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After the Virus by Stephan Harding

Nightingale. Image: Ebirds

Where are we heading after the virus?  What’s on the other side? The first thing to say, based on my scientific understanding, is that there probably won’t be an ‘after the virus’, for, just like the cold and flu viruses, it seems likely that covid-19 is going to stick around for quite a long while.

So how are we going to live with the virus after we’ve managed to get some kind of control over it and are over the worst effects of this pandemic? Charles Eisenstein has written a deep analysis of these questions in his recent essay The Coronation which is essential reading.  He identifies two main diverging pathways which we could characterise as totalitarianism or compassion.

We know what totalitarianism is by now.  Think of the obvious examples: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and in our own time, thankfully for the moment less dangerous but definitely on the same track: Trump, Oban, Erdogan, Bolsonaro and others.  The danger is that the virus will give these people excuses to control our every move and listen to our every word.   Don’t misunderstand me. The current lockdown and social distancing tactics are working well against the virus and we should rigidly stick by them for as long as the science suggests we should.

But we don’t want to social distance and isolate ourselves when we don’t need to, and we don’t want to be tracked when that’s not needed either.   But once surveillance practices such as those imposed by the Chinese government (and in the West by the likes of Google) have been in place for a while to achieve these ends, will we get used to them, taking them as the new normal?  Probably, and the totalitarians hope so.  Will they shepherd us into a new tyranny in which technology is used to keep us fearful, isolated and brutalised, far from each other and nature? That hell would be their paradise.

As we saw, the alternative is compassion, so what does that look like?  Well, perhaps the easiest and most modern way of expressing it is that it is ‘Gaian’.  There is that word again –‘Gaia’ – the ancient Greek goddess, Mother of All, who rolled herself into the ball of the Earth when time began  to make of herself a dazzling jewel of life and meaning.  Gaia as Mother Earth denotes something which our culture as whole has hated and destroyed for around 2,000 years.  Here is the word that represents flaky hippies, fantasy land and woolly thinking.  Wrong. Gaia is the most sacred and wholesome word we could have right now because the cure to our ills is to rediscover the sacred as earthy and wholesome, and Gaia is a great contributor to this new sacred.  I’m a scientist, and I’m not ashamed to speak up for this essentially poetic Gaia even though I have been made to feel how inferior it is by my scientific education with no blame attached to my excellent teachers – we are all to a large extent  Gaia-blind because of the anti-Gaian views of our culture.

So the compassion pathway requires us to rediscover Gaia.  What does this entail, this Gaian compassion?  First you must learn to listen to the songs of the birds.  Birdsong, especially as gifted us by the birds of Europe, has the magical ability to re-awaken wonder.   So, to be compassionate we must have a sense of wonder in front of nature, in front of Gaia.  We must learn to listen deeply to the sound of the wind in her branches, to the rush of water in her rivers, and to the crash of waves on her ocean shores.  We must learn to think poetically in front of Gaia, for as much as she loves science, she loves poetry best of all.  Can you practice that?  You have to practice it, because compassion increases with practice.  You should try it.  Your heart starts to open, your head starts to clear and you simply start to feel happy, just being you within the deep swirling grandeur of our gorgeous planet drifting through space on a mission to increase compassion and wisdom.  That’s quite a path to follow, and if we did we would live in small scale, localised communities deeply embedded in wild or free nature, each living quite simply with artefacts mostly made from local materials by the people themselves.  I have seen such places in the Tibetan culture.  They open your soul to Gaia.  There would be commerce and cultural exchange between communities on a modest scale involving a mixture of mostly slow but also some limited fast travel. That way it would be easy to shut off a potential pandemic virus once it had emerged in any one of community.  There would be high tech, but each electron would be seen as a speck of sacredness made into energy.  So all our tech would be treated with the greatest respect and we would have implemented closed recycling loops for all its atoms and molecules.  Everyone would have access to good food, water, free health care and probably some sort of basic support from the global community at large. Different communities around the world would be in close touch with each other via the internet, abolishing nationalism and parochialism for ever.  Everyone would help with growing food for themselves and their community in permaculture style gardens that grow nutritious food and are a haven for biodiversity.

And, perhaps most importantly, the main goal of everyone’s life would be to uncover and develop their own spirituality of nature, their own ecosophy (ecological wisdom) as my dear friend and teacher Arne Naess would say.  In such a society things would get better very quickly because everyone would be working to make the world around them into a Gaian paradise.

So which is most likely to happen given the current global psychological state of humanity, tyranny or compassion?   Sadly, I can’t see the second happening any time soon. But we must work for it within ourselves and in the wider world.  The world is a mess, and we have been sent here to help clean it up. The vision of Gaia as a great living planet (shown to be a self-regulating organism by my friend and teacher, James Lovelock) can help us – but it will only work if Gaia is more than an intellectual idea.  It has to involve radical inner change  - a transformation of consciousness so that everyone  can see, hear, taste, feel and adore Gaia with her marvellous cloak of biodiversity on land and  in her oceans teeming with all kinds of swimming life.

The first path – tyranny - is currently the strongest and there will be a powerful pull towards it now because of the virus. We must resist it with all our heart and all our compassion because it is Gaia-blind.  To do that, we must keep pondering the meaning of our life in Gaia, keep finding richer answers and deeper energy to contribute whatever we can whilst keeping ourselves happy, safe and warm.  To steer ourselves towards compassion we need to dedicate ourselves to becoming Gaia-wise.  Spending time in nature deeply listening to birdsong – that’s a good way to start.


Stephan Harding holds a doctorate in ecology from Oxford University and is Deep Ecology Research Fellow at Schumacher College, Dartington, UK. He is author of Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia, and editor of Grow Small Think Beautiful: Ideas for a Sustainable Planet from Schumacher College. He is currently on lockdown with his family at Schumacher College, Dartington, England.