Pandemic Diary – Day 46 – May 10 – Real pandemic resilience.
Real pandemic resilience. The pandemic is testing the resilience of hundreds of millions of people to a sudden shock which causes a major disruption to their accustomed way of life. To their income (if their job is threatened or gone), to their household’s income, to its composition (kids and often partner at home all day), to their shopping habits, recreational activities, health care needs, and so on.
Although the global pandemic was utterly predictable (reliable scientific predictions date back to the 1990s) the exact timing was not. This seems to put pandemics in the same group as earthquakes, major volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and other ‘inevitable but not precisely predictable’ natural events which cause huge social and economic disruption. This is correct as far as the ‘not precisely predictable’ part goes, but not as far as ‘inevitable’ goes. The knowledge of what causes epidemic diseases and what causes them to spread began to be developed as far back as the sixteenth century, and the science of epidemiology was well established by the twentieth century.
By the late twentieth century, at which time zoology, ecology and genomics were also well- developed sciences, the ability to predict epidemics and the knowledge of how to prevent them was sufficient – if applied – to prevent both their outbreak and their spread. However, this would mean making major changes to food production, processing, distribution and consumption systems, to global travel patterns, to energy consumption, and to social behaviours. All of these changes would be ‘bad for business’ as it is currently constituted, and so we have had three significant regional epidemics in the past decade and now a global pandemic.
In this respect the pandemic comes from the same stable as global heating, not earthquakes and tsunamis. It is caused by the efficient working of an economic system which puts profits for the few before health and safety for all, and not by ‘nature’ at all. Hence prevention of further pandemics, like the prevention of further global heating, has to be achieved through political action. This action must focus on putting health and safety for everyone ahead of business as usual. It should also accept that until the human population of the earth is once again living within planetary limits and not overshooting them, as is currently the case, there will be a need for societies at all levels to have well-thought-out resilience strategies. Such strategies will include national, regional and local stockpiling of essential items required in case of emergency, and back-up systems for all essential services.
The USA at the federal level is currently a textbook case of what not to do. It is an exceptional case, and other societies, which take both science and social security more seriously at government level, are getting through the pandemic with extremely low death and case rates. They are diverting resources which would have gone to business as usual in normal times towards directly protecting public health and safety.
Once the pandemic is over, I have little confidence that there will be a re-think and a re-start at the level of national politics. Even in the high-performing states the default setting for governments is arse-backwards, putting the health of the fiction that is ‘the economy’ ahead of the health of real people, instead of the other way round.
In the time that it takes for that to change – if it ever does – there are still things that those who understand what is going on can do, at the household and local level, if not (yet) at the national level. One of them is understanding that resilience is not (in Shaun Chamberlain’s words as quoted by Jakob Bowers) ‘…about “predicting the future the best we can and then adapting to that”. Instead, it’s about choosing “the course of action which makes sense across the widest possible range of possible futures”.’
Bowers goes on to say “Much of mainstream sustainability discourse implicitly assumes that the fundamental trajectories of industrial civilization (mechanization, globalization, urbanization, monetization) will continue, and as a result gets stuck in detailed technological scenarios. In contrast, Chamberlain’s understanding of resilience calls us to broaden and simplify our thinking instead of trying so hard to envision “sustainable” ways to keep doing what we want, paying heed to the underlying vulnerabilities of global industrial capitalism and the disastrous consequences should those scenarios fail to keep its wheels turning.”
To put this in practical terms: if you get together with others in your neighbourhood and start a community garden and food co-op with the aim of meeting 50% of your group’s food needs outside the market, and a pandemic or other emergency strikes – you’re sitting pretty. If no emergency arises – you’re still sitting pretty, because everyone is eating better food for less money, and getting the benefit of gardening exercise and shared knowledge and camaraderie as well. Never happens at the supermarket, eh? Similarly, if your household stockpiles a month’s supply of nutritious foods that will keep that long, and hygiene, health and other such essential supplies (batteries for transistor radios are good to have in an emergency which takes out the power, likewise gas bottles for a camp cooker), then if an emergency comes along you’re sitting pretty, and if it doesn’t you use up the stores anyway, and listen to the radio while gardening, and take the cooker camping.
In the event of a ‘long emergency’, which is how James Howard Kunstler characterised the gradual unravelling of fossil-fuel-based industrial society in his book of the same name in 2005 (John Michael Greer preferred the ‘long descent’ in his 2008 book of that name) then Chamberlain’s advice on taking actions which make sense over the widest possible range of futures still apply.
Kunstler, Greer and Chamberlain all take their own advice on how to live in the best way now that will also be fit to be the best way tomorrow, whatever tomorrow brings. They are also aware that their social positions allow them this option, and millions are being deprived of some or all of the resources needed to take household level action by the current economic system. However, this does not mean that community level action is therefore impossible – just harder to get going. Yet there are many inspiring examples of it already in existence, and also of some novel initiatives in response to the pandemic, such as the checkpoints and de facto lockdowns being practised by indigenous people in Australasia and the Americas. (That I know about – very likely elsewhere as well.)
So real resilience to a pandemic, and other future shocks, is possible at the household and local scales already. Just so long as people take matters into their own hands, and do not wait for rescue from systems which were not designed to support their lives anyway.
Setting priorities in a time of disruption. For the past 46 days I have left the valley where I live only three times. Once for a medical appointment, once to do a big stock-up shop in town, and once to buy some perishable foods items at the nearest store. I have now seen how I can plan better for household supplies, and do less travelling accordingly. Although I have also seen what our house needs to make it more comfortable and efficient, and that will require some tedious shopping, and re-homing of no longer useful items, before things are the best they can be.
For the past 46 days I have also written this diary once a day, and (depending on how ‘heavy’ the topic I have chosen for Gaia’s Day) this has taken up to three hours of my time. New Zealand moves on tomorrow, to a decision on the level of emergency, and I have to move on too. It will be at least another month or maybe two or three before normal social contacts and gatherings can and will resume, but I need to make sure that my household and my health are ready for this.
So my Pandemic Diary entries will go weekly from now on, and I will turn my attention to sorting out all the papers accumulated over forty years of research and writing and activism and making decisions on what will be kept and if so where, and what will happen to the rest. Plus all the household improvements aforementioned. Liminal times require liminal planning and prioritising…