At the very beginning of this Gregorian year of 2020 AD, life was its usual, with people criss-crossing the globe at the drop of a pin; airports were full; in much of the world festivities were in full bloom, celebrating the in-coming European New Year. Times Square and Trafalgar Square were crammed, as were other public arenas around the world. It was January 31, 2019.
On the same day, an announcement came from Wuhan, China, indicating a cluster of unusual cases of pneumonia. A week later, on January 7, Chinese authorities announced that the disease was caused by a novel infectious coronavirus, later to be named Covid–19.
In the world which we all take as “normal” the virus was rapidly transported, unknowingly, around the globe. Along with the package you ordered from Amazon or some other internet supplier, came this invisible virus, or perhaps when you picked up your friend at the airport, or some other commonplace matter. Later research appears to indicate Covid-19 had actually spread around the world by November 2019.
With the arrival of the new year, as the celebrants went drunkenly home, they did not yet know that their lives would be profoundly changed in the coming months, and doubtless, years. Some would soon die, others contract long-term medical problems; jobs would be lost on a massive scale, and the entire world would shudder with the implications carried by this microscopic virus. As people around the world joyfully rang in the New Year, they had little idea what awaited them.
It is not, though, as if they shouldn’t have had an idea of what the future would bring – the fire alarms and sirens had been shrieking for some time, for decades, and even longer. However, caught up in the entrancements and conveniences of “modern times” we collectively chose to ignore the warnings we were issued. Far back in the 19th century scientists understood that the pumping of CO2 into the environment would create a physical reality which would warm the earth’s atmosphere. The entire world charged forward industrializing on a scale unimaginable to those scientists of 1870. Rachel Carson warned in Silent Spring what our use of pesticides, and all the other paraphernalia of industrialized agriculture would do. Marc Reisner wrote in Cadillac Desert of the consequences of our treatment of the vast central realm of America. And most recently David Wallace-Wells issued a forbidding description of the world impacted by global warming in The Uninhabitable World. And many others, in myriad form, have duly issued us warning after warning of the consequences of our behavior. Few, though, paid attention. Instead we caught a flight to here and there, tossed plastic bags in the oceans; expanded our population like wild; injected antibiotics in ourselves and our food, and went on with our fanciful modern high-tech lives, and imagined some world in which all these things were cheap and there was no bill.
Which brings me to the real impact of this epidemic, which is scarcely confined to medical matters. Rather as its impact ripples through the world, its many collateral damages – thus far largely masked for political reasons, just as the pandemic of 1918 was kept secret for a period owing to wartime circumstances – have been kept hidden or have had superficial palliatives tossed at them.
While scarcely “ancient history” the pandemic of 1918-19, for most Americans and others elsewhere, is a faded relic of a forgotten time. It was 102 years ago. At that time the world’s population was 1.8 billion people – today it is moving on 8 billion. It is estimated that one third of the population caught the H1N1 virus, the so-called Spanish Flu (though it appears it originated in Kansas), and 50 million people died from it. Should the coronavirus take a similar toll, it would kill 800 million around the world. While in its present form it appears far less lethal, and we have a far more sophisticated medical system to cope with it, we might note that back then the first round seemed modest, but it was on the second wave that the deaths accumulated. At present an estimated 41 million people have contracted Covid-19, which is a small drop in the bucket next to 8 billion.
Thus far Covid-19 has eluded any full comprehension as to its real effects and consequences, and is, as any such organism, mutating. There is no vaccine, and despite our vaunted medical knowledge, there is no good reason to believe it will fully shield us from the coronavirus.
The first of the visible impacts has been on the economy – millions of people have lost their jobs, many of which are unlikely to return. Particularly service jobs centered around tourism, and all the spin-offs from that: restaurants, hotels, travel systems. In many countries, tourism is a major income source, and in some it is virtually the only source. This entire industry has been sent to the mat. Cruise ships are being dismantled, Boeing, one of America’s major exporters is on its knees (in part owing to the self-created fiasco of the 737-Max debacle, but it still would be crippled by the collapse of mass tourism); restaurants across the globe are being shuttered. It is estimated that 1/10 of jobs in the globe are directly related to tourism. The era of mass tourism is finished, and with it millions of jobs.
Shuddering through the economy will be a wide range of effects, ones dealing with the most basic and essential aspects of our economy and our needs. In much of the “advanced” world, agriculture is reliant on transient imported labor; when its flow is blocked – owing in this case to restrictions owing to Covid-19 – agriculture suffers. Likewise those engaged in that labor are highly vulnerable to contracting this disease and being disabled by it, they are unable to do their work. This will drive food prices up as supply diminishes. And so on through the economy, the ripple effects may seem invisible, but they are real. The world of malls, department stores, retail sales will shrivel and collapse. At least for the moment, Jeff Bezos will profit from this, as have, evidently, most of our other billionaire (and more) class. Our friend Covid-19 has served to harshly underline the disparities in our societies, the ever widening chasm between the poor and the rich. This will likely carry on in the immediate future.
