Lessons on Crisis Response from a Suspended Course on Global Environmental History

By Ida Simonsen

In 1755, the city of Lisbon was struck by an earthquake, a tsunami and a firestorm in an unexpected and dramatic succession of, as Voltaire poeticised, “unceasing woe.” The threefold disaster claimed thousands of lives, primarily those of the poor, and devastated the commercial, cultural, and religious edifice of an imperial capital in an increasingly entangled world. Because the events unfolded at a time of great rupture and reformation, between church and state, god and man, nature and society, Lisbon is now understood as the “first modern disaster.” In response to the crisis, people were forced to make sense of a world that had violently displaced their understanding of the relationships between the human, the natural, the sublime, and the divine. This process produced coexisting but also competing religious and techno-scientific responses that reconfigured humanity’s relationship to nature and shaped the very conditions of modernity we are living in today. The triumphant and ever-prevailing idea that rose from the ashes of the Lisbon firestorm and the fervid enlightenment debates that followed, was that nature was an object to be studied and a force to be controlled.

Today’s pandemic teaches the world what it means to lose that control and presents us with yet another violent disruption of our natural and non-natural global order. Once again, crisis invites us to reassess a world disordered, this time with an urgency like never before. Like the 1755 Lisbon disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic exposes the vulnerabilities of our interconnected global economy and our relationship to the natural world. As supply chains collapse, borders close and hospitals prepare for overflow, the pandemic uncovers the ever-neglected conditions of human fragility in the age of the anthropocene. In 1755, fragility was met with an imperious discourse of human mastery over nature. The malignant praxis of this mastery has been developing into an excessively exploitative relationship between humanity and our non-human subjects ever since. Today, this untenable relationship is being articulated in the human bodies of those infected with the coronavirus. 

Modernity as a History of Environmental Disasters

The conditions of environmental exploitation that have allowed for the rapid spread of the latest coronavirus are the very same as those that allowed other zoonotic diseases to make frequent and devastating appearances on the world stage. For decades now, hundreds of microbial pathogens, such as rabies, anthrax, HIV/AIDS, SARS, Mers, Zika, and Ebola, have steadily passed from other animals, primarily those we call “wildlife,” into the human body. To us, such infectious diseases may represent an outrageous incursion into human civilisation. The transformation of animal microbes into human pathogens, however, first occurred at a violent encounter between man and animal: a confrontation decided by the deforestation and habitat destruction that made way for expanded human settlements, extractive industries, and industrialised agriculture and farming. This confrontation created what has been identified as the likely source of the current pandemic, wet markets, such as the one in Wuhan, where bred and poached animals are caged, slaughtered, and traded, creating opportunities for microbes to “spill over” from wild animals to humans and become deadly pathogens.  Hence, to find the ultimate animal source of our newest unwelcome guest, we need look no further than ourselves. This unsettling discovery forces us to acknowledge the root problem of these crises is our extractive and over-exploitative relationship to the natural world

In other words, we need to consider “the nature of disaster,” a question eponymous to a Sciences Po common core course that was suspended in the transition to online learning due to the pandemic. If there is one thing this course in environmental history and its panoply of crises instructed, it is that disasters have been a loyal companion to the making of the modern world. The nature of disasters is compounded by intertwined social, technical, and environmental factors that reveal, time and time again, the instability of a world ordered under the ironclad credo of human dominion over nature. Crises often strike us as dramatic, short-lived events of chaos and disruption, but wider temporal and spatial lenses show a different picture. Disasters span far beyond moments or even months of disorder. They stretch back and forward in time, in slow, structural accumulations of risk and denial. These accumulations can result in long-term consequences that traverse oceans and continents, impacting spaces far beyond the original epicentres of disasters. They are fundamental features of humanity’s environmental history and can be seen as both destructive and structural features of modernity and its project to master nature. While disasters have revealed time and time again human dependence on stable natural environments, they tend to inspire responses that further entrench our societies in an increasingly dangerous culture of environmental oblivion. Through technoscientific innovations, industrialisation, complex systems of transportation, urbanisation, and the globalisation of exchanges, we have therefore sought to mitigate some risks while creating others.

The burdens and benefits of this modernisation project are by no means equally distributed and so, neither are those related to its unrelenting disasters. Risk and devastation are distributed unevenly alongside the great human/non-human divide, geographical boundaries, and the social axes of age, race, profession, gender, socio-economic position and location. Crises often reveal these societal cleavages and global power structures while further entrenching them. In this regard, the “normal” most of us are so desperate to return to in our current crisis denotes a political and economic model that is compromising our planetary health while primarily distributing the consequences among the economically marginalised.

