The World After COVID

Image by Edwin Hooper.

The stalwart left-wing publisher OR Books has firmly established itself as go-to source for titles that challenge the status quo and suggest options for moving beyond our current ruts. Two new collections from OR do just that. Everything Must Change: The World After COVID-19 collects political conversations among political activists, artists, and academics about how to build movements that confront capitalism and also counter the nauseating appeal of far-right nationalism; Rediscovering Earth: Ten Dialogues on the Future of Nature features various thinkers addressing the grim realities of species destruction and climate chaos.

Everything Must Change is culled from the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25)’s online broadcasts from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The book’s editors, Renata Avila, a Guatemalan human rights lawyer, and Srecko Horvat, a Croatian philosopher, pulled together conversations that they and the Greek economist and writer Yannis Varoufakis conducted with an impressive mix of international leftist movers and shakers. The result is a commendably broad range of ideas about moving forward with left agendas.

In a discussion with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Varoufakis calls for “a progressive international movement” committed to internationalism and solidarity. That vision dovetails with Horvat’s introductory explanation that Everything Must Change “is intended as a collective message that transnational cooperation and resistance, precisely in times of global lockdowns and police states, not only remains possible, but becomes necessary.” Varoufakis and Horvat practice what they preach by serving, along with Avila and other leftists from around the world, on the Council of Advisors for the Progressive International, a joint initiative of DiEM25 and the U.S.-based Sanders Institute. The Progressive International includes many participants from the Global South and aspires to an ecologically sustainable and just post-capitalist world, a common goal among the participants in Everything Must Change.

Vijay Prashad is the author of books including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World. He directs the Transcontinental Institute for Social Research, which is powered by an impressive roster of researchers and analysts and supports progressive struggles throughout the world. In his conversation with Horvat, Prashad focuses on how government policies can aggressively battle the spread of COVID-19. He cites the work of Cuban doctors and developments in the leftist Indian state of Kerala, which, Prashad explains, “has built and maintained state institutions against a lot of pressure from institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, which says, ‘Kill off your state!’”

Prashad’s emphasis on the damage wrought by neoliberalism is echoed throughout the book. Neoliberal dogma, which supports fiscal austerity, union busting, and the destruction of barriers to free trade, demonizes state-funded projects and sugarcoats privatization and the profit motive. Neoliberals argue that syphoning money upward will eventually benefit everyone and any resultant injustice or environmental degradation will be resolved by market forces. This ideology underpins economic policies and political priorities in the United States and Europe, and has been forced down the throats of governments around the world.

The late activist and anthropology professor David Graeber argues that the capitalist addiction to growth and class war on the poor has been hit hard hard by the COVID-19 crisis. In his view, the pandemic is “a completely random event which has given us a moment of breathing space and reminded us that we have the ability to take dramatic action, that, perhaps, we should stop listening to those who tell us what is possible and impossible.” Graeber explains, “The normal is standing on the tracks looking at an oncoming train and arguing with each other about how fast it’s going. We’ve now had someone knock us off the tracks, out of the way, and what are we going to do, get back on?”

Though similar arguments are made by interviewees in Everything Must Change!, they also present different points of view and come at the same problems from different angles. There is no rigid party line that unites the patricipants in this book. While some of them embrace Marxism of a more orthodox variety and are loathe to criticize authoritarian socialist governments, others are less old school Left.

Graeber points to dangers inherent in both capitalist and ostensibly socialist states; critiquing economic models which prioritize constant growth, he notes that this “strange version of historical determinism (…) is one reason why many old apparatchiks in Eastern Europe were able to quite easily switch from a Marxist-Leninist philosophy to neoliberalism without too much conceptual dissonance.” Graeber points to the largely overlooked current example of Kurdish organizing in Rojava as a source of hope for egalitarian change: “The Kurdish people have managed to hold their project together, in one of the least friendly places in the world to have a feminist-anarchist revolution, for almost a decade now. It’s one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen and, if nothing else, it shows that those who claim such ambitions are impracticable or impossible are simply wrong—you try fighting ISIS!”

