Many commentators have argued that the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate emergency and the destruction of nature are inextricably linked. The virus has been seen as a last warning for society to change course, a harbinger of future crises to come, or the latest episode in an ongoing and escalating breakdown. More optimistically, the resulting pandemic has been interpreted as a moment of transformative change, an example of the speed at which nations can act to step back from catastrophe, or individuals can see the start of a healing process.
In the early months of the pandemic, cartoonist Graeme Mackay captured the parallels between the Covid and climate emergencies. The threat of climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse is here visualised via a familiar rhetoric of the pandemic, the waves to come. MacKay’s first cartoon envisioned an economic emergency following the health emergency. Twitter users developed this imaginary of the crisis, adding future waves. The final series of cartoons borders on the apocalyptic, visualising a narrative, put forward in plain terms by the World Economic Forum, that ‘more planetary crises are coming.
Simultaneously these crises have been seen by many as symptoms of the same underlying cause. The complex origins of the pandemic, likely the result of a virus caused by a zoonotic spillover event that can be traced to the same extractive global economy that is destroying wild places and warming the planet, presses at any easy separation of these emergencies as separate events. This is at the heart of Bruno Latour’s identification of the pandemic in terms of ‘an ongoing, irreversible ecological mutation.’ For Jane Goodall, Covid-19 is thus an expression of wider socioecological breakdown, brought about by a diseased relationship between humans and nature: ‘We may think that nature is something separate and we can distance ourselves, and live in our little bubble – it’s not true.’
In this recurring rhetoric of bubbles and waves, the pandemic becomes a way of defining the future, a kind of pattern for responding. This mode of thinking about a range of post pandemic futures can nevertheless support starkly different visions. While the short film ‘We Are Nature’, in which Goodall makes her diagnosis of socioecological breakdown, argues for newfound appreciation of the intricate connections joining the flourishing of humans and other species, a BBC article on the future of work envisions an environment where connections between human and non-human life are limited and carefully policed. Bacterial sprays, antimicrobial surfaces and touchless technology maintain a sanitised workplace and a future that is the antithesis of Goodall’s message.
The pandemic also generated more hopeful, even utopian, narratives of the future. This is especially prominent in writing from the early months of the pandemic when predictions of a post pandemic future were being framed against a pervading sense of crisis or trauma. Here the pandemic repeatedly serves as a chance for ‘structural economic change’ and a ‘transformational leap towards a sustainable society’. Naomi Klein perhaps put it best, introducing a hopeful ‘Message from the Future’, founded on workers’ rights, reparations for racial injustice and environmental action: ‘If the only portrayals of the future we ever see are of some mix-and-match fascism and ecological collapse, the forecasts start to feel inevitable.’
While many of these narratives focus on the grand scales of ‘planetary crisis’ resonant with the Anthropocene, the pandemic pause also supports environmental narratives that are more personal in scope. In the UK, the early months of the pandemic coincided with a glorious spring, a season loaded with the narrative symbolism of nature’s emergence – and of course goats reclaiming deserted Welsh streets. Writing for the BBC, Emily Kasriel mused on how the ‘feeling of awe that we experience when we spend time in the natural world’ – as many did on cherished daily walks during the Spring 2020 lockdown – might lead to greater environmental awareness and activism. The claim ‘nature is healing’ quickly became a meme and was used to represented everything from an imagined resurgence of the natural world to the return of pasta and toilet roll to British supermarket shelves.
But Kae Tempest, asking ‘What scope is there for hope?’ in her poem of the same name, was less optimistic. She drew a Biblical parallel between ‘Noah stood back from the boat / Drowning in the doubt that his own hands could make it float’, and the experience of living through a crisis of uncertain duration and impact, with the uneasy feeling of more to come. Again, an imaginary of waves and rising waters is latent in Tempest’s verse, perhaps inviting parallels to melting icecaps and the ecological crisis unfolding alongside, and through, the pandemic.
These negative predictions and positive prognoses of post-pandemic futures continue to be changeable within the pandemic itself. At one point nature was healing; several months later it was in crisis. Amidst talk of ‘Building Back Better’ – or, as UK prime minister Boris Johnson stated last month, ‘Building Back Beaver’ – from the pandemic, multiple visions of the future relations between humans and other species, economics and the environment, society and nature, are being advanced. It is in this narrative space, in the crossover and competition between these narratives, that the form of environmental and climate action is taking shape.
This is the third in a series of blogs discussing some of the early findings from the Covid Future Narratives project. Our research examines narratives produced across a range of genres during the coronavirus pandemic that focus on imagining a post-pandemic future. We are asking for people to send us narratives that they have come across over the course of the pandemic. If you have a narrative you would like to share with us, please send it to Jim Scown – firstname.lastname@example.org – or follow and share with us on Twitter @CovidNarratives.