(Source: Leonardo Boff, Brazilian ecotheologian and liberation theologian; translation: Novena)
To understand the meaning of the coronavirus, we have to put it in its proper context, not see it in isolation under the perspective of always necessary science and method. The coronavirus comes from nature, against which human beings, particularly through global capitalism, have been waging a systematic war for centuries.
Neoliberal capitalism is seriously wounded
Let’s concentrate on the main cause, which is the capitalist order. We know the logic of capitalism. It is characterised by the exploitation of the labour force to the limit, by the looting of the goods and services of nature – in short, by the commodification of everything.
We have moved from a market economy to a market society. In it, inalienable things are transformed into merchandise: Karl Marx in his Poverty of Philosophy of 1847, described it well: “Things which till then had been communicated, but never exchanged; given, but never sold; acquired, but never bought – virtue, love, conviction, knowledge, conscience, etc. – when everything passed into commerce”. He called this the “time of general corruption, of universal venality”. This is what has been implanted since the end of the Second World War.
We human beings, under the mode of capitalist deproduction, have broken all ties with nature, turning it into a treasure-chest of resources mistakenly considered to be unlimited for the purpose of a growth also mistakenly considered to be unlimited. It turns out that an old and limited planet cannot support unlimited growth.
The living Earth, Gaia, a super-organism that coordinates all the factors necessary to continue living and always producing and reproducing all types of life, has begun to react and counterattack by means of global warming, extreme events in nature, and the sending of its lethal weapons, which are viruses and bacteria (Swine flu, avian flu, H1N1, Zika, Chikungunya, SARS, Ebola and others), and now that of COVID-19, invisible, global and lethal.
This virus has brought everyone to their knees, especially the militarist powers whose weapons of mass destruction (which could destroy all life several times over) have proven to be totally superfluous and ridiculous.
With regard to COVID-19, it has become clear that it fell like a meteor on neo-liberal capitalism, dismantling its ideology: profit, private accumulation, competition, individualism, consumerism, the minimal state and the privatisation of the public sphere and common goods. It has been seriously wounded. It has produced too much human, social and ecological iniquity, to the point of endangering the future of the life system and of the Earth system.
In the meantime, the coronavirus unequivocally posed the dilemma: which is worth more, profit or life? Should we save the economy or save human lives?
According to the ideology of capitalism, the choice would be to save the economy first and then to save human lives. But nobody has yet found the magic recipe to coordinate the two things: to produce wealth and to prevent the contagion of the workers. If we had followed the logic of capital, we would all be in danger.
What is saving us is what [the logic of capital] lacks: solidarity, cooperation, interdependence among all, generosity and mutual care for each other’s lives and for everything that lives and exists.
Possible alternatives in the post-coronavirus
The big challenge for each of us, the big question, especially for the owners of large multinational corporations, is: How do we continue? Go back to what we were before? Make up for lost time and profits?
Many say: simply going back to what we were before would be suicide, because the Earth could strike back with more violent and deadly viruses. Scientists have already warned that we may soon suffer an even more ferocious attack if we do not learn the lesson of caring for nature and develop a more friendly relationship with Mother Earth.
I list here some alternatives, as the captains of industry and finance are in a furious struggle with each other to safeguard their interests and their fortunes.
The first alternative would be to return to the neoliberal capitalist system but now in an extremely radical way. 0.1% of humanity, the billionaires, would use artificial intelligence to control every person on the planet in everything from their intimate to their private and public lives. It would be a despotism of another order, cybernetic, under the aegis of the total control/domination of the life of populations.
This alternative would have learned nothing from COVID-19, nor would it have incorporated an ecological factor. Under pressure it could assume a socio-ecological responsibility so as not to lose profits and followers.
But whenever there is a dominating power, an anti-power emerges even with rebellions caused by hunger and despair.
The second alternative would be green capitalism, which could draw lessons from the coronavirus and could incorporate the ecological fact: reforest the devastated woodlands [and] preserve existing nature to the maximum. But it would not change the mode of production or the quest for profit.
Though being ‘green’ it would not challenge the perverse social inequality and would make of all natural goods a chance for profit. Example: not only profit from the honey of bees, but also from their capacity to pollinate other plants.
The relationship with nature and the Earth is a utilitarian one and it is afforded no rights, contrary to what the UN declares, nor is its intrinsic value recognised, independent of human beings. The model is still anthropocentric.
