The story of COVID-19 is the story of human growth and development, for better or worse.
At the time of this writing, millions of people have contracted the disease and hundreds of thousands of people have died. This event was not unpredictable; many have warned that, given the increasingly globalized environment in which we live, a global pandemic was all but inevitable.
It’s easy to blame the whole thing on extremely bad luck; perhaps it’s simply the indifferent universe throwing us a flaming curve ball that casts light on the absurdity of the human condition. This response is too easy, and it absolves human beings of their responsibility too quickly. This event has everything to do with the way that human beings view their role in the natural world, and the way in which we developed technology that served to fortify our position. Practices such as globalization, deforestation, encroachment into natural spaces, and poaching of exotic animals set the backdrop against which the coronavirus tragedy unfolded. Coronavirus is a zoonotic disease; it can jump from one animal to another. There is an ecology of disease, so it is unsurprising that when we mess around with ecological systems, diseases spread.
This is just one hallmark of a new epoch, one in which the human relation to the natural world has fundamentally changed. Long before anyone anticipated coronavirus, philosopher Hans Jonas commented on this change. He argued that our newfound technological prowess reveals that “the nature of human action has de facto changed, and that an object of an entirely new order—no less than the whole biosphere of the planet—has been added to what we must be responsible for because of our power over it.”
Hope isn’t a stand-in for action; the world’s major problems won’t be solved by hope alone.
If Jonas is right, how ought we to respond to this terrible power? Is there a way for us to use technology as a creative, constructive force, rather than a destructive one? In his Sand County Almanac, conservationist and environmental philosopher Aldo Leopold described a set of contrasting paradigms: “the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen. Science the sharpener of his sword versus science the searchlight on his universe. Land the slave and servant versus land the collective organism.”
Leopold argued that historically, human beings have viewed the natural world as something to harness, to conquer, to subordinate, and we do so with technology. This is a grim truth. But there is something hopeful about Leopold’s 1949 message. There is another way of viewing our role in the natural world, one that situates us as members of a community of biotic organisms. In communities, we properly play the roles of caregivers and friends.
It might be tempting to be dubious about both the rationality and the value of hope. Philosophers throughout time have certainly disagreed with one another about whether hope is a virtue. Some maintain that hope is tantamount to foolishness insofar as it commits the hopeful to trust in outcomes that they have no reason to believe will come to pass. Some of the ancient stoics believed that hope always walks hand in hand with fear and prevents us from finding tranquility in the present. Others maintain that hope is an essential component of courage; it provides the requisite motivation for brave actions. Without hope for a favorable outcome, human beings would never have experimented with flight, astronauts would never have boarded rocket ships, protesters would never have taken to the streets to demand equal rights or better living conditions, and scientists would never have turned to microscopes to better understand the nature of disease. Hope isn’t a stand-in for action; the world’s major problems won’t be solved by hope alone. Climate change won’t come screeching to a halt because we’re hopeful. Neither will the spread of infectious diseases. But hope may be rational and meaningful when it directs the course of our action toward valuable outcomes, even if we don’t always hit the mark.
The pandemic provides a powerful opportunity to redirect our hope. To do this, we must first be reflective about our values. Going forward, what do we think it means to live a flourishing human life? The current paradigm is individualistic and consumer oriented; often a person’s level of success is measured by their degree of material affluence. The pandemic has provided occasion for many of us to appreciate the value of a walk with a loved one at sunset, a long phone call with a good friend, or the comfort of a home cooked family meal. How might we redirect both our hope and our technology in sustainable, community building ways?
The challenges posed by COVID-19 encourage us to use technology to reimagine workspaces. We have discovered that a wider range of activities can be done virtually than we previously thought. This is not an unmitigated good thing, but there is lots of potential here. There are tremendous environmental benefits to having fewer commuters on the road. The ability to conduct meetings and appointments online offer greater flexibility and can be more efficient. When done right, working from home could reduce childcare challenges and could help employees find healthy work life balance.
The pandemic has provided occasion for many of us to appreciate the value of a walk with a loved one at sunset, a long phone call with a good friend, or the comfort of a home cooked family meal. How might we redirect both our hope and our technology in sustainable, community building ways?
These kinds of workspaces provide real benefits for people seeking services as well. Moderately sick people can be examined virtually, eliminating the hassle of trips to the doctor’s office. People can participate in court proceedings outside of the sometimes-intimidating atmosphere of a courtroom. Students can arrange-one on-one meetings with teachers to have questions answered quickly at times that work for both parties. There are problems we need to overcome with all of this, but we are now aware of an exciting range of options.
Ironically, technology can also help us to live simpler, less materialistic lives. During the lockdown, many people watched Netflix or downloaded video games to play. To avoid overburdening at-risk employees who may be boxingup goods in unsafe conditions, many ordered electronic books to their iPads and e-readers. The result is fewer packing materials, less plastic, and less stuff in our homes that would likely one day end up in landfills.
My friends and I had “QuaranTea” parties during the lockdown over Zoom. Necessity taught us ways of maintaining intimacy with our loved ones, even when we couldn’t be together physically. These examples highlight the ways in which we can harness the power of technology not toward the endless pursuit of expansion or economic growth, but in the service of values that make human life meaningful and worth living. That’s something worth being hopeful about.
By Rachel Robison-Greene
Rachel Robison-Greene is a postdoc teaching in USU’s philosophy program.