Faint Praise for the Pandemic

Alas, we
Who wanted to prepare the ground for kindness
Could not ourselves be kind

– Bertolt Brecht, “To Future Generations”

I have not been touched, not really. No one I know has died or even sickened. At most I’ve experienced petty annoyances. I am 81 years old, white, male, an attorney for poor and unhoused people. I own my home. From my comfortable perch on top of a pyramid of suffering, I wrote this piece, originally entitled In Praise of a Pandemic, suggesting that, on balance, this coronavirus may accomplish more good than harm. There are too many variables to know for sure, and it is certainly true that if good is accomplished at the price of so much misery, it’s hardly grounds for praise – regret perhaps that no good comes without a terrible price, but not praise. I realized, once I finished the writing, that I could not stand at the entrance to an emergency room, as exhausted nurses, paramedics and doctors tend to terribly sick people who may die without the benefit of human touch, and feel comfortable, should someone ask, saying I had just written an article with the title, In Praise of a Pandemic. And yet that’s what I’d done. What was I thinking? That I was being daring? That the shock value of the title would draw readers? I’m sure that was a part of it. Now calling the praise “faint,” hardly helps matters. But that’s where I’ve landed. Distance from suffering is a privilege. Distance may provide perspective, but at what cost?  I wrote what I wrote, believing there is truth in it, and the speculation morally defensible. It is what it is, a document of the times.

* * *

What’s bad for humanity is good for the planet.

There could not be a more uncomfortable truth. But who can deny.

Think of humanity as an invasive species, or rather, given the times a plague – a sexually transmitted disease, devastating the planet. We, each of us, are the pathogen. The earth is the host, the body in which we multiply. Humanity kills its host by releasing toxins into its body, poisoning the waters that are its bloodstream, destroying the forest that are its lungs, and causing a raging fever that raises the temperature of the body beyond what it can be bear.

Some strains of the human plague are more virulent than others. The most dangerous to the planet can be found in the board rooms of giant corporations, in penthouses, and luxury boxes at sports events. The least virulent, the strain the planet might be able to tolerate, inhabit the ghettos, favelas, the homeless encampments, and shantytowns of the world.

Plagues end when a sufficient number of hosts die, and there is herd immunity, or a vaccine is developed that protects the host from infection. Here there is only one host – the earth. And so far there is no vaccine that protects the planet from infection by humanity.

What will stop this human plague from destroying a habitable earth? Not fifty Earth Days, not 26 UN climate conferences, not one Paris Climate Accord, not Greta Thunberg sitting in front of the Swedish parliament, not Extinction Rebellion protesters supergluing themselves to bridges in downtown London, not demonstrations by 350.org, (which as of May 1, might consider changing his name to 418.org ). None of it has slowed the spewing of carbon into the atmosphere, none of it has lowered the temperature by a fraction of the degree.

But, lo, comes the pandemic, a virus, invisible to the naked eye, a micro-mini barely alive bundle of DNA and look what it has accomplished: The greatest drop in global greenhouse gas emissions ever recorded. There is silence in the oil fields. The pumps have stopped their pumping. All across the United States companies are laying off workers and shutting down wells. “The coronavirus has . . . kneecapped the economy, destroying demand for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel as cars sit parked in driveways and planes are consigned to remote fields and runways.” So reports the New York Times here and here.

And nature breathes a sigh of relief. Bears, bobcats, and coyotes return to Yosemite,; whales frolic in the Mediterranean; endangered leatherback sea turtles are arriving at beaches in droves, scooping out a comfortable hollow in the sand and laying egg. Meanwhile, the sky is blue, the air positively Alpine, over Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, and Bangalore, Ahmedabad, New Delhi Washington, DC, New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and Los Angeles; you can see the stars; you can take deep breaths (assuming you’re not heading to the ER drowning in your own mucus).

The pandemic kills, but also saves lives. Marshall Burke is an associate professor in Stanford’s Department of Earth System Science. He analyzed data showing the reduction in air pollution due to the pandemic in four major Chinese cities during January and February, 2020. The conclusion of his analysis is that it likely resulted in saving the lives of between 1,400 and 4,000 young children and between 51,700 and 73,000 elderly adults. He writes, “Given the huge amount of evidence that breathing dirty air contributes heavily to premature mortality, a natural — if admittedly strange — question is whether the lives saved from this reduction in pollution caused by economic disruption from COVID-19 exceeds the death toll from the virus itself.  Even under very conservative assumptions, I think the answer is a clear ‘yes’”

Burke published his analysis in a blog post dated March 8, 2020, entitled, “COVID-19 reduces economic activity, which reduces pollution, which saves lives.” Eight days later, he added a paragraph towards the beginning of the blog, noting he was doing so to emphasize the lessons from my findings, in case readers don’t make it further:

“None of my calculations support any idea that pandemics are good for health. The effects I calculate just represent health benefits from the air pollution changes wrought by the economic disruption, and do not account for the many other short- or long-term negative consequences of this disruption on health or other outcomes; these harms likely vastly exceed any health benefits from reduced air pollution.”