The third alternative would be third-generation communism, which would have nothing to do with the previous generations and would put the goods and services of the planet under a collective and central administration. It could be possible, but it supposes a new consciousness, and it also does not give centrality to life in all its forms. It would still be anthropocentric.
It is partly represented by the philosophers Zizek and Badiou. Because of existing prejudices and the remembrance of what was the State Communism of the Soviet Empire, controlling and repressing, it has few followers.
The fourth alternative would be eco-socialism, and this has greater possibilities. It implies a global social contract with a pluralistic centre of government to solve the global problems of humanity. Limited and many non-renewable natural goods and services would be distributed equitably among everyone – including the whole community of life, which also requires means to live and reproduce – in order to foment a decent and sober pattern of consumption.
This alternative would be within human possibility on the condition of developing a solid ecological conscience that would need to be taken as fact by the whole society with responsibility for the Earth and nature. In my opinion, it is still socio-centric.
It needs to incorporate the new cosmology and the data from the life sciences, from complexity, to see the Earth as a moment of the great cosmogenic, biogenic and anthropogenic process: Earth with Gaia, a super-organism that regulates itself and guarantees the life of all living beings.
The fifth alternative would be the good life and coexistence [buen vivir y convivir], practised for centuries by the Andean people. It is profoundly ecological, because it considers all beings as bearers of rights. The touchstone is harmony that begins with the family, with the community, with nature, with all the universe, with the ancestors and with the Divinity.
This alternative has a high degree of utopia but perhaps humanity, when it discovers itself as a species living in a single Common Home, will be able to achieve good living and coexistence.
Conclusion of this part: It is clear that life, health and livelihoods are at the centre of everything, not profit and (un)sustainable development. A bigger State will be needed with more health security for all, a State that meets collective demands and promotes development that is within the limits and reach of nature.
As the problem of the coronavirus is global, a global social contract is necessary, with a pluralistic body of direction and coordination, to implement a global solution.
Either we save nature and the Earth or we will swell the ranks of those who are heading towards the abyss.
How do we seek an ecological transition, required by the deadly action of COVID-19? Where do we start?
We cannot underestimate the power of the “genius” of neoliberal capitalism: it is capable of incorporating new data, transforming it for its own private benefit and using all modern means of robotisation [and] artificial intelligence with its billions of algorithms and eventually hybrid wars. It can live together without pity, indifferently, with the millions and millions of hungry people thrown into misery.
On the other hand, those who are looking for a paradigmatic transition, among whom I place myself, must propose another way of living in the Common Home, with a coexistence that respects nature and takes care of all the ecosystems; we must generate another level of consciousness at the social base and new subjects who are bearers of this alternative.
For this immense task we have to decolonise ourselves from world views and false values such as consumerism that are inculcated by the culture of capital. We have to be anti-system and unconventional.
Suppositions for a successful transition
The first supposition is the vulnerability of the human condition, exposed to attack by diseases, bacteria and viruses.
Two factors are at the origin of the invasion of lethal microorganisms: the excessive human urbanisation that has advanced over the spaces of nature, destroying the natural habitats of viruses and bacteria that jump to other living beings or to the human body. 83% of humanity live in cities.
The second factor is the systematic deforestation due to the voracity of capital, which seeks wealth through the monoculture of soybeans, sugarcane, sunflowers or the production of animal proteins (cattle), thereby devastating forests and jungles and throwing out of balance the humidity and rainfall conditions in extensive regions such as the Amazon.
Second supposition: the inter–retro-relationship of everything and everyone. We are, by nature, a knot of relationships pointed in all directions. Bioanthropology and evolutionary psychology have made it clear that the specific essence of the human being is to cooperate and relate to everyone.
There is no selfish gene, as Dawkins proposed in the late 1960s without any empirical basis. All genes are interrelated with each other and within cells. No one is outside of relationship. In this sense, individualism, the supreme value of the culture of capital, is unnatural and has no biological sustenance.
Third supposition: essential care. To the essence of the human being belongs a care without which we would not survive. Care is also a cosmological constant: the four forces that sustain the universe (the gravitational, the electromagnetic, the weak nuclear and the strong nuclear) act synergistically with extreme care without which we would not be here reflecting on these things.
