Lectures

Silent Spring in Europe calls for a New Social Ecology

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Deserted streets in Rome, empty dance-halls in Berlin, died-out tourist attractions in Barcelona, and a lonely Eiffel-Tower in Paris: Europe is experiencing its first locked-down spring. It marks an experiential as well as a paradoxical break in our everyday lives. On the one hand, Covid-19 has emerged as a brutal, tragic and unquestionable fact within world society. On the other hand, as the epicentre of the pandemic shifts from Asia to Europe and the United States, it becomes difficult to maintain the denial of a global ecological system. It produces yet unfamiliar venues to experiment with a pragmatist ecology, as well as socially and culturally heterogeneous collaborations.

From Carson 1962 to Covid-19

Rachel Carson conveyed the brutal factuality of vulnerable human bodies when she published her classic Silent Spring in 1962. The book became quickly a success against an apparently uncontested modern way of life. In the heat of the Cold War, along with a general atmosphere of fierce belief in the good deeds of science and technology, Carson, a marine biologist, found that DDT and other lethal chemical products were having deleterious effects on nature as well as on humans. “The rapidity of change”, she warned, “and the speed with which new situations are created, follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature.” 

The same year, Claude Lévi-Strauss published Savage Mind where he analyzed the various strategies through which human societies have always coped with new entities coming from nature by tinkering with the classifications they used to give meaning to events. The French social anthropologist showed that classifications using “totemic” representations of animals and plants are used not only to categorize society but also to mitigate diseases. “So little is the species ‘grid’ confined to sociological categories, he wrote, that (notably in America) it serves to order a domain as restricted as that of diseases and remedies”. 1962 was also the year when Frank Macfarlane Burnet published Natural History of Infectious Diseases, in which this Australian virologist and immunologist warned that new diseases would emerge from the disruptions of natural ecosystems by human interventions. He defined ecology as “the interaction of organisms with their environment and especially with other organisms of their own or different species in that environment.”

It is no coincidence that 1962 was also the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when humanity was on the verge of self-destruction. Half-a-century later, the figure of the apocalypse has changed from nuclear disaster to pandemic, but the tools to give meaning to this event are still the same. 

Reordering Nature-Culture-Relations in Global Risk Societies

As anthropologists, our job is to observe relations between humans and other natural species on a global scale. Risks which were virtual have now been made actual through a social crisis through which new entities appear amidst general uncertainty. Zoonoses, that is, diseases transmitted from animals to humans such as Covid-19 coming from bats and pangolins, have emerged as one of the main challenges for human societies today. 

However, the overwhelming presence of this new coronavirus enacts a new experience for European and global “risk societies”, as Ulrich Beck called them right before Chernobyl. As René Dubos, a French-American bacteriologist working at Rockefeller University declared in the 1960s, “nature strikes back” by sending new pathogens in reply to its domination by the human species through vaccines or antibiotics. In her chapter “Nature fights back”, Carson noticed, “To have risked so much in our efforts to mold nature to our satisfaction and yet to have failed in achieving our goal would indeed be the final irony. Yet this, it seems, is our situation.” 

Returning to Normality after a State of Exception?

For many reasons, the Covid crisis demands intellectual creativity and a speculative mode of attention. It profiles our existence as humans in a most radical way. As much as it aggravates established social and cultural precarity, it creates a moving sense of community across socio-economic status groups. Moreover, it produces ecological relaxation on a planetary scale. 

After the global summits on climate change and biodiversity loss, after what Carson criticized as “a lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life”, it seems that nature can finally breathe. The shutdown of airplane traffic, industrial plants, motorcycling, the lockdown of the modern economic machine has produced, at least for the time being, a new atmosphere. While European capitals experience an unprecedented human silence, we can listen to the abundance of various birds that re-enter urban habitats. While scientists, politicians, and laymen find themselves in the midst of the unknown qualities, features and movements of the coronavirus, Beijing has been depolluted and discovers a blue sky. 