And indeed, towards the end of his blog post, he appends a list of what he calls “key assumptions,” the first of which is the data he describes “is only the partial effect of air pollution; it is by no means the overall effect of COVID-19 on mortality.  Indeed, the broader disruption caused by COVID-19 could cause many additional deaths that are not directly attributable to being infected with the virus — e.g. due to declines in households’ economic wellbeing, or to the difficulty in accessing health services for non-COVID illnesses.  Again, I am absolutely not saying that pandemics are good for health.”

But he’s not saying they aren’t. And while he lists possible collateral damage to health caused by the impact of the pandemic on the economy, he does not list possible benefits such as a reduction in traffic fatalities resulting from people sheltering in place and the shuttering of businesses. (In a response to Burke’s blog post, Robert Marsh notes that in 2018 the WHO estimates that 256,000 people died in China in road traffic accidents. He thinks it’s likely that the reduction in traffic fatalities resulting from the pandemic could save 100,000 lives.) And what about the impact on global warming? If we are in the midst of a climate crisis, and humanity’s got a heavy foot on the pedal accelerating towards a cliff of no return, shouldn’t we applaud the little virus that puts the brakes on?

But at what cost? Marshall Burke is clearly troubled by the implications of his analysis, and is quick to backpedal when he is interviewed on Freakonomics radio:

DUBNER: . . .But does it feel somewhat awkward or do you feel guilty or conflicted in any way in kind of examining the specifics of that silver lining [of the pandemic] while the world is in such shock and uproar?

BURKE: It feels terribly awkward. . . Epidemics are terrible. They result in an immense amount of human suffering. . . .And that is where our focus needs to be. And none of my silly calculations should take away from that.

But his calculations are not silly. They are just data. If he is right, if lives are being saved, if climate change is slowed, even momentarily, something all our demonstrations and conferences, op-eds and manifestoes have failed to do, a strict utilitarian would have no choice but to conclude that the pandemic as good, because life is good, and one cannot be happy if one is not alive.

And so it is necessary to retreat from the bald statement at the beginning that what is bad for humanity is good for the planet. The opposite is equally true: What is good for the planet – for the land, which grows our food, the air we breathe, the waters that slack our thirst – is good for humanity.

We have an apparent contradiction:

 What’s bad for humanity is good for the planet

(The pandemic is killing a lot of human beings; the planet breathes a sigh of relief)

What’s good for the planet is good for humanity

(We benefit from a sustainable environment, clean air, water, bearable temperatures)

And we have a possible resolution of the contradiction:

What’s bad for a portion of humanity, perhaps even a large portion, is good for that portion, which survives, and for the planet.

Who will be among the survivors, and who will be the most likely to die struggling for breath or dying of hunger and thirst. Let’s not pretend it’s a matter of pure chance. The poorer you are, the darker you are, the less likely it is you’ll make it through alive. (And quickly we must say, because plague metaphors are dangerous, if the poor die before the rich, and black and brown people are stricken in disproportionate numbers, it’s because the means necessary for their survival have been stolen from them and churned into profit by the rich. As the poor starve and die in hospital corridors, the 1% fortify their enclaves. Safe and secure, they can plan their escape to Mars should the earth become truly uninhabitable.

A pathogen will not save us or the planet. For one thing, it will be over in a moment. As soon as the doors of the economy swing open, we will rush to resume our feeding frenzy, gobbling up nature’s entrails, churning them into profits, and farting carbon farts into the atmosphere every step along the way.

For another, the pandemic has a major flaw as an environmental panacea. True it kills humans, while leaving nature in all its budding, bursting and billowing glory unsullied and unmolested. But it also leaves unmolested the System, the Procrustean bed of economics and politics, on which we are stretched till our bones break so the rich can suck the marrow. And because it falls as a plague on a world structured by the System, it falls most heavily on those with a pre-existing condition – poverty and powerlessness. Those whose carbon footprint is the lightest; who consume of the earth’s bounty only the minimum needed to survive, and sometimes not even that, will suffer the most, as happens in all “natural” disasters.

So any praise of the pandemic must be qualified. It is not the answer. It does, however, prompt a question – what would an answer look like? If the pandemic won’t save us, what will? Politics?  What politics? No political force on earth, could accomplish what this virus has achieved: an interruption in the plunge towards annihilation. That interruption comes with an unacceptable political price tag: the destruction of the economy, and the deaths of millions. What politician would dare to praise that?