Care implies a relationship that is friendly to life, protective of all beings because it sees them as a value in themselves, independent of human use. It was the lack of care for nature, leading to its devastation, that caused the viruses to lose their habitat, preserved for thousands of years, and to pass on to another animal or human being.
Eco-feminism has made a significant contribution to the preservation of life and nature with the ethics of care it has developed, because although care is proper to the human being, it acquires a special density in women.
Fourth supposition: solidarity as a conscious choice. Solidarity is at the heart of our humanity. Bioanthropologists have revealed to us that this fact is innate to human beings. When our ancestors looked for their food, they did not eat it in isolation. They brought them into the group and served them all, starting with the youngest, then the oldest, and then everyone else. From this came commensality and a sense of cooperation and solidarity. It was solidarity that allowed us to make the leap from animality to humanity. What was valid yesterday is also valid today.
This solidarity does not exist only among humans. It is another cosmological constant: all beings live together [and] are involved in networks of relationships of reciprocity and solidarity so that all can help each other to live and co-evolve. Even the weakest, with the collaboration of others, subsists [and] has its place in the ensemble of beings as it co-evolves.
The system of capital does not know solidarity: only the competition that produces tensions, rivalries and true destruction of other competitors to the end of greater accumulation.
Today the greatest problem of humanity is neither the economic, nor the political, nor the cultural, nor the religious, but the lack of solidarity with other human beings who are at our side. Capitalism sees everyone as an eventual consumer, not as a human person with his or her worries, joys and sufferings.
It is solidarity that is saving us in the face of the coronavirus attack, starting with the health workers who selflessly risk their lives to save others. We see attitudes of solidarity throughout society, but especially in the peripheries, where people cannot isolate themselves socially and have no food reserves. Many families who received food aid shared it with others in need.
But it is not enough that solidarity should be a one-off gesture. It must be a basic attitude, because it is in the essence of our nature.
We have to make a conscious choice to be in solidarity with the last and invisible, with those who do not count for the prevailing system and are considered as economic zeros and dispensable.
Only in this way will [the system] cease to be selective and encompass everyone, because we are all co-equals and we are united by objective ties of brotherhood.
Transition to a bio-centric civilization
Every crisis makes you think and look through new windows of opportunities. The coronavirus has given us this lesson: the Earth, nature, life, in all its diversity, interdependence, cooperation and solidarity must be central to the new civilisation if we are to survive.
I start from the following interpretation: that we have been attacking nature and Mother Earth for centuries, but now the reaction of the wounded Earth and devastated nature is turning against us.
Earth-Gaia and nature are alive and being alive they feel and react to aggressions. The multiplication of signals that the Earth has sent us, starting with global warming, the erosion of biodiversity in the order of 70-100 thousand species per year (we are within the sixth mass extinction in the anthropocene and necrocene era) and other extreme events, must be grasped and interpreted.
Either we change our relationship with the Earth and nature in the sense of synergy, care and respect, or the Earth may no longer want us on its surface. And this time there is no Noah’s ark to save some and let others perish. Either we all get saved or we all perish.
Almost all of the analyses of COVID-19 have focused on method, medicine, life-saving vaccines, social distancing and the use of masks to protect ourselves and so as not to infect others. All that must be done and is indispensable.
We rarely talk about nature, even though the virus came from nature. We’ve forgotten that.
The transition from a capitalist society of overproduction of material goods to a society that supports all life with human-spiritual values such as love, solidarity, compassion, interdependence, fairness, respect and care will not happen overnight.
It will be a difficult process that will require, in the words of Pope Francis in his encyclical “On the Care of the Common Home”, a “radical ecological conversion”, which will lead us to incorporate relationships of care, protection and cooperation: development undertaken alongside nature and not against nature.
The prevailing system may take a long time to die, but it will have no future. In my opinion, the ones who will defeat it forever will not be us, but the Earth itself, denying it the conditions for its reproduction by having exceeded the limits of the goods and services of the overpopulated Earth. This collapse will be hastened by the accumulation of criticism and human practices that have always resisted capitalist exploitation.
The incorporation of the new cosmological, biological and anthropological paradigm
For a new post-COVID-19 society, we must assume the data of the new paradigm, which is already a century old but has not yet managed to conquer the collective conscience or academic intelligence, much less the minds of political decision-makers.
