Saturday, March 28, 2020

Has COVID-19 Already Changed Humanity?

Everhard van Lidth de Jeude stands looking over his pond after feeding the trout. 2014

There's a beaver on our property these days, gleefully chewing up my father's prized rhododendrons, his willow, and other plants, and using them to plug up the outlet from the pond. Nearly every day my father pulls the sticks and mud out of the end of the pond, removing branch after branch of the shrubs he's been nurturing for years and hauling them away to dump at the edge of the forest. My kids and their father just went out to wrap some special trees with wire, hoping to spare them the wrath of the beaver. They're improvising with whatever supplies they can scavenge from the yard and recent chicken-coop build. We hope it's only one beaver. We don't actually know. Beavers have the capacity to wipe out and completely transform a landscape, creating wetlands out of parched slopes and grassy meadows out of rainforests -- and this property is like a craft supply shop for beavers. So we persevere with the pond-unplugging and tree-protecting. It's like repeatedly washing hands in an effort to save us from coronavirus. Just a month ago, all of these precautions had never entered our minds. Now they're routine. We've changed.

Reading this interesting piece from Fahd Humayun this morning, I am thinking about how our family's life might change; how our culture might change, and especially how our interconnected social structure might change, following this pandemic. As a parent of two teens hurrying into adulthood, I think constantly about my children's future. Will their education programs thrive or falter in the sudden age of digital engagement during pandemic? Will the fact that I unschooled them help or hinder them in this new world? Will their formal education even matter in the future we can't predict? Will my love have been enough?

It was only a year ago that my son fully embraced the educational norm of our society and decided to motor through the system, earn his highschool diploma, and work towards a university degree in science. He's part-way there, having completed the highschool grad requirements, and now at college upgrading his science and calculus education in order to make himself part of that teeny weeny cream of the crop that makes it into his chosen field. My daughter is slogging through the highschool requirements mostly on her own time and in a 2-day-a-week alternative program while putting the larger part of her spirit and time into a musical theatre program. Social isolation and the threat of this pandemic has put most of these activities on the backburner, while some attempt haltingly to carry on via video chat. So what now?

As unschoolers, we might seem to have been eminently prepared for this, and in some ways we were. The four of us are getting along reasonably well, considering the stress of the teens' social isolation, and we're not worried about the future, academically, because we dispensed of that fear many years ago. But what about the future of humanity? How will kids of the future grow and learn, in a post-pandemic world? There are so many questions we can't answer, and that alone is frightening.

Post-corona, I think humanity may go in one of two general directions: either we tumble further into capitalism, relieved to regain access to quick fixes and cheap thrills, and falling in line as obedient citizens, having learned to follow instructions during the pandemic, and having let go of many of our personal freedoms, or we discover the fallacy of our current system, and build a new one -- one that works less like a monoculture and more like a wilderness. A monoculture is very susceptible to attack from a single predator, weather event, or disease. Without the balance of diversity, a monoculture becomes less resilient as it continuously sucks nutrient from the earth, unable to replenish what has been taken. In this weak state of being, one serious disease can wipe out a whole landscape, leaving the land barren and unable to recover. A diversified wilderness (or true permaculture wilderness farm, if you want to look at it that way) loses some inhabitants to predation and other adverse events, but works well as a whole, because the nature of diversity means that there is always something left to persevere, fill in the gaps, and heal the whole. Capitalism and human dominance of Earth's landscape has led us to live like a monoculture, and it's killing us.

So can we escape this fate? We're used to the way things are, and nobody really wants to take the hard road. My family has just finished consuming our store-bought fresh produce, and now we're carefully whittling away at our remaining frozen and canned goods, while simultaneously harvesting wild greens, setting up a flock of chickens, and getting this year's veggie garden going. We're trying to strengthen ourselves as a family in the absence of our friends and community; in the absence of fresh groceries and trips to town. And it's HARD! We feel scared and heartbroken to be without the arms of those we normally turn to for support. This is a change for us - a deeper isolation than the one caused by our choice to unschool in a community that largely followed the mainstream. But for the first time in a long time, we're not doing it alone! We and all our loved ones have been chucked out onto this hard road in our separate little bubbles and we're fumbling along together, sharing advice and support over social media.

The question of what education will look like when or if this pandemic is all over is huge for me. My brother is sorting out how he and his colleagues will support a previously active and outdoor-engaged middle school over the internet; I had to simply cancel all the courses I teach, and will likely offer some online; my son is persevering through a newly lab-less chemistry class led by a teacher who struggles with the technology, and my daughter is about to meet her theatre cohort on Zoom to create some semblance of the togetherness that used to happen with physical movement and contact. Nothing is what it used to be; we can't know how these experiments will work out, and I feel certain that entirely new forms of human connection and development are now nascent. But these things are evolving in a largely democratic, wilderness-like way: Millions of people trying things out and breaking them here and there and repairing them here and there with scavenged and improvised solutions, some casualties and some surprise successes -- just like the process of evolution. Education, like the rest of our societal norms, is evolving in front of our eyes.

And despite the isolation, we are not in this alone!

Charles Eisenstein puts into words what I and likely so many others are feeling:
Covid-19 is like a rehab intervention that breaks the addictive hold of normality. To interrupt a habit is to make it visible; it is to turn it from a compulsion to a choice. When the crisis subsides, we might have occasion to ask whether we want to return to normal, or whether there might be something we’ve seen during this break in the routines that we want to bring into the future. We might ask, after so many have lost their jobs, whether all of them are the jobs the world most needs, and whether our labor and creativity would be better applied elsewhere. We might ask, having done without it for a while, whether we really need so much air travel, Disneyworld vacations, or trade shows. What parts of the economy will we want to restore, and what parts might we choose to let go of? And on a darker note, what among the things that are being taken away right now – civil liberties, freedom of assembly, sovereignty over our bodies, in-person gatherings, hugs, handshakes, and public life – might we need to exert intentional political and personal will to restore?
Last night my father came home from a surgery to remove some melanoma. It has been three weeks since I came close to him, because the risks of this pandemic are high for a man in his seventies who is embarking on a cancer journey, and also for me, who has an auto-immune condition that tends to inflame my lungs. We protected each other by keeping apart. But the last time one of my parents went for surgery, he died unexpectedly. I lost my other father in a wilderness of confusion, just as we thought he was almost ready to come home. My fear of losing my second father was so great that I was sick all day with worry, and when my mother finally brought him home on the last ferry, I waited at their gate to let them in. My father showed a rare vulnerability as he let me walk him and his hospital-provided vacuum-pack machine to their house, and when he got inside, he hugged me. My pandemic-induced fear of closeness vanished, and my hope returned.

In the piece I linked to at the beginning, Fahd Humayun states that "the pandemic will likely demonstrate that a world without safety nets, cooperation and deep cross-border engagement is no longer tenable." If we want to thrive as a species, we're going to have to become a wilderness instead of a monoculture. We're going to have to take all the best changes this pandemic has brought us and keep them alive in human culture: finding ways to utilize the neglected foods in the back of our freezers; finding ways to help the loved ones we can't come close to, noticing and supporting those who are at risk and may have been invisible to us, before; supporting those who risk their own lives to save ours, and seeing the value in every single one of our diverse community members. We have all learned so much already in the past month. Let's keep expanding our minds and hearts and learn to run nimbly on our toes in the landscape of our wilderness, sharing skills and ingenuity and love. Certainly it is our love that will make this wilderness possible.


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