The Coronavirus Pandemic and Our Civilizational Crisis

Although the coronavirus pandemic is not unique in its global reach, it, nevertheless, reminds us of the deficiencies inherent in the systems within which we operate. Indeed, all such infectious diseases exist in specific contexts that determine how lethal they will be and what will be the extent of our capacities for dealing with the death and disruption accompanying them.

As far back as 1976, the historian William McNeil warned about mutated flu viruses that could cause a pandemic in his classic study, Plagues and People. Since then, with the increasing destruction of animal habitats, the rise and expansion of factory farming, globalized supply chains, and climate change, we face the potential propagation of even more lethal trans-species viruses.

Certainly, capitalism has exacerbated our civilizational crisis. In a recent interview, Mike Davis underscored the role of contemporary capitalism in our present predicament. According to Davis: “The civilizational crisis of our age…is defined by capitalism’s inability to generate incomes for the majority of humanity, to provide jobs and meaningful social roles, end fossil fuel emissions, and translate revolutionary biological advances into public health. These are convergent crises, inseparable from one another, and need to be seen in their complex ensemble, not as separate issues. But to put it in more classical language, the super-capitalism of today has become an absolute fetter on the development of the productive forces necessary for our species survival.”

While Davis and other critics of capitalism correctly identify the long-term structural crisis of this system, there are even deeper roots to this civilization crisis that we now confront. Among those predicaments are the power trips and environmental destructiveness that reach back thousands of years. An evolutionary selection for power has contaminated society and social relationships, especially along gender and racial lines of demarcation. The 5,000-year history of the intersection between civilization and empire, with its attendant wars over resources, is another aspect that remains among those political plagues of our era.

A habituated turn to war for a variety of structural factors provides further evidence of the long history of our civilization crisis.

What is just as threatening to the world we inhabit is the overexploitation and abuse of our environment. Jared Diamond brilliantly reveals how habituated attitudes and values precluded the necessary recognition of environmental degradation in his book, Collapse. Such civilizational collapses occurred across a wide swath of space and time throughout recorded history. Diamond designates a dozen environmental challenges that continue to pose grave dangers to the planet and its inhabitants. Among these are the destruction of natural habitats (rainforests, wetlands, etc.); species extinction; soil erosion; depletion of fossil fuels and underground water aquifers; toxic pollution; and climate change, especially attributable to the use of fossil fuels.

If the coronavirus pandemic seems remote from the ravages of environmental degradation, it is only because we haven’t connected all of the dots. Perhaps, the consumerist blind spot inhibits our ability to understand all of these connections between a rampant consumerism and ongoing environmental devastation. The great Uruguayan novelist and social critic, Eduardo Galeano, cast his radical gaze on how “consumer society is a booby trap” in his book, Upside Down: A Primer for a Looking Glass World. Galeano’s insights underscore the structural inequities inherent in that “booby trap:” “Those at the controls feign ignorance, but anybody with eyes in his head can see that the great majority must consume not much, very little, or nothing at all in order to save the bit of nature we have left.”

In articulating her own vision of what constitutes our civilization crisis and how we might transcend it, the Indian author and activist, Vandana Shiva notes “unless worldviews and lifestyles are restructured…the very survival of humanity will be threatened.” Her vision of “Earth Democracy” with its emphasis on balancing authentic needs with a local ecology and democratic economy provides an essential guidepost to what we can all do to stop the ravaging of the environment and to salvage the planet. As she contends, “In the face of a world of greed, inequality, and overconsumption, Earth Democracy globalizes compassion, justice, and sustainability.”

Of course, the presence and persistence of global pandemics, such as the coronavirus, require immediate international efforts to treat and prevent their further spread. However, a major impediment to providing free and equal access to short-term and long-term remedies will be the reign of capitalist enterprises like Big Pharma. In solving the problems of pandemics, capitalism will only reinforce those structures that need to be eliminated. Therefore, we must kill capitalism before it kills us and other inhabitants of the planet.

On the other hand, we may also have to challenge the very foundations of the dominant civilizational modes of trade and travel that have persisted for thousands of years, especially those that damage the environment and help circulate pandemics. Container ships and cruise lines are obvious culprits that could be eliminated. Ultimately, do we have the imagination and political will to bring about the kind of “Earth Democracy” which might help mitigate the circulation of pandemics? If not, we will face a “new normal” of even more deadly infectious diseases and even deadlier forms of disaster capitalism.


Fran Shor is a Michigan-based retired teacher, author, and political activist.