This paradigm is cosmological. It starts from the fact that everything originated from the Big Bang that occurred 13.7 billion years ago. From its explosion came the red giant stars and with their explosion, the galaxies, the stars, the planets, the Earth and ourselves. We are all made of cosmic dust.
The Earth – which is already 4.3 billion years old and life about 3.8 billion years old – is alive. The Earth – and this is a fact of science already accepted by the scientific community – not only has life on it but is alive itself and produces all kinds of life.
The human being that appeared about 10 million years ago is the portion of the Earth that in a moment of high complexity began to feel, think, love and care. That’s why man comes from humus, from good soil.
Initially man maintained a relationship of coexistence with nature, then he went on to intervene in it through agriculture and in the last centuries he has arrived at a systematic aggression against nature through technoscience. This aggression has been carried out on all fronts to the point of endangering the balance of the Earth and even threatening the self-destruction of the human species with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
This relationship of aggression is behind the current health crisis. If it continues, the aggression could bring us stronger crises building up to what biologists fear: The Next Big One, that next great unassailable and fatal virus that will lead to the disappearance of the human species from the face of the Earth.
To avoid this possible ecological armageddon, it is urgent to renew with the living Earth the natural contract that has been violated: she gives us everything we need and guarantees the sustainability of ecosystems. And we, according to the contract, return care, respect for its cycles and give it time to regenerate what we take from it. This natural contract has been broken by that stratum of humanity that exploits goods and services, deforests woodlands [and] pollutes the waters and the seas.
It is decisive to renew the natural contract and to coordinate it with the social contract: a society that feels part of the Earth and of nature, that collectively takes on the preservation of all life, maintains its forests that guarantee the necessary water for all types of life, regenerates what was degraded and strengthens what is already preserved.
The relevance of the region: bioregionalism
Since the UN has acknowledged the Earth as Mother Earth and recognised the rights of nature, democracy will have to incorporate new citizens, such as the forests, the mountains, the rivers, the landscapes. Democracy would be socio-ecological. Only Bolivia and Ecuador have inaugurated ecological constitutionalism by recognizing the rights of the Pacha Mama and other beings of nature.
Life will be the guiding light and politics and the economy will be at the service not of accumulation but of life. Consumption, in order to be universal, must be sober, frugal, and in solidarity. And society will be sufficiently and decently supplied.
To conclude, a word about bioregionalism. The cutting edge of ecological reflection is currently being developed around the region. Taking the region not as it has been arbitrarily defined by the administration but in the configuration that nature has given it, with its rivers, mountains, forests, plains, fauna and flora and especially with the inhabitants who live there. A sustainable development that is not merely rhetorical but real can really be created in the bioregion.
Businesses will preferably be medium and small, preference will be given to agro-ecology, transport to distant regions will be avoided, culture will be an important element of cohesion: festivals, traditions, the memory of notable people, the presence of churches or religions, various types of schools and other modern means of sharing, knowledge and meeting people.
Thinking of a possible future with the introduction of bioregionalism: The Earth would be like a mosaic made of different pieces of different colors; they are the different regions and ecosystems, diverse and unique, but all composing a single mosaic, the Earth. The transition will be made through processes that are growing and developing at the national, regional and global levels, making us more aware of our collective responsibility to save the Common Home and everything that belongs to it.
The acquisition of a new consciousness will allow us to jump to another level where we will be friends of life: where we will embrace each being because all of us, from the primordial bacteria to the great forests to the dinosaurs to the horses to the hummingbirds to we ourselves have the same genetic code, the same 20 amino acids and the 4 nitrogenous or phosphate bases. That is, we are all related to each other with a real earthly brotherhood as the Earth Charter and Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’ on the care of the Common Home affirm.
It will be the civilisation of “possible happiness” and the “joyful celebration of life”.
More by Boff, on Novena:
Theologian Boff: “With ‘Laudato si”, Pope Francis placed himself at the cutting edge of world ecology”
Ecotheologian Boff: “If what prevailed before COVID-19 prevails again, we should prepare for the worst”
Liberation theologian Boff, on COVID-19: “To return to ‘business as usual’ could mean our self-destruction”
Liberation theologian Boff: “Capitalism is only good for the rich; for the rest it is hell and for nature, a war”
Liberation theologian, on coronavirus: “All individualism, soul of the culture of capital, is false and anti-human”
Theologian warns on coronavirus: “This pandemic demands a different relationship with nature and the Earth”
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