Cascading Crises Require Comprehensive Responses

The policies, trade, aid, and transfers of technology responding to the coronavirus crisis must take note of its historical roots in these uneven interactions between humans and non-humans and among human beings themselves. The ways such relations are acknowledged or neglected during crisis time shape policy responses and societal changes which long outlast states of emergency. They can redefine the rules of politics, economic systems and social values and further consolidate the quest for full dominion over nature. This means that isolationist policies could continue to deteriorate multilateralism and global solidarity when infection rates have been contained, all the while failing to address global environmental degradation. Furthermore, the pervasive limitations on freedoms that mark today’s crisis response, such as those on movement, assembly, and privacy through biometric surveillance, could be stretched beyond the objectives of pandemic control into a dystopian post-COVID-19 future.

However, it could also mean we are finally forced to instigate the fundamental changes our world desperately needs by rethinking our global and planetary health system. We could take the critical actions decades of privatisation, deregulation of the corporate sector, and austerity have sought to avert. The crisis reminds us of a series of truths most inconvenient to those championing market-based solutions to our market-based problems: budget cuts to public health and social security systems and the crippling of underpaid professions such as those in education, healthcare, and waste disposal, create dangerously fragile societies and trans-border threats. The global health crisis we are facing today reflects a crisis of rising global inequality, resulting in unequal access to healthcare and differentiated vulnerabilities on the basis of the economic and social determinants of health.

Its responses also reflect a dangerously sidelined but overlapping crisis in which earth’s life support systems are rapidly deteriorating. While the climate crisis poses an existential threat to all future human life, disadvantaged social groups will suffer disproportionately and have already started to carry the brunt of its consequences, for example in terms of food insecurity, income losses, and adverse health impacts, thereby increasing inequalities in a vicious cycle. The countries most affected, especially their most economically marginalised population groups, will generally have contributed the least to the problem while the climate crisis continues to expose them to heightened risks, such as these zoonotic diseases.

The coronavirus crisis response can teach us a number of valuable lessons in this respect. By now, it has become clear that countries that were quick to respond have less dramatic infection and mortality rates than those initially opting for denial and delay. Where early detection and social distancing measures and fast allocation of medical resources were issued, lives were saved and at a lesser expense. If we see such responses as a trial run in global crisis management, preparedness to mitigate the worst consequences of societal collapse as a result of natural disasters has proven essential. Furthermore, it is now clear that differentiated vulnerability defining global economic and health inequalities necessitates international cooperation and people-centered policies that strengthen public spheres, goods, and services. The past weeks have shown us the feasibility of an abundant range of far-reaching measures that would have seemed impossible a few months ago. Many of such measures, such as decreased long-distance trade flows, restricted air travel, a reconfiguration of work-life balance, and eviction and water bill moratoria, run parallel to what climate justice activists have been demanding for decades. As countries have implemented stricter quarantine and travel restrictions, air and water quality has improved in many places.

The environmental victories observed, however, will most likely be short-lived. Once the dramatic coronavirus-induced restrictions on our movements and economies are lifted, the world will find itself in a deep economic recession, if not a depression. Under these circumstances, global investments in a just and green transition will be severely strained. Current events are exposing the biopolitics of risk distribution and which, and to what extent, vulnerable populations have worth in the capitalist calculus of life and death. Green stimulus packages, fossil fuel divestment and corporate investments in clean energy and industry could be delayed and displaced, not only by stretched health budgets but also by austerity measures and corporate bailouts of the very industries that are driving climate change. The coal-dependent Czech Republic’s Prime Minister, for example, has urged the EU to abandon its Green Deal to focus efforts and resources on containing the virus. Many governments have started to summon exorbitant rescue packages to bail out airlines, and the US Environmental Protection Agency has even indefinitely suspended enforcement of its environmental regulations. While flattening the COVID-19 infection curve and protecting livelihoods are undeniably urgent matters, such measures can be life-threatening misdirections in themselves if not measured against their environmental impacts.

However, crisis responses are also showcasing mass mobilisations, enforced but also voluntary, physically distant but socially united, to protect the more vulnerable populations of our society and those taking care of them. Equity and inclusivity considerations in health and economic recovery plans are being underscored, and could guide a just transition for workers’ jobs and wages into what should be not just a post-COVID-19 world but also a post-carbon world. When the COVID-19 epidemic has been subdued, we will still have a planet to save from collapsing on the species that inhabit it. This crisis should be a moment of mass awakening in a warming world that will be more conducive to zoonotic diseases and many other lethal and interconnected conditions, such as smothering air quality and raging wildfires. To get there, however, we need to acknowledge the nature of the disasters that have accompanied the making of the world that came before. Nearly three centuries have passed since the Lisbon disaster crystallised into our “modern” ideas about the natural-human world order. It is high time we reconsider those ideas. The coronavirus crisis has revealed humanity is by no means biologically isolated from nature, physically nor behaviourally, so neither should our crisis response.