Elsewhere, Varoufakis points out, “A great deal of authoritarianism rises up within our ranks. This is why I have a soft spot for the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists during the civil war, who had back and red in their flag: red to signify revolution and black to signify the darkness in the soul of each one of us, which we must always be aware of because it can rise up and put us in our own gulags, as has happened so many times.”

In a welcome departure from a plethora of political books addressing “what must be done,” several entries in Everything Must Change! touch on the importance of humor in politics, both as a survival mechanism and a weapon against the powers that be. Horvat gives examples of mordant wit born out of the dark realities of life in his homeland and discusses laughter in bleak times with writer and director Larry Charles. Charles, a writer/producer on the TV show Seinfeld and director of the Borat movies and the wildly underrated Bob Dylan film Masked and Anonymous, observes, “Humor is a natural human antidote to bleakness that is as important, in my view, as water or food. If you lose your sense of humor, you lose your humanity and your ability to feel compassion toward others.” When he visited Liberia after the Ebola crisis, Charles discovered a comedy industry that arose in response to that pandemic. He tells Horvak, “There, at their nadir as a society, with the Ebola crisis wiping them out, humor (…) really became a lifeboat for the society.”

Alas, people struggling with addiction, depression, and anxiety do not always have an easy time laughing to keep from crying. The writer Johann Hari blames that fact on societal ills as much as brain chemistry. In a wide-ranging conversation with Varoufakis, Hari notes the large body of evidence which points to financial insecurity being a cause of anxiety and depression. The rates of those maladies in the U.S. have skyrocketed in the wake of increasing unemployment, stagnating wages, and assaults on the post-New Deal social safety net, an ugly reality overlooked in mainstream U.S. discussions of treatment regimens.

Hari tells Varoufakis, “Anything that reduces depression should be regarded as an anti-depressant. For some people that will include drugs, but we need to radically expand our concept of anti-depressants—a higher minimum wage: a really good antidepressant! Universal basic income: really good antidepressant! Transforming corporations into democratic cooperatives where the workers are in control: really good antidepressant!”

The goal of Rediscovering Earth is to not only analyze the insanity of continuing knowingly destroy our planet but also to help us avert catastrophe. Anders Dunker, a Norwegian journalist and philosopher who conducted Rediscovering Earth’s ten interviews, explains, “The selection of writers and thinkers collected in this book all attempt to transplant discoveries from the domain of the natural sciences to a broader cultural field. For new insights to take root in the culture at large, they need to be integrated with our other systems of knowledge, and be nourished by insights and considerations from anthropology, history, philosophy, and literature.”

Ursula K. Heise, the Chair of the Department of English at UCLA, who specializes in biodiversity, tells Dunker, “Native Americans sometimes speak about nature as a house or garden that needs to be tended for it not to deteriorate. This (…) is certainly not how white North Americans tend to think of nature: as something that is best when it is disturbed as little as possible. We might need a different attitude, where we see nature as our home, something to be constantly cared for. What we need to ask, at least in an urban context, is what ecosystem with a high level of diversity we can aim for. What is an ecosystem that will be functional, both biologically and socially, in an urban context that includes millions of humans?” A great question, certainly, but it would have been more instructive if Heise had been pushed to elaborate on some potential answers. Heise worries about overwhelming her students with readings on species extinction; although on antidote she sees for the darkness of that material is looking at how cities might provide new accommodation for species other than just humans. Again, while she does provide some brief examples of urban coexistence among different species, she might have elaborated more about the ways in which animals are finding niches in urban ecosystems on their own.

Argentine ecologist Sandra Diaz is another intellectually impressive biodiversity specialist who weighs in with Dunker. Diaz works with the UN-backed Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service (IPBES) and co-chaired a 2019 IPBES Global Assessment Report which concluded that one million species face extinction and the rapid decline of the natural world is at least as severe a problem as climate change. Diaz notes that “the root causes of biodiversity and ecosystem crisis around the world are all deeply social, economic, and political. There is hardly any big challenge today that is not at the same time social and biological.” She argues for the creation of “a more pluralistic, more tolerant world, in every sense.” She stresses that environmental movements “will have to get a lot stronger, fast, to be enough, to be timely.”

Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature (1989), the first book on global warming to reach a mass audience, also emphasizes that time is of the essence in stopping destruction of the biosphere. After writing a slew of books decrying ecological destruction, McKibben became an activist by co-founding 350.org, an organization which campaigns for cutting carbon emissions. The urgency of that goal is underscored by the group’s name—350 parts per million of carbon is the upper limit in the earth’s atmosphere beyond which our future gets dicey; currently the number stands at 415 parts per million.

McKibben describes the point at which he needed to take action beyond authorship: “It was a shock to realize at some point that we had won the argument, (…) but even if we won the argument, we were losing the fight. And that’s because fights are not about arguments and data and stuff. Fights are about money and power. And the fossil fuel industry had all of that. And so we needed to build some power of our own.” Thankfully, given his journalistic skills and his ability to communicate important ideas, McKibben will continue to write books, but he says, “I’m no longer under the illusion that that’s how we’re going to win this. We’re going to win this, if we win this, by organizing.”

The discussion with McKibben is especially satisfying, coming as it does after an interview with geographer Jared Diamond. Diamond’s tendency to depoliticize societal changes and avoid criticism of military and corporate elites is manifest in his bestseller Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and that trait permeates his talk with Dunker. On oil company higher-ups, he tells Dunker, “Exxon has had two presidents in succession who were inclined to dismiss environmental concerns. The CEO of Chevron, on the other hand, is personally concerned about environmental issues […] every week the CEO sends an internet post that goes out to the seventy thousand employees of Chevron—and the posts regularly talk of environmental concerns.”

McKibben’s take on Exxon executives goes beyond their being “dismissive” of environmentalists: “The shocking thing about Exxon was that they knew [about their contribution to global warming] and were willing to lie. That lie, because of the stakes, turns out to be the most consequential lie in human history.” He doesn’t glad-hand Chevron either, saying, “The most critical task must be to break the political power of the fossil fuel industry.”

McKibben and Vandana Shiva are the two figures in Rediscovering Earth most tied to activist movements. Like McKibben, Shiva is an author and scholar who has been writing important books on the environment since the 1980s. For decades, both internationally and in her homeland of India, she has battled multinational corporations that make billions selling feeds, pesticides, and fertilizers. Shiva is with McKibben on the need to abandon fossil fuels. She explains, “[Insects] are (…) being driven to extinction by poisons used in factory farming. The same industrial system causes greenhouse gas emissions by moving food around unnecessarily. At this point, negotiating about emission quotas will not help us. If we don’t show the courage to make a ‘biophilic leap,’ we will not go anywhere.” (“Biophilic” means “of or pertaining to ‘biophilia,’” which the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th edition, defines as “a strong attraction for or emotional attachment to the living world.”)

The one novelist interviewed in Rediscovering Earth is Kim Stanley Robinson, the preeminent practitioner of left wing science fiction. Robinson gained a following with his Mars Trilogy of the 1990s (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars), in which he envisioned political battles accompanying the colonization and terraforming of the red planet. More recently, he wrote the terrific New York 2140 (2017), set in New York City after a dramatic sea level rise.

Books dealing with climate change can be dry and didactic, and, if written by academics, a chore for readers without science backgrounds. Robinson’s most recent novel, 2020’s The Ministry For the Future, is none of those things. Robinson describes it as “both a utopian novel with a collectivized vision, and also a kind of dramatized policy blueprint, acting out in a way that you can believe in.” He adds, “Never have I tried anything messier. And that’s saying a lot, because all of my novels are messy.” If so, The Ministry for the Future is a glorious mess, one that provides a smart, soulful alternative to excessive screen time and mainstream information overload. Robinson tells Dunker, “I’m not of the belief that any one novel or book can change much, but you can channel the voices. You can kind of make a document of your time that has an impact on how people see it. So, I do believe novels help to create ideology.”

Not a bad thing to achieve. I hope that both of these collections can also contribute to an ideological shift away from settling for business as usual. As Sandra Diaz comments to Dunker about working for a better future, “We might just make it, as we did with other important environmental and social achievements that we now take for granted, but which were unthinkably large steps at the time. It is not going to be easy. But, on the other hand, what other option do we have?”

Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com