Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Great Pause Week 5 : Is it Over Yet?

"The pandemic, as lethal as it has been, is not yet nearly bad enough."

Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna Yum Balam

At first, I was operating at the margin of panic. I have four of the five health indicators raising my odds of a most unpleasant demise should I contract the virus. One month ago, a canceled flight left me hanging in Punta Gorda Town overnight, in gloves and mask, praying for a seat on the 10-seat Cesna the next day, all the while thinking this could be where the music stops and dreading the limitations imposed by that scenario. Thankfully, I made it back to my winter palapa with my fully-stocked library in Mexico the next evening, removed my mask, and could, after washing my hands again, let out a deep sigh of relief. This is a well-prepared doomstead and I have six months before my visa expires.

Since then there have been weeks of alternating comfort and worry, as foreigners on tourists visas started getting expelled or going into hiding, and a steady up-ramp of precautions augured our present state of lockdown here in rural Mexico. Now, finally, we seem to have a settling-in for the long haul and, all in all, my situation here is not bad. In fact, it’s almost ideal. I am on an island that has cordoned itself from outside contact to the impotent chagrin of state and national authorities. Food and fuel arrive at the dock unaccompanied. Apart from the boat crew, nary a soul comes or goes. The plan is not perfect, but it has bought me this time, and so far, we have no cases of the virus.

As time passes, I have watched the vacillating responses to the pandemic as it encircles the globe. I find the political football match humorous, in a dark way, as I see how caught up people still are, amazingly, in normalcy and confirmation biases, even to the point of ignoring clear and present danger to themselves, their loved ones, and to the Republic.
“Now I’ll show you the self-evaluations of people asked how susceptible they think they are to anchoring, causal base-rate errors, the endowment effect, availability, belief perseverance, confirmation, illusory correlation, queuing; all the biases you’ve learned about in this course.”
The Overstory

What came to me over these weeks of quarantine is that a knock like this is precisely what our global civilization needed. Behold: a gift from nature in the disguise of a ruthless killer. It is not that it will kill us all, it’s that it has made us push the pause button on what we had been doing.
In that pause lies hope.

I feel saddened for those who try to take advantage of the historic moment to further their own agenda, but as I search for what transformative lessons might be learned, I think, at first, one might be that we finally allow ourselves to feel the power of the exponential function. It’s the same one quietly driving us off the cliff of climate change. It has been herding us into our own extinction through our own seemingly insatiable lust to procreate and by obliviousness to our accelerating power to consume non-renewable resources, exterminate other species, and generate toxic waste.

That lesson was more or less the theme of the excellently made but sloppily researched film, now free on YouTube, Planet of the Humans, produced by Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore. Planet exposes the hubris of imagining that we could merely substitute renewable energy for fossil fuels and be home free. While it was wildly inaccurate about grid-based renewables and biomass energy, and did not ken my strategy for eCOOLvillages and integrated power agroforestry that flip carbon from bane to boon, the film nonetheless offered the choice to construct a Civilization 2.0, or else.

At some point last week I thought it would be the CoV-19 collapse of debt-based finance through cascading bankruptcies that would inexorably pave the way for the adoption of donut economics, blue crypto, a Green New Deal, and other disaster socialist alternatives that have been warming up in the wings waiting for such a moment.

But then I realized that the pandemic, as lethal as it has been, is not nearly bad enough for that … yet. It would need to grind on, go deeper, hurl bunker busters at the hardened silos of Wall Street. There is still a lot of life left in the dragon. More spears are required.


Until this week, I thought more pain to induce deeper restructuring seemed likely to be provided. The projections of what would be needed to end the lockdowns and return to normal gradually extended the time in which we might expect a vaccine from 18 months to four years, or possibly never. If that is true, my visa will need to be extended, but we can all get precious time to deliberate the shape of the reboot. Universal Basic Income seems a fait accompli. Donut economics and ecovillages are gaining adherents. We just need more time.

