The Conceit of Linearity

In her essay “The Reveal,” Charlotte du Cann characterