Today’s column is an offering by Yvonne Aburrow. They are the author of several books on inclusive Wicca, the inner work of Witchcraft, and serve as the co-editor of Pagan Consent Culture. They blog at Dowsing for Divinity. They live in Ontario, Canada.
I have been anxious for months, years even. I have watched with growing horror the rise of right-wing populism, the melting of the icecaps, the burning of Australia, the beginnings of wars over water and resources, the seemingly inexorable destruction wrought by climate change. The protests of Fridays for Future and Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion gave me some cause for optimism, but it is also obvious that governments have not been doing enough to turn the economy around to stop the production of carbon emissions. So when everyone suddenly swung into action to deal with the coronavirus crisis, it gave me some hope that perhaps now the needful actions to deal with climate change (many of which, it turns out, are quite similar to the actions needed to flatten the curve of coronavirus transmission) would seem doable. It also feels like now everyone else is as anxious as me.
It’s horrifying, watching the death toll rise and thinking of the families who have lost loved ones, and thinking that many of these deaths were avoidable, and that there are not enough ventilators and masks and other equipment to save all the potential victims of this virus, because governments have been spending on weapons and bombs and subsidizing the fossil fuel industry instead.
I am very glad that this crisis has brought out so many responses of people caring and volunteering for others, and grateful to the doctors and nurses and supermarket staff and food delivery drivers and cleaners and other key workers. We should show our gratitude to them by giving them all a pay-rise, not just a round of applause.
I am thankful that I have not seen very many Pagan responses to the coronavirus pandemic along the lines of “it’s Gaia’s revenge,” or “humans are a virus.” Maybe it’s because I don’t hang out on the corners of the internet where such ideas are expressed, but most of the responses that I have seen from Pagans have been more thoughtful and community oriented.
Nevertheless, it’s very clear that there are many people out there promoting the dangerous idea that humans are the problem, and that the planet is trying to significantly reduce the population. What these people usually mean is that the people they don’t like, or don’t care about, are the problem, and usually the people they don’t like are Black people, Indigenous Peoples, and other people of colour. This set of beliefs has been gaining momentum since the 1930s. It’s called eco-fascism. That’s one of the reasons why there’s a counter-movement of people advocating for climate justice.
The virus and the environment
“Gaia’s revenge” or “Gaia’s vengeance” is a trope where our planet is a sentient being, or at least a coherent system, which is willing to destroy humanity in order to save all the other species and ecosystems on Earth. The problem with this view is that it is not humanity as a whole that is destroying wildlife habitats, disrupting ecosystems and the climate, and causing mass extinctions. Rather, just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of the world’s carbon emissions, while the poorest 50% of the world’s population are responsible for only 10% of those carbon emissions. The problem is capitalism, industry, and consumerism, not humans.
It’s clear that the emergence of the coronavirus is related to our disregard for nature and wildlife and ecosystems, and we should be treating it as a wake-up call. But the problem that has caused it is our failure to co-operate with nature, not our mere existence. There are many viruses out there in the forests and the populations of wild animals. As industry cuts down more and more forests, the forests get smaller; wildlife is forced into smaller areas, and the viruses become more virulent. People get hungry because of economic inequalities and then eat wildlife; this can cause viruses (such as HIV, Ebola, SARS, MERS, and COVID-19) to cross into human populations with little or no immunity to them. Nature is sending us a message, but it’s that we must stop industry and capitalism from destroying the planet.
What I mean by “capitalism” here is the idea that a group of investors sink some capital into a venture or a company, which then returns them profits: this idea was one of the major drivers of colonialism, as some of the earliest venture capitalists founded companies to exploit the resource of the Americas. The reason this becomes a problem and a huge drain on resources is that profits become more important than anything else. I do not mean “mercantilism,” which is small traders exchanging goods for money.
There has been a fair amount of coverage of decreased air pollution (carbon emissions and nitrogen dioxide levels) during the pandemic. Again, this is proof that heavy industry is the problem.
George Monbiot points out that Western culture has become complacent, believing ourselves to be outside of or above Nature, able to use technology to get us out of the consequences of pollution, destruction, and climate change, or relying on exporting the problem to the southern hemisphere:
Now the membrane has ruptured, and we find ourselves naked and outraged, as the biology we appeared to have banished storms through our lives. The temptation, when this pandemic has passed, will be to find another bubble. We cannot afford to succumb to it. From now on, we should expose our minds to the painful realities we have denied for too long.
The virus and social justice
The coronavirus pandemic has massive implications for what we prioritize as a species, as communities and nations. It’s clear that we are standing at a fork in the road. Do we prioritize economic growth, or quality of life, or taking care of everyone? What kind of a civilization do we want to be?
Some people have been all too willing to sacrifice civil liberty and bring in mass surveillance and policing in response to people being irresponsible and not practicing social distancing and self-isolation. However, this has terrifying implications for a future where not only our movements but even our body temperatures could be used to gather data about what we are doing and thinking. Yuval Noah Harari explores two possible ways that this could develop. One is a dystopian nightmare:
If you know, for example, that I clicked on a Fox News link rather than a CNN link, that can teach you something about my political views and perhaps even my personality. But if you can monitor what happens to my body temperature, blood pressure and heart-rate as I watch the video clip, you can learn what makes me laugh, what makes me cry, and what makes me really, really angry.
The other is a more caring and communal way of life:
Centralised monitoring and harsh punishments aren’t the only way to make people comply with beneficial guidelines. When people are told the scientific facts, and when people trust public authorities to tell them these facts, citizens can do the right thing even without a Big Brother watching over their shoulders. A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population.
Ed Yong writes that this pandemic could and should bring about a profound shift in our way of thinking and behaving; but whether this will be a shift towards authoritarianism or social justice depends on many factors. One encouraging sign is that even right-wing and “fiscally conservative” governments have realized the importance of the social safety net of employment insurance and health insurance, but we need to hold them to account to make sure that the introduction of these measures does not benefit only the billionaire owners of companies, and is kept in place after the end of the pandemic.
We have known for a while that a crisis was coming, that the old order could not stand. Back in 2015, many tarot readers reported constantly getting the tower card in every reading, and many others reported a sense of foreboding and dread. The tower seems a very apt image for what is happening: all our old certainties crumbling, the bubble bursting, systems and structures straining and buckling under the weight of multiple onslaughts.
The “New Deal for Nature” and eco-fascism
One “solution” to climate change and ecosystem destruction that has been proposed, and is gaining momentum, is the idea of the “New Deal for Nature.” This is being promoted by several prominent environmental campaigners, including the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The idea is to give a third of the planet over to wildlife, with no humans inhabiting it. The problem with this is threefold: it would involve huge displacement of indigenous peoples; it would seek to put a monetary value on nature, as if it could be commodified; and it perpetuates the notion that humans are not part of nature.
The World Wide Fund for Nature has been complicit in, or actively encouraged, the torture and illegal imprisonment of people living in conservation areas. They also actively promote the idea of the empty wilderness, which has been used as an excuse to persecute and displace indigenous peoples.
The idea of removing humans from tracts of land set aside for nature has a long and murky history. Some of the earliest proponents of national parks wanted to remove villages of indigenous people from the areas designated as national parks. Last year, after a shooter murdered 22 people in El Paso, an article in The Guardian explored the connections between conservationism and racism:
The current rise of eco-minded white supremacy follows a direct line from the powerful attorney, conservationist and eugenicist Madison Grant – a friend of trees, Teddy Roosevelt, and the colonial superiority of white land stewardship. Grant, along with the influential naturalist John Muir and other early Anglo-Saxon conservationists, was critical in preserving the country’s wildlands for white enjoyment. Muir, who founded the Sierra Club environmental group in 1892, was disturbed by the “uncleanliness” of the Native Americans, whom he wanted removed from Yosemite. Grant successfully lobbied, in equal measure, for the creation of protected national parks and the restriction of immigration by non-whites.
The El Paso mass shooting was not the only shooting which was motivated by eco-fascist ideas. The Christchurch shooting in New Zealand also drew on these ideas, which are undergoing a revival among the extreme right.
The “New Deal for Nature”, like its predecessors, the National Parks, would involve displacing large numbers of indigenous peoples. This is a terrible idea, mainly because it’s utterly racist and would be an act of genocide, but also because indigenous peoples manage the land they live on and promote and support biodiversity. For example, in California, the Yurok, a local indigenous people, had done controlled burning in the forest for generations, until they were stopped by the Parks Service. Their controlled burning managed the undergrowth and prevented large forest fires by clearing out the dry underbrush. Presumably it also let in more light for a more diverse range of plants to grow. They are now permitted to do their traditional controlled burning in some counties, but this did not include the area which suffered the worst from wildfires last summer.
Rhetoric like “humans are the virus” is the start of a slippery slope that leads very rapidly in the direction of eco-fascism. Another variation on this is the idea of overpopulation. It’s true that, given the destruction of ecosystems, rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and so on, that we are likely to see famines and wars – but these will be caused by the unsustainable way of life of the richest 10% of people, not so much by “overpopulation.”
Indigenous activists and allies are rightly speaking out against the “New Deal for Nature” and eco-fascism. As the Lakota Law Project tweeted on March 18th:
Humans are not “the virus.” Indigenous people have shown that it is possible to live in balance with nature. Colonialism and extraction for profit, those are the virus.
Not only are Indigenous lifeways more sustainable, but it has been shown that 80% of the biodiversity on Earth is in environments managed by indigenous peoples.
An article in the journal Nature reports:
The territories of the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples cover 24% of land worldwide, and contain 80% of the world’s biodiversity (Sobrevila, 2008; IPS, 2017). Indigenous peoples occupy the sites of precious natural resources, and it is they who protect forests vulnerable to the encroachment of modernity. If indigenous communities are successful in maintaining control of their territories and can preserve their customs, their traditions and their way of life, they may be able to resist development and the deleterious consequences of modernity.
Indigenous peoples are on the front lines of the battle with fossil fuel companies, mining companies, fracking, pipelines, and still struggling with the consequences of genocide, missing and murdered indigenous women, residential schools, and being forced onto ever smaller parcels of land; but they are having a resurgence of their languages and cultures right now, and Pagans should do everything we can to support them, both because of our shared humanity and because their way of life is the most sustainable and their knowledge of taking care of the Earth is important.
Sadly, over the last year or so, I have also seen indigenous people having to argue with vegans online, who are persecuting them for hunting. The massive food insecurity in the Arctic and the North generally means it is necessary for the Inuit and other First Nations to hunt to supplement their diet; and it is not their respectful, traditional, sustainable hunting that is the problem, but the industrial-scale slaughter of wild animals that made them scarce in the first place.
Pagans have been responding to the pandemic by creating community online (with Zoom chats instead of in-person meetings, for example), by coming up with innovative schemes to orchestrate a community response to the pandemic, and by taking the enforced staying home as an opportunity to meditate and get creative. Many of our community, of course, are healthcare workers and other key workers, who are continuing to keep everything running smoothly.
This focus on community-building and community service is a heartening sign. It shows the strength of the Pagan community, and the depth of our theology.
Pagan bloggers have written thoughtful posts about making and sustaining connections with other people while in self-isolation, and suggestions for managing anxiety, social interactions, and magical practices and rituals to help us through this time.
If we were responding with the idea that it’s Mother Nature getting tired of humans cluttering up the Earth (and I have seen this comment after previous disasters), that would be about as sensible as those right-wing Christians who claim that hurricanes and floods are caused by God wanting to smite the gays.
Instead, we have realised that compassion and community-building is the way forward and found uniquely Pagan ways to put that into practice. We have started to build the world we want to live in.
David the Pagan Yogi wrote about seeing the positive in this time of crisis:
Everyone dismissed the Extinction Rebellion Movement last year, for trying to make everyone rethink how we live and work as a society – and yet everything they suggested (and we refused) is now being considered to try to slow the spread of disease: thinking globally but acting locally, restricting air travel, reducing car use, changing working practices and re-evaluating our work/life balance to prioritise family and health instead… And in the first affected areas, the months long restrictions have led to a slowing down and humanisation of society – and a huge drop in the immediate environmental damage our urban living does…
We need to emphasize the interconnectedness of everything – how the coronavirus pandemic has emerged from the destruction of forests and habitats by industry and mining; how we and all other species are involved in a complex web of life, which we rupture at our peril; how we need to embrace Indigenous ways of thinking and being, and tread gently on the Earth. As we start a virtuous cycle of action, we will find that other unexpected benefits will emerge.
Let’s choose social justice, climate justice, learning from indigenous peoples, and caring for Mother Earth. Let’s resist increased surveillance and authoritarianism; let’s promote science that emphasizes interconnectedness and a sense of wonder; and let’s keep building community.
Editor’s note: The Wild Hunt continues to cover the impact of COVID-19 on the Pagan community. For the latest updates, see our special coverage page. The Centers for Disease Control maintain a current list of guidance to prevent the spread of COVID-19 here.