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Scholars and writers discuss human, planetary impacts of pandemic
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Scholars and writers discuss human, planetary impacts of pandemic

May 21, 2020 at 10:40am

Following the global onset of COVID-19, the question of how society will change has stood unanswered due to many factors. Anything from the strength of humanity as a species to the degree of interdependency between nations has been reexamined. 

To address these questions, Whitney Bauman, associate professor of religious studies, co-organized a discussion focused on humankind’s interconnectedness and dependency on the natural world and how humans might begin to reattune to the needs of the planetary community. Panelists joined from five countries, including Indonesia, Australia and the Netherlands.

“A lot of times, I began my class in Earth ethics by asking students what they think of when they think of nature,” Bauman said. “Often it’s the case that they think of trees and whales[…]but they don’t think of themselves. They don’t mention themselves first…. So, literally, I am asking my students: ‘how have human beings written themselves outside of the planet, and how can we re-think ourselves back into the planet?” 

“I think it’s fair to say that many humans right now see themselves not as part of nature, but as simply its guardian or maybe even the owner of nature,” said panel moderator Michael Scaturro, writer and freelance journalist. “I think it’s fair to say that this way of thinking has placed humans at the very top of the planetary community.”

According to Scaturro, the encroachment of human civilization on other animal habitats allows for non-human viruses to find their way into our hospitals, airports and ultimately our own bodies. With the constant introduction of new disease vectors on both sides of the system of urbanization, there is an ever-present possibility that a pandemic such as this one may occur.

“As we all know from Hollywood films, it’s lonely at the top,” continued Scaturro. “Being at the top makes it harder to understand what’s going on down below, and I think it’s fair to say as well that Earth’s plants and animals would agree.”

The essay “The Pandemic is a Portal” by Arundhati Roy, writer and political activist, was referenced by Professor Zainal Bagir at the University of Gadja Mada in Indonesia during the discussion. In it, Roy discusses the acknowledgement of a rupture in the global community, and how the pandemic offers humanity to break with the past and reform its previously imagined future.

“[Economist Joseph Stiglitz] said we have learned many things – and especially thinking about the United States – but one thing that we have not learned is our interdependence on each other,” said Marcia Pally, professor at New York University. Stiglitz is a Nobel prize-winning American economist and public policy analyst. “I think this is necessary as a basic framework for figuring out how to go ahead after the pandemic or through the pandemic. If we have a chance for pandemic as portal, I think we need to start with that.”

Elaborating on the idea of this growing habitational awareness among the global community, Kocku von Stuckrad – professor of religious studies at the University of Groningen, Netherlands – proposes that now more than ever, there is a wider consciousness about the interdependency between humans and organisms much further below them on the food chain. According to von Stuckrad, this cognizance has existed outside of developed nations for a significant amount of time before the pandemic.

“In many ways, the coronavirus can be seen as a companion species, a lifeform that we are becoming with,” said von Stuckrad. “We’re certainly in a different situation right now, working ourselves through this mess and rearranging our relationships both within the species and across species.”

Finally, the panel stressed the need for new narratives and storytelling during these pandemic times. Writers Anna Winger and Alissa Jones Nelson, and scholar Katerina Teaiwa stressed the importance of telling different stories as ways of knowing but also imagining different possible futures for the planetary community.

The conversation was part of the Dorothea Green Lecture Series, and was co-hosted by the Program of Study in Spirituality, the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab, the Department of Religious Studies, and Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge

View the full discussion, “In the Midst of a Global Pandemic: A Conversation about Dependency, Interconnectedness and Planetarity,” below.