No More Snake Sandwiches, Please

The language of war pervades discussions of the coronavirus, but that's probably the wrong approach.

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The language of war pervades discussions of the coronavirus, but that’s probably the wrong approach

The language of war pervades discussions of the coronavirus. We are ‘combatting’ COVID-19. We are in a ‘battle’ against it. It is like ‘wartime’ in the hospitals. The virus is our ‘enemy’. I understand the emotional desire to use such language but I think we would do better by using a different metaphor, one that more accurately describes and helpfully prescribes the relationship we have with the virus, and the setting in which that relationship plays out. I propose ‘ecology and economy’ as a more fitting and helpful framework.

Let me offer a refresher. You will notice that both ecology and economy share the root ‘eco’, which comes from the Greek oikos, which means ‘home’. Staying with the Greek, we see also logos (the ‘logy’ in ecology), which means ‘logic’, and nomos (the ‘nomy’ in economy), which means ‘norm’. So looking at them in their current permutations, we can understand an ecology as the ‘logos of the oikos’ or the logic of the home, and an economy as the ‘nomos of the oikos’ or the norm of the house, the logic of ecology that has been transformed by human beings to be more conducive to human habitation and well being. All economies are made from ecologies, and the relationship between the two modes of life is reciprocal and undetachable.

A coronavirus is just another habitant on planet Earth and it is no more waging war on human beings than is a shark or a mosquito or a hydrangea. To brand any other species an enemy and our engagement with it a war is to mischaracterize our relationship with it and our engagement with the place that we both call home. We make the same mistake when we say that we are combatting climate change and are waging a war on drugs, or even when we say we are fighting against sexism, racism or any other feature of our society that we do not like and want to change. The antagonism that lies at the base of such language distorts our understanding of the dynamic. We live in ecologies and economies with other entities, and everyone has a place in them. For the most part, we are not at war with each other, and any skirmishes that do arise do so within a system that is characterized more by cooperation than by conflict.

So instead of thinking in terms of fighting we might try thinking in terms of getting along with each other, starting with the idea that everyone has a right to exist, a right to take up space. I say this not just from a philosophical perspective but from a practical one as well. Waging a war against a particular virus does not seem very practicable or promising. How would you identify and locate your enemy? Would you attack it or let it attack you and then retaliate? When would you declare that you had won? What might be the repercussions of such a victory, the costs and collateral effects? You might find — or most certainly will find — that once you have defeated one enemy, another will rise in its place. As history has shown us repeatedly, once the revolutionaries overthrow the dictator, the problem of how to get along remains. Do we fight that, the very problem of social cohesion and political organization, or might some other approach be better?

It seems to me that we might as well just start the diplomatic effort now instead of reserving it for a time after we have defeated the last enemy, a time that of course will never come if aggression is our mode. And so in a way, and much to our credit, that seems to be what we are doing with COVID-19, or it at least seems to be the approach that is yielding the most benefit, and by this I mean that we are retreating. Yes, in some areas we see aggressive measures, efforts designed to attack and kill COVID-19, with crews with tanker trucks systematically spraying disinfectant in streets and other public areas, largely guessing at where the microscopic enemy might be lying in wait. But it seems that the most pervasive and effective approach involves retreating, sequestering ourselves in our homes to avoid the virus. Retreat may be a tactic of war, but it is not an aggressive one; it is passive and it supports a strategy of deescalation and self preservation.

This will be the winning strategy, the winning approach to a lasting rapprochement. It will have to remain a permanent part of our ecological and economic program as we move forward, because we will never defeat every entity that challenges our claims on or control of a place, and God help us if we do because the truth is that we have only a slight or partial understanding of how our ecologies and economies work, and of our roles within them. Ecological preservation, economic development, social formation and political organization still involve a lot of guesswork. This is true for all of our sciences, ranging from medicine to cosmology, or to put it in scalar terms, from our engagements with our bodies to those with the universe and everything in between. Compounding the practical execution of theses sciences are of course philosophical disagreements about how things should be, about the proper role of human beings and their relationships with each other and with other entities within an expansive and spirited universe.

So instead of using the language of war, words such as combat and battle and victory and enemy, I suggest that we try a new vocabulary, one that is drawn from the language of ecology and economy, one that privileges more peaceful and progressive values, such as diplomacy, reciprocity, respect, cohabitation. I mean this even towards viruses, and now specifically toward the COVID-19 virus, which we pulled out of its ecology and into our economy by invading its habitat and kidnapping and exploiting its hosts, namely the animals that are bought and sold through illicit trade, through trade that we recognize to be dangerous and problematic.

I would like to say that nature always has the last laugh, because it is so often true, but it looks like human beings might actually, for the first time, win that prize. But it will be a null victory, an ironic victory, a Pyrrhic victory, to use the classical term, one that will render our species either so ubiquitous that nature succumbs to our presence or so scarce that we dissolve and disappear, leaving only nature in our wake. In either case, it will mean the end of the ecology-economy binary, and the end of human beings, because the give and take between the two spheres that is fundamental to humans having and making a home on earth will have been irrevocably broken.

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