And no environmentalist would risk support for the movement to preserve a livable planet by engaging in a cost-benefit analysis of the pandemic, especially if the calculus leads to the conclusion that the benefits outweigh the costs. Not Bill McKIbben, who acknowledges that “There are people on Earth who are getting literally their first lungfuls of clean air this month in their lives,” and that “Even as we all live through the horror of this pandemic, there are people who are glimpsing the way that the world could be.” but having acknowledged the benefits of the pandemic quickly pivots, telling Juan Gonzales in and Earth Day interview on Democracy Now of his “sadness . . . from an organizer point of view” that the pandemic disrupted 350.org’s plans for civil disobedience demonstrations in front of Chase Bank branches to protest their funding of the fossil fuel industry.

Not Greta Thunberg and Johan Rockström, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, filmed in digital conversation  also on Earth Day. While noting that the pandemic has had the effect of shutting down the oil industry and reducing the release of greenhouse gases, they stressed that “the virus should not be seen as an environmental panacea, because it has brought immense human suffering . . .  and distracted from campaigns, research and international meetings that aimed to find a smoother transition to a clean economy.”.

The calculus of utility is inexact and rife with variables. And it can be a cruel calculus. It may not be possible to engage in the cost/benefit analysis of saving human lives, without violating foundational ethical principles such as, “the ends do not justify the means,” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Maybe these are times when kindness, as Brecht suggests, is a luxury.

For those who recoil against giving even qualified praise of the pandemic there is a question crying out for an answer: Would any intervention, less painful than a pandemic bring about the course correction we need to prevent irreversible disastrous changes to the climate. And to make those changes not in the sweet by and by, but now. Before it’s too late. Environmentalists tell us we are an endangered species. We are destroying our habitat. Unspeakable catastrophe looms. , And at the same time that they issue dire warnings I hear those with the loudest voices saying the cure will be painless with few side effects. We can continue on our merry way consuming and excreting the earth and its products; all that is needed is for us to change the energy that fuels all that digestion from fossil fuels to renewables. We can have “unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States” with a Green New Deal.

What if that’s a fluffy, candy coated pipe dream? What if painful decisions need to be made? What if the changes we urgently need requires sacrifice; a reduction in the standard of living of those comfortably ensconced on the top of the heap; and even greater suffering for those in the bottom? What if they require systemic change – the end of rampant unrestricted capitalistic accumulation of profits by the rich and the mighty? What if it requires toppling the rich and the mighty from power? And what if those rich and mighty do not go quietly into that good night?  What if vast numbers of people don’t want to give up their toys? Can they be persuaded? Or will it take force? How much force? How many people will have to suffer and die to save – the dolphins, the bears, the whales, the sea turtles, and us?

Back in the 60s we on the insurrectionary streetfighting left were fond of quoting Mao’s, “a revolution is not a dinner party,” the full quote being:

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”

Can we avert environmental catastrophe that will kill billions with dinner parties, essays and embroidery? Is there a gentle, temperate, courteous, restrained and magnanimous way to wrench the tiller from the hands of the pilots that are steering us towards catastrophe? Is there a nice way to avoid frying the planet to a crisp? Or will the change we need require “an act of violence,” an insurrection, a global revolution.

Erst commt das Fressen, dann die Moral,” sing Pirate Jenny and Mac the Knife in Berotld Brecht’s Drei Groschen Opera, The Threepenny Opera, which can be loosely translated as “First comes feeding your face, then lectures on morality. That principle applied here might result in this admonishment:

First tell me for real, how you’re going to save the biological basis of human life on this plane; then talk to me about the morality of providing even qualified praise to a pandemic.

* * *

We began with a metaphor equating humanity to a plague upon the planet.

Equating human beings to plagues, viruses and cancers is a dangerous game. Throughout history it has justified the extermination of whole peoples, who, it is claimed, “infect” the body politic. It’s been the regular accompaniment of genocide.

There is something truly awful about comparing human beings to a disease. Maybe the awfulness is somewhat diminished  by the fact that we are not saying it is one part of humanity infecting another part – Jews infecting an Aryan nation, for example – but all of humanity infecting the planet. That assertion does not destroy human solidarity. Maybe it’s still awful.

We are inescapably trapped together in our humanity. The only world we can know or imagine is the world as it is for us. Humanity is not a virus. Viruses do not make art, they do not make music; they do not fall into each other’s arms and make love. And they do not resist. All praise to the resistance. May it never stop. Forget about hope. It’s probably hopeless. With or without hope, the resistance must continue. No plague germ ever rose up to say to its fellow plague germs, “Enough. Back off. Let’s nurture our host not kill it.

Because of art, because of love, because of the resistance, it is wrong to compare humanity to a plague.

And yet, and yet, we are a plague upon the planet.

Can we also be the cure?

It remains to be seen.

That is, I fear, the terrible, and terribly inconvenient truth.

Osha Neumann is an attorney for poor and unhoused people in Berkeley California. He is the author of Up Against the Wall Motherf**er: A Memoir of the ’60s, with Notes for Next Time and Doodling on the Titanic: the Making of Art in a World on the Brink.