Rue de Lappe, Paris. April 3, 2020. Photo: A.Bregain

Instead of targeting their goals throughout the infrastructures of public transport and multinational companies, workers and managers become flaneurs. The virus makes possible what a century of women’s movements could achieve only partially: fathers spend a lot of their involuntary free time with their children. And despite the fear that uncontrolled infection will lead to the collapse, first of the hospitals, second of entire economies and states, and third of two centuries of civil liberties guaranteed by modern states, despite all the bad movies on pandemic scenarios, it seems that people in Europe generally remain calm and reasonable. Facing possible death by an invisible enemy, the long co-evolution between humans and microbes is suspended by a state of exception. 

If we want to reach a new normality, we have to think the passage from a state of crisis to a state of experience. Classic pragmatists, such as John Dewey called such practices, where speculation oversees the quest for security, “experimentalism”. 

Living with, not against the Disease

If this infectious disease has the capacity to re-order social structures in general, it has also the capacity to transform relations between nature and society. But the “Quest for Certainty”, as Dewey named a series of lectures he gave almost a century ago, remains a most urgent concern for citizens. 

In Germany for instance, public discussion on when to end the confinement started only ten days after political authorities implemented it. These debates carry an unpleasant populist touch. Some want politicians as well as scientists to become fortunetellers – a role they were happy to play during “normal” times but now recognize as impossible. In France, two expert committees have been created ad hoc to advise the government, which doesn’t make any decisions without consulting “Science”. 

In the face of the global spread of the pandemic, and the astonishing frankness of responsible agents admitting their non-knowledge regarding vital issues, it is quite comforting to return to the old pragmatist critique that promoting artificial certainties creates at most a temporary assurance. After the emergence of the coronavirus which caused SARS in 2003, for many specialists in Asia, especially in China, Hong Kong and South Korea, it was not a question of whethera new coronavirus would re-emerge, but of whether societies would be prepared. We can and must learn from Asian societies, which managed global epidemics on their territories through a shift from prevention to preparedness. 

Murals, “Hoodie Birds” by Don John, 2014, Mehringplatz 29, Berlin-Kreuzberg, Germany. Photo: OTFW

Experts in pandemic preparedness suggest that we get acquainted with the idea of serial crises instead of disruptive events. As citizens in a world risk society, we live in latent pathogenic milieus where epidemics occur in series. The earlier we accept this and avoid strategies of denial, the better. Such threats will not be suspended when we find a vaccine against Covid-19. It is more likely that another virus will emerge, raising similar threats. 

For pragmatist sociologists and anthropologists, such realism was far from agonistic or pessimistic. Instead, Dewey’s remedy for situations of social crisis was what he called an “experimental attitude”. His pragmatist ecology anticipated those of Carson, Lévi-Strauss, Burnet and Dubos who also described shared forms of experience within nature and humanity. They recognized the unknown as part of nature, as well as of the modern conditio humana. This doesn’t mean a passive, or even fatalistic acceptance of the pandemic. Instead, it means intelligent action. It means experiencing this silent spring within an ongoing social transformation at the global level along with what Rachel Carson called “the deliberate pace of nature”.


Tanja Bogusz is Visiting Professor for Sociology and Second Representative Deputy Speaker, Graduate Centre for Environmental Research and Teaching (GradZ) at Kassel University, Germany. She is author of the book Experimentalismus und Soziologie – von der Krisen- zur Erfahrungswissenschaft, an English translation of which is in preparation. For more info: https://tanjabogusz.com/

Frédéric Keck is Senior Researcher at the National Scientifique Research Center in France, Director of the Laboratory for Social Anthropology founded by Claude Lévi-Strauss in 1960. He has recently published Avian Reservoirs. Virus Hunters and Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts (Duke University Press, 2020). For more info : http://las.ehess.fr/index.php?1815


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