As white collar workers are digitally dispersed, while on one hand relieved from the transparent insanity of daily commutes and its wasted time, it will cause a collapse of the entire urban infrastructure which lived off of it: cars and everything they require (gas, parking, highways), mass transit systems, cafes and bars, all which symbiotically live off the concept of a centralized urban setting of skyscrapers with a high density. One by one these dominoes will fall – indeed many already have.
One could continue to itemize the myriad knock-on effects which will roll through our societies – material effects which serve to show how all the interlocking elements of our highly complex social system are mutually dependent, and once one unravels, the entire edifice begins to crumble. It is a large structure, so inertia tends to slow the collapse, or at least the appearance of it.
Many of the structures of our system are the product of a particular way of thinking of the world, a way which has been dominant now for a few centuries. It is called capitalism. As the long history of this view shows, it is a fatal concept, illogical and tending to appeal to the worst of human instincts. It is the concept upon which most of our current human world has been built, and has brought us to our present circumstance, and the precipice of extinction. While the Covid-19 virus is a natural phenomenon, it seems likely that its emergence, and certainly its global spread, can be attributed to the nature of late capitalism, to such “efficiency” concepts as “just-in-time” practices, in which parts of some given object are farmed out to cheapest-labor, &/or cheapest resource settings, all to be shipped on tightly organized schedules to arrive for assembly and sales, via an intricate system which avoids, for example, the cost of storage. Under capitalist logic this sounds wonderful and smart, and, while it works it seems magical. One goes on-line, and Amazon has whatever your object of desire to your doorstep the next day. It is “cheap”. Bezos and Amazon have wiped out a vast range of traditional retail systems, deleting millions of jobs, just as Walmart wiped out Main Street America. Just in time.
The mantra of neo-liberalism, which asserts that free global trade is a universal good, and would raise billions out of poverty, has in truth been a catastrophe. It has allowed wealth to move almost unfettered into every corner of the globe, disrupting traditional cultures, destroying agriculture, and addicting the world’s population to a lethal consumerism. The Nike slash can be seen across the globe, along with the capitalist underpinnings of exploitation of labor, capital seeking places with the least regulation such that it can destroy the environment in pursuit of the ever-sacred “profit.”
Yes, neo-liberalism has in many cases, in purely capitalist terms, raised large swathes of people out of “poverty” – along the way it has destroyed their cultures and societies, and thrust them into another form of poverty. And along the way a paper thin layer of humans has become insanely rich. And the process has indeed, driven them insane. Despite now massive evidence that we are at the edge of extinction thanks in great part to the structural and psychic nature of capitalism, those titans of the system insist on plowing on – after all this system has made them fabulously rich and, as ever in human beings, this has blinded them. Many of them, rooted in tech, seem to perceive a technical magic wand which will fix all the things which tech itself has made into a full blown disaster in the works.
Remember when the internet and social media were hailed as mechanisms that would bring us all together? Remember when one actually walked in a city or in the countryside and looked at the real world? Remember when you went to a museum to look at paintings instead of at people taking selfies in front of them? Our Silicon Valley wizards have promised a world of wonders to be extracted from their disruptions, yet far from doing that they have instead carelessly shattered a million traditions and replaced them with nothing remotely comparable. The wreckage is to be seen all around us, if we just care to look.
And then along comes Covid-19, which not only was possible, but had indeed, in some form or another, been predicted and to the degree feasible, anticipated, and for which preparations had been made in the US and surely elsewhere. A real wrench in the works. While history is filled with similar such occurrences, some local, some nearly global, it is one of those things we prefer to ignore, placing them in some far away time when such things could happen, owing to the lack of understanding at the time, the dubious medicines, the lack of social hygiene, and behind such thinking was the thought that our mystical high-tech wizardry would shield us from such things, our medical system would find a miracle cure, we’d whack out a vaccine and all would be OK. Such things as the Black Plague just couldn’t happen to us. Nor the other of the posse of the Apocalypse – famine? pestilence? war? Not for us. Of course there is and has been famine going on the last decades, along with localized pestilences, and indeed plagues of locusts. This year. And war is an American staple, though we try to keep them far away and out of mind. I suspect most Americans – likely 90+ percent do not know that in the Black Plague Europe lost half its population, as did other areas of the world – China, the middle-east, and India.
In our highly fragmented and constantly distracted society, where we are perpetually subject to assaults upon our consciousness, usually for the purpose of extracting money/profit from us, most have lost all sense of history. We cannot remember last year, much less the lessons of the last century, or of millennia of human history. In turn we simply cannot believe that what occurred in the past can apply to us. In the past year we have been issued a sharp and rude awakening: yes, all the calamities of the past, which few of us know of, can and will visit us again. And, in keeping with the exponential explosion of our vast populations, and their behaviors, these will be equally scaled. In 1918, the year of the Spanish flu pandemic, the global population was 1.8 billion; today it is edging on 8 billion. Rather than relatively localized, the coming disasters will be global in impact, as is happening with Covid-19. And the death toll will be in the billions.
