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Edmund De Waal

An Alarming State

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The missed opportunity of the Covid-19 crisis

I would like to start by extending my thanks for being invited to write on the Filolàlia blog. It represents a return to the world of writing for me after an extended hiatus. The usual excuses apply of course such as lack of time and too much work! In spite of that though I feel that I am not too rusty to put together a few coherent paragraphs and I hope the topic I have chosen is of interest. Throughout this piece I will make reference to an excellent book by Yuval Noah Harari entitled ‘Sapiens’ (ISBN 978-84-9992-622-3) that I recommend any fan of reading acquire at their earliest convenience as it is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

 

To begin with I would like to ask everyone to cast their minds back about a year. At the time of writing this in February 2021 that would put us back right before the onset of the Covid-19 crisis. Indeed, the word ‘crisis’ would not appear until about a month later when many countries started to enter their first lockdowns. Initial responses were actually quite sceptical – it is only a type of flu, it will pass in a couple of months, there is nothing to worry about. Little did we know that this situation would stretch out way longer than any of us dared to fear at the time and all of our lives have been irreversibly changed. Our first thoughts should logically extend to those who have lost their lives to this terrible virus but let us also consider the families who are still living apart, the people living alone and the children who simply do not understand it all.

 

Without doubt, humanity has been put to the test and, for a while at least, we passed with flying colours.

 

It has become increasingly evident over the last decade or so that our society has become more polarised. Politics, while distasteful to many actually serves to act as a mirror to society even if we are afraid to look at it. We have seen divided societies in the USA where people have either rallied behind or against the Trump administration; the ‘United’ Kingdom is not so united anymore after the divisive Brexit referendum of 2016 and here in Catalonia we saw tensions overflow in 2017 as the two sides of the independence coin engaged in heated confrontations. I will neither endorse nor condemn any side of these respective arguments today but I hope to have accurately illustrated the dynamics of the world we were living in leading up to March 2020.

 

My reasons for setting this rather depressing scene can, I hope, be forgiven when we look at what happened over the course of the subsequent months in 2020. Despite the divisions, the animosity and the radical polarisation, humanity began to connect with itself again. There was a feeling that we were all in this together and the result was actually something quite beautiful. We started receiving video calls from friends who we had not spoken to in a long time, reconnecting with our families, expressing concern for how the situation was unfolding in other countries and putting our differences aside. Different rivalries were put on hold while we took the time to tell people around us to ‘stay safe’. It was not exactly a Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek) vision of a utopian human society but it was much better than what we had before, even though it was fated not to last very long.

 

Hear you may wish to accuse me of being slightly pessimistic in my assessment of the situation but as in most cases when a complicated answer is required, I will defer to people who know more than me. In this case that would be Yuval Noah Harari, whose work I alluded to earlier.

 

Without risking a plagiarism charge I will try to summarise a couple of points he makes about our species – Homo sapiens. Harari explores many different theories about our origins and it is clear that our history has been a long and bloody one. Homo sapiens have many redeeming qualities such as their intelligence and flair for creativity but it is disturbing to note that when left to our own devices we have a seemingly unavoidable tendency to fall into conflict with each other and the environment around us. In ‘Sapiens’ we learn about how our ancestors inflicted genocide on other species such as the Neanderthals. Territory and food were abundant and money was yet to be invented. What was the reason for this brutality? The Neanderthals were guilty of that most heinous crime – they were different. Although they were blessed with superior physical strength they could not stand for long against the Homo sapiens’ greater intelligence and abilities to manipulate tools and weapons. Now they are gone. We would like to think nowadays that we have evolved beyond that and when we think back to those times when we were all expressing concern for each other, helping our elderly neighbours with their shopping and applauding our health services as a united people, it was obvious that we are capable of much better.

 

The problem was it didn’t last very long. But why not? Is conflict simply in our DNA? Perhaps. Personally I am not so sure and I think that there is more to explore here.

 

Another of the reasons that Homo sapiens have evolved as the dominant species on the planet is the ability to control and coordinate large groups of people. The traditional tribal structure of an alpha male leading the group was limited to about 150 in size before it simply became too big to manage. In order to exert control over a larger population the species had to evolve to a point where it could comprehend abstract concepts such as religions, nations and later on, multinational corporations. The ability to process these concepts made it possible for a person who lived many miles from another to instantly recognise him/her as a friend or foe because of their flag or religious symbol. This was an incredibly powerful step in the process of our evolution because it meant that the masses could be controlled if they were gathered under a single banner. We now have countries that are effectively decided by a line on a map and religions that exert influence over many of the actions that we are allowed to take in our daily lives. This ‘grouping’ has its uses of course and has led in many cases to great acts of cooperation in the fields of science and medicine for example. Under the surface though, there exists a darker and more sinister use of these abstract concepts. We need only to look at the wars and genocides that have occurred in the name of a monarch or deity to see the destructive potential that is waiting to be released at any time if the ‘alphas’ in charge at that moment wish it. Additionally, in the 21st century we now have the added power of the mass media, who are effectively acting as distributors of ‘truth’ for these entities – something that can and does create limitless problems.

 

Please forgive my crude summary of what is a very detailed explanation in Harari’s book. To convey the full magnitude of the text I would have to write my own thesis on the subject and I have promised my collaborators at Filolàlia that I would be brief!

 

The fact remains though that less than a year after we were at our most united as a species (at least in recent memory) we are once again falling into old habits. As I write there are big pharmaceutical companies profiteering from the production of vaccines for Covid-19 while politicians have turned the vaccination process into a race in order to earn themselves points for their next election. Of course, the media has decided to take this opportunity to resort to its polarising style of reporting and we once again find ourselves being shepherded back into our ‘groups’, which basically exist only because we agree that they do. Fingers are being pointed and we are once again playing the blame game. We stood at what could have been the greatest unification of our species in history and let it slip past. Without doubt a great opportunity has been missed.

 

So where does that leave us? I have offered a couple of theories about the evolution of Homo sapiens that may indicate that we are simply behaving as our nature dictates but in my opinion the very fact that we dare to question our nature at times means we are ultimately capable of directing it ourselves. Animals are not aware of why they do the things they do whereas we are – and this realisation gives us enormous power if we choose to use it. I have been accused of being overly optimistic in my views for the future of humanity; I grew up watching Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a united humanity exploring the universe filled me with great hope. Of course, I understand the difference between reality and fiction but I still believe that the pursuit of a better society is a hope worth holding on to.

 

As is the way, when one opportunity passes another one takes its place and we again face a decision on our future. There will be a time when this crisis is over when there will be services held across the globe in memory of the people lost to the Covid-19 pandemic. At that point I would hope that we all put aside our differences in order to stop and pay our respects. In that moment of pause we will find ourselves standing at a crossroads – Let the moment pass and revert to our internal disputes, tribalism and polarised society or hang on to the desire that we want to become better and start talking about how we can move down a different path. I will forever remain an optimist.

 

I hope this short piece has given you something to think about and I would once again like to extend my thanks to Filolàlia for the invitation and also recommend Harari’s ‘Sapiens’ if you would like to explore these interesting questions further.

 

Stay safe!               

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