It is a beautiful day in Los Angeles. Walking my dog this morning I was struck by the incredible clarity of the air, the deep blueness of the smogless sky, the smell of the trees and the singing of the birds. It was 9AM and there was no traffic, just the occasional jogger coming down the sidewalk, respectfully veering into the street to give me and my little buddy, Oliver Reed, the required six feet of social distancing. The mountains, so often occluded by haze, are clear in the distance, and I can see white snow dusting the peaks.
Gone are the pollution and the rumble of cars, the airborne streams of cigarette and weed smoke, the booming sound systems passing by and giving today’s pop hits a disconcerting Doppler effect. The manic state of the world is not reflected in the streets.
This isn’t a new observation. Almost immediately after over a billion of Earth’s inhabitants went into shelter in place mode people began noting that the air was clearing, that noise pollution was diminishing. Seismologists have noted that the background rumble of daily life picked up on their seismometers has died down, and most of what they hear is the noise of the planet itself.
With this observation has come a little meme, based on a bit from The Matrix. Agent Smith, disgusted by his time in the Matrix, has captured Morpheus and gives him a villain speech about how fundamentally worthless humanity is.
I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.
“We are a virus,” people post on social media over images of newly clear waterways, on (often fake) videos of indigenous species reclaiming their ground. It’s a good ironic meme, as we’re fighting a virus ourselves right now. It feels right, especially to anyone who has been alive for the past few decades and who has seen humans as they strip away the natural beauty of this planet for short term gains, and has done so in the face of alarming warnings about global climate catastrophe. As a species we’re the subject of a Hoarders episode, where you wonder how the hell anyone could treat their living space this way.
But we’re not a virus. To think we’re a virus is to see us as an invasive outside species, but we are – fully and completely – of this Earth. We come from it and we return to it; we are part of the natural cycle of this planet. We belong here.
I know this seems like a silly point of contention to make in the face of a nihilistic meme, but I also feel like it’s one of the great sources of modern unhappiness. We, as a species, have separated ourselves from the system of which we are a part, and we have removed ourselves from the world. This isn’t a screed against urbanization – I love streets and restaurants and cable internet – but rather a recognition that somewhere after the Industrial Revolution we decided that we were no longer part of the natural world.
That in turn has left us uncomfortable in our own bodies, and it has led us to separate ourselves from each other. Our current mandated isolation is actually just the logical endpoint of a hundred years of social evolution; we move away from tight knit communities into larger, more anonymous cities. We live in buildings where we don’t know the names of our neighbors, walk on streets where we don’t acknowledge others as we pass them.
We don’t identify with our bodies or the world, only with our thoughts and our minds. And we have taken those thoughts and minds and brought them online, and at first we created small communities that resembled the tight knit societies from which humanity, the ultimate social animal, emerged, but that eventually came to resemble the anonymous, ugly sprawl of our cities.
As we trend towards disconnection and isolation we feel totally apart from the world. The idea that we’re a virus, that we’re not supposed to be here, becomes all too plausible. After all, we live in bodies we are taught to hate, in cities where we feel utterly alone in crowds, and we socialize on networks too big for our minds to truly grasp. This is a recipe for feeling like a virus.
The way the world has – surprisingly quickly – sprung back from our abuse only reinforces this. But it’s a false reading of the facts. We didn’t go anywhere. We’re still here. Some of us have died, but not on the kinds of numbers you think of in an apocalyptic scenario. No, we’re just staying home more.
We’re not a virus. We’re a part of the system, but we’re a part of the system that was not behaving in line with the system. The past few weeks we have behaved a little more in line with the system – we live locally these days, we don’t pump pollutants in the air to go places we don’t actually need to be physically in, we have been a little more lowkey. A little! Not even a lot! Just a little bit.
The lesson of LA’s clear air isn’t that we need to go away, that humanity’s purging at the spiky red talons of coronavirus is the solution to Earth’s climate problems. The lesson isn’t that we’re a virus invading this world. The lesson is that we can take measures to put ourselves back in line with the system, to be a healthy and productive part of it, to not overwhelm and destroy it. And that we can actually take these steps. They’re doable.
By seeing ourselves as a virus we see no future for this planet with us on it. By recognizing our place in the cycle of Earth life we can understand our spot and live within it, positively and happily. We belong here. It’s time we started acting like it.
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