What does Civilization 2.0 look like? Richard Powers’ The Overstory (recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction) gives one kind of glimpse:
“Turns out that the temperate jungle’s million invisible entangled loops need every kind of death-brokering intermediary to keep the circuits coursing. Clean up such a system and the countless self-replenishing wells run dry. This gospel of new forestry is confirmed by the most wonderful findings:. Beards of lichen, high in the air, that grow only on the oldest trees and inject essential nitrogen back into the living system; Subterranean voles that feed on truffles and spread the spores of angel fungi across the forest floor; Fungi that infuse into the roots of trees in partnerships so tight it’s hard to say where one organism leaves off and the other begins; Hulking confers that sprout adventitious roots high in the canopy that dip back down to feed on the mats of soil accumulating in the Vs of their own branches.
“Patricia gives herself to Douglas Firs. Arrow-straight, untapering, soaring up a hundred feet before the first branch, they’re an ecosystem unto their own selves, hosting more than a thousand species of invertebrates. Framer of cities, king of industrial trees, that tree without which America would have been a very different proposition. Her favorite individuals stand scattered near the station. She can find them by head-lamp. The largest of them must be six centuries old. He’s so tall, so near the upper limits imposed by gravity that it takes a day and a half for him to lift water from his roots to the highest of his 65 million needles. And every branch smells of deliverance.
“The things she catches Doug Firs doing over the course of these years fill her with joy. When the lateral roots of two Douglas Firs run into each other underground, they fuse. Through those self-grafted knots, the two trees join their vascular systems together and become one. Networked together underground by countless miles of living fungal threads, her trees feed and heal each other, keep their young and sick alive, pool their resources and metabolites into community chests. It will take years for the picture to emerge. There will be findings, unbelievable truths confirmed by a spreading worldwide web of researchers in Canada, Europe, Asia, all happily swapping data through faster and better channels.
“Her trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree. It seems most of nature isn’t read in tooth and claw, after all. For one, those species at the base of the living pyramid have neither teeth nor talons. But if trees share their storehouses then every drop of red must float on a sea of green.”

I could have cut that extended quote to the last paragraph, or the last couple of sentences, but the whole thing about an ecology of habitation is about the breadth and scope of the whole. One needs to inhale deeply. Nothing should be left out or put aside. All of it belongs. All of us belong. Us and it are undifferentiated.

Fantastic Fungi, the Paul Stamets bio-pic now screening intermittently in the clear on Vimeo, supplies much the same vision: A world freed of competition; a world given over to intelligent cooperation; permacultural design.

My friend Richard Heinberg put it most succinctly on Earth Day:

“The coronavirus pandemic reminds us that we are vulnerable biological organisms, strands in Earth’s web of life. Due to our special human gifts — notably, our linguistic and tool-making abilities — we have come to think of ourselves as special and apart, more gods than critters. We have used our unique powers to kill off the macropredators that once threatened us — the lions, tigers, and bears. But a micro-predator, far too small to be seen even with a powerful optical microscope, has shown up unexpectedly to remind us that we are still links in the food chain. If something good is to come from the terrifying experience we are all sharing this fiftieth Earth Day, perhaps it will be the reminder that our survival depends not on defeating nature (something we can never really do, because we are nature), but instead on learning to live in a state of intelligent, dynamic balance within Earth’s nourishing yet fragile and perilous complexity.”

But then, just as it all seemed so planned to end this way, my hopes were put on hold by some leading-edge antiviral creativity emerging from within the medical community. It had to happen. There are a lot of very smart people out on the front line now, all looking for a cure. Marine biologist Brian von Herzen sent me this collection of their thinking:


Simultaneously, I read the excellent Opinion piece in The New York Times by emergency room physician Richard Levitan. Working with severe cases, he saw many patients with none of the usual early pneumonia signs like fluid buildup, trouble breathing, or chest pain. What he saw instead was oxygen failure due to the loss of mature red blood cells. People were dying from oxygen starvation, even while their lungs were not yet showing traditional symptoms of pneumonia.

I find it interesting that doctors are so stymied by the peer-review process or the bureaucratic snarl at underfunded CDC and WHO that they have to publish letters in newspapers or go on YouTube to be heard. Nonetheless, what these reports tell us is that CoV-19 is more like HIV than flu. We may find a therapy to prevent deaths before we find a vaccine. While a vaccine could take years to emerge, or never arrive at all, we could be able to re-oxygenate red blood cells, or transfuse, until patients’ white blood cells can develop their own specific antibodies against CoV-19. VonHerzen’s idea is to take the seats out of grounded commercial airliners, replace them with hospital beds and quarantine tents, and then pressurize their cabins to elevate oxygen so they can revive otherwise terminal coronavictims.
And that suddenly saddened me. Winning the fight against this pandemic shortens the Great Pause we really need.


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