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Covid-19 and the Return of Nature

Ruben Jacobs
17 min read
3 Apr 2020

Spring has arrived, unambiguously.

Clear blue skies. Sun all day. Flowers in full bloom. Nature is calling, but we have to stay home. Empty streets, empty squares, empty airports, we are experiencing ‘the great empty’, as the New York Times coined it recently. It is all so strange: we are sliding into a deep crisis, but when I look outside my window the world looks very healthy to me. Beauty and horror, nature has them both.
It’s hard to find the right words in the midst of all this, let alone to define what it means for the future of our human civilization. It’s probably way too soon to say anything meaningful about it.
But, anyhow, here we are. So let me focus on the first thing that pops into my mind when thinking of the corona crisis and our current ecological predicament. One word, namely: control.
We want to control it all. The virus, the weather, the temperature in our houses, our minds and bodies, our future. We want to control nature itself; we want to tame it. That’s the project of Modernity: to study, understand and ultimately control nature (and with that our destiny).
But as we know deep down, ‘life finds a way’ as the eccentric chaos theoretician Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) tells us in the 90’s classic hit movie Jurassic Park. And many of the feedback loops and ecological hazards we are experiencing now - like climate change, acidification of the oceans, atmospheric pollution, radioactivity and the proliferation of pathogen viruses - are a product of our relentlessness commodification and extraction of the natural world.
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Image by David Kovalenko
Is the Covid-19 pandemic a coincidence? Mabye. But the opposite might be true as well. Many have predicted it. With deforestation, the loss of habitats and biodiversity, urbanization, industrial agriculture, consumption and farming of wildlife, we have been exposing ourselves on an ever-greater scale to new pathogen viruses. Global trends in emerging infectious diseases have tripled since 1980. There is a significant chance we will face another deadly pandemic in far shorter time than the hundred-year lull since 1918.
“Modern society has become a risk society in the sense that it is increasingly occupied with debating, preventing and managing risks that it itself has produced”, wrote German sociologist Ulrich Beck back in the 1990’s. Unintended and unforeseen side-effects of modern life backfire on modernity itself. And while in the past experiments were conducted in a lab, now the whole world has become a lab. Some call this the ‘Anthropocene’: the age in which humans have fundamentally altered the Earth system.
The irony here is that the human species has dominated a planet beyond its control. And the paradoxical lesson of the Anthropocene is that the ‘age of humans’ is also the era in which humans (re)discover their existential fragility within the complicated global ecosystem.
We are not experiencing the so called ‘end of nature’, but rather the opposite: the return of it. What for a brief moment in human existence seemed like a controlled phenomenon, occurring in the background, is now back on stage, hybrid and violent once again. Yes, we can influence nature, but we can’t control it. We must learn to understand the difference.

About Ruben Jacobs

Ruben Jacobs

"In times of crisis and great tragedy, Ruben sees opportunities"

Ruben Jacobs is a writer and sociologist. In his latest book, "Artonauts: on an expedition in the Anthropocene," Jacobs explores how artists use science and technology to re-examine our relationship with Earth. At the moment he is working on a book about a world beyond growth.In times of crisis and great tragedy, Ruben sees opportunities. Jacobs about the “enforced slow down experiment” that is coronavirus: “This is and will be a time of great tragedy, of economic, social and physical suffering. One that will above all show how vulnerable and unsustainable our current economy and way of living is. But it is also an opportunity. An opportunity to seize this tragedy, this forced slow down experiment, to do what had to happen anyway: free ourselves from an unsustainable lifestyle.”