By Leonardo Boff
The systemic attack that nature is making against humanity with a tiny and invisible virus is causing serious concern and leading many thousands of people to death. However, our reaction to the pandemic is also critical. What lesson does it teach us? What worldview and what kind of values does it lead us to develop? Surely, we must learn everything we should have learned but did not learn. We should have learned that we are part of nature and not its “lords and owners” (Descartes). There is an umbilical connection between the human being and nature. We come from the same cosmic dust as all other beings and we are the conscious link in the chain of life.
The Erosion of the Image of the “Small God on Earth”
The modern myth that we are “the small God” on Earth and that we can dispose of it as we please because it is inert and purposeless has been destroyed. One of the fathers of the modern scientific method, Francis Bacon, said that we should treat nature as the minions of the inquisition treated their victims, torturing them until they gave up all their secrets.
Through techno-science we have taken this method to the extreme, reaching the heart of matter and life. This has been carried out with unprecedented fury to the point of having destroyed the sustainability of nature and, therefore, of the planet and of life. In this way, we have broken the natural pact that exists with the living Earth: it gives us everything we need to live and in return we must take care of it, preserve its goods and services and give it rest to restore everything we take from it for our life and progress. We have not done any of that.
For not having observed the biblical precept of “protecting and caring for the Garden of Eden (of the Earth: Genesis 2:15)” and for threatening the ecological bases that sustain all life, she has counterattacked us with a powerful weapon, the coronavirus which causes COVID-19. To deal with it, we have returned to the method of the Middle Ages, which overcame its pandemics through strict social isolation. So that the townspeople, who were afraid, would go out into the street, in the Munich City Hall (Marienplatz) an ingenious clock was built with dancers and cuckoos so that everyone came to appreciate it, which has been done until today.
The pandemic, which more than a crisis is the demand for a change in the worldview and the incorporation of new values, raises the question: Do we really want to prevent nature from sending us even more lethal viruses that can decimate even the human species? This would be one of the ten that disappear permanently every day. Do we want to take that risk?
Generalized Unconsciousness for the Ecological Factor
As early as 1962, American biologist and writer Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, warned: “Future generations are unlikely to tolerate our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that sustains all of life. The question is whether any civilization can continue a relentless war against life without destroying itself and without losing the right to be called a civilization.”
It seems like a prophecy of the situation we are experiencing on a planetary level. We have the impression that the majority of humanity and even political leaders do not demonstrate sufficient awareness of the dangers we face with global warming, with the excessive proximity of our cities and especially the massive agribusiness to virgin nature and the forests that they are deforesting. In this way we destroy the habitats of millions of viruses and bacteria that end up being transferred to humans. According to serious scientists, the coronavirus would not have come through a bat from the Chinese market, but simply from nature.
The coronavirus will force us to reinvent ourselves as humanity and to remodel in a sustainable and inclusive way the only Common House we have. If what prevailed before prevailed, exacerbated to the extreme, then we could prepare for the worst. However, it should be remembered that the life-system has gone through several important extinctions (we are within the sixth) but has always survived.
Life would seem –I allow myself a singular metaphor– a “plague” that nobody until today has managed to exterminate. Because it is a blessed “plague,” linked to the mystery of cosmogenesis and to that mysterious and loving Background Energy that presides over all cosmic processes and ours.
It is imperative that we abandon the old paradigm of the will to power and domination over everything (the closed fist) towards a paradigm of caring for everything that exists and lives (the outstretched hand) and of collective stewardship.
Eric Hobsbawn wrote in the last paragraph of his book The Age of Extremes (1995): “One thing is clear. If humanity wants to have a recognizable future, it cannot be prolonging the past or the present. If we try to build the third millennium on this basis, we will fail. The price of failure, that is, the alternative to changing society is darkness.” (p.506)
This means that we cannot simply return to the pre-coronavirus situation, we cannot even think of a return to the pre-Enlightenment past as the current Brazilian government and others on the extreme right want.
* Leonardo Boff is an eco-theologist, philosopher and a member of the Earth Charter Commission. He has written Option Earth: the Solution for Earth Does Not Fall from the Sky, Record 2009.