronavirus teach us about the climate crisis? Superficially, both involve our messing recklessly with nature, whereupon the latter (surprise!) visits us with some nasty blowback. But there’s a deeper connection. In my view, the COVID-19 pandemic pushes us to the same metaphysical reflection on the shape of history that the climate crisis does. Philosophy of history is a little out of fashion these days, but I think the times are crying out for its revival. Its basic distinction is between linear and circular conceptions of historical development; think European Enlightenment versus Malthus. Is the future getting brighter and brighter, or is it bound to turn back on itself, eating its own tail as humans respond to system-level crises?

Here’s a really simple metaphor to help push our thinking in the direction I think it needs to go. All civilizations exhibit some degree of fit between the built environment—everything from immigration laws to vaccines and sea walls—and the natural one, much like a peg in an appropriately sized and shaped hole. In our case the fit is not perfect, but we would not have survived this long, in such numbers, if the fit were not at least roughly correct. But, given our industrial civilization’s headlong economic development and expansion, especially post-WWII, the fit has become very awkward indeed. This is why some ecologists and systems thinkers talk in terms of our reaching or breaching planetary boundaries. Even though it is simple, the peg-in-a-hole metaphor helps guard against two errors that can result from one-sided ways of thinking about our historical situation.

The first is to assume that the hole is exactly the right shape for the peg, but the hole will always be larger, so that we can safely expand the peg—industrial civilization—outwards without limit. That’s the approach sometimes described as “business as usual.” It’s also embedded in the naïve Enlightenment notion that history moves in a straight, and unbroken, line of expansion and progress. No time for pesky historical circles here. But all the evidence compiled over the past 40 or 50 years, from the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth Report (1972) to the U.N.’s Global Warming of 1.5° Celsius (2018), militates against this view. This lesson is also suggested by the effects COVID-19 has had on our lives over a very short time period. This is exactly the sort of break in linear time represented by all significant civilizational crises. COVID-19 is a relatively small-scale revenge of the historical circle: it has stopped the line of progress in its tracks, for how long we don’t yet know.

The other error is to think that history is all circle and no line. It is the belief that the civilizational peg has outgrown the environmental hole many times in the past, or that no peg has ever been the right shape in the first place. Because of this basic mismatch, as it has over and over again, the hole is primed once again to spit out the peg, casting our vaunted civilizational achievements to the four winds in the process. This view is not without ethical merit. The ancient Greek historian Polybius thought its main counsel to us is that we should not “boast unduly of our achievements.” We could certainly use a little of that humility. Nowadays, The Dark Mountain Project seems to think in a similar way, but the problem with it is that it is really difficult to let go entirely of the idea—or the hope—that we can make things better than they are right now. Embracing the circular view of history can induce a kind of Weltschmerz that is very difficult to sustain and is also politically impotent.

The view I advocate gets between these two options. It is that because we have now entered a brand-new epoch—the Anthropocene—whose signature is the effective erasure between nature and culture the peg and the hole are now fused. They are no longer two things, and I mean this quite literally. Still, the fused thing can, and must, evolve, meaning that we cannot altogether abandon the linear conception of history. Progress now is thus largely about improving the design of the nature-culture complex. However, the event of fusion has had negative knock-on effects in the whole structure, the most salient of which is profound climate disruption. Because we have done nothing to avoid or even lessen the impacts of climate change, adaptation to ongoing crisis is now an ineliminable aspect of our collective lives, part of the human condition. Progress-pausing circles are here to stay.

For this reason, both as philosophers and ordinary folks we can any longer indulge utopian speculation about a world beyond crisis. Naomi Klein did not know how right she was when she declared that climate disruption “changes everything,” because it alters our basic understanding of the meta-narrative of humanity. I hope we come out of the COVID-19 experience with an improved perspective on this question because we are going to need it long after this virus is defeated.

In other words, the fused peg-and-hole represents of a view of history as both linear and circular. It’s the idea that although we need to believe we’re making progress, we must also recognize that it won’t always feel that way. In fact, it will feel like a slog much of the time. That’s our lot: half Condorcet and half Sisyphus. If we can come to terms with this paradox, we will have a fighting chance of making a better future. Whatever else it is, COVID-19 is an early test of our ability to internalize this new species-level self-conception.

Byron Williston is Professor of Philosophy at Wilfrid Laurier University and a member of the Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change at the University of Waterloo. His latest book is Philosophy and the Climate Crisis: How the Past Can Save the Future.