We have constructed a dense, complex system, which no one can really understand, nor can any organized group do so, in part because it is simply far too intricate, too enmeshed together such that tugging at any part of it disturbs in some ways all of it, and leads to an endless cascade of unintended effects. Where we do one thing, meaning that it should be useful for us and seems so in the short-range, we find it produces other undesired or even lethal effects. A simple thing, such as the convenient virtually “free” plastic bag at the super-market check-out, now gags the oceans. The synthetic rayon sweater or gloves reduce to nano-particles of plastics which are in everything now – the water you drink, the air you breath, the food you eat. As are myriad other human made elements of which we do not know the end impact on us and the world we live in. From what we do know, it appears many are lethal and toxic to virtually all life on the planet.
Largely evaded, certainly from our official commentariat – be they government/corporate spokespersons, or the intellectual media elite – are these grim realities which confront us. In part it is unmentioned because those persons are so within the existing system, and so invested in it, that they simply cannot imagine a world in which it doesn’t exist and function. Thus they blind themselves, their horizons limited to the world they know and in which they are comfortable.
Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.
Our predicament is not new, but rather ancient, and so the pithy admonitions of the past apply to us, as they did in then – thousands of years ago. The distinction is that owing to the vast technological system we have constructed, the gift of our opposable thumbs and our evolutionarily developed brain, those cautionary words which all human cultures have in one manner or another enunciated, apply now on a global scale. What was once locally disastrous is now so globally courtesy of our technical prowess, not only to we humans, but also to those remaining species we have not yet yet decimated. Our development though has been lopsided, and where our mechanical and technical intelligence has excelled, our moral and ethical sensibilities remain deeply rooted in the most basic core of our brains, those parts which govern our most necessary animal functions, our breathing, heart beats, digestion, sight, the most fundamental building blocks upon which our survival and success depend and upon which our instincts are built. They are primal and though we provide an overlay of learned behaviors which we use to “socialize” ourselves, to control and restrict those primal impulses, they remain active and ready to be triggered at the smallest disturbance of our “civilized” world. A glance around the world now, as always, shows us what humans can and will do if the guardrails of society are stripped away. Or in truth, even if they are not stripped away: while playing Bach and Beethoven, a sophisticated society at the same time constructed death camps. And in our day, the presumably civilized nation of the United States of America has carried on brutal wars – of late kept “off-screen” as much as possible – in Asia, Africa, Central and South America and the Middle-East.
As the cumulative stresses of the collapse of our system combine, there will be, as always, a psychological tendency towards denial. This will express itself in many forms, already in America, and elsewhere, present. There will be a rise in mystical belief systems, in conspiratorial inventions, in extremism. While some of these will be a method of deflecting from acceptance that a whole belief system, almost universally socially accepted, is in fact falling apart and was in reality false and incorrect, others will rise in a blind defense of that system. Taken together all these impulses will unfold in conflict. Confronted with the negative collateral effects of this collapse we can anticipate – and already see – the worst of human behaviors.
Famine and disease, both products of global warming as well as misguided industrial practices, will prompt mass migrations, and in turn resistance to these, as is already occurring in Europe and the USA. These pressures will beget wars.
The apocalypse is here. We just prefer other entertainments.
For further thoughts along these lines, see the blog posts below:
The United States of Insanity (March 25 2020)
The Corona Conspiracy: A fable (April 1, 2020)
The Corona Conspiracy: Pt. 2 (May 5, 2020)
8 thoughts on “20/20 : The Reckoning”
Great essay â clean up the repetitive parts and resend to me and Iâll push it out more broadly
350 West Hubbard Street
Chicago, Il. 60654
Why so silent after elections?
350 West Hubbard Street
Chicago, Il. 60654
Because busy prepping to move – lot to carefully pack, etc. and still waiting for the post-electoral euphoria to pass as Trump and gang, including most GOP, try their hand a banana-republic coup.
Where and how are you
350 West Hubbard Street
Chicago, Il. 60654
Hey Mr. Jost, wonderful post and I find myself agreeing with most of what you have to say, and I have had similar thoughts myself. I think the only real positive thing to come out of this pandemic is that it has awoken many people to the evilness of capitalism and neo-liberalism, at least that has been my impression from the small communities I have been able to interact with over the last year. I hope you are doing well and I will continue to check up on your blog now that I have come across it.
Thank you. Writing a follow-up to this one now, kind of hindsight and foresight derived from the last year.
Please write what you remember about my friend and mentor and one time brother-in-law Swain Wolfe. He was in pain you know
and took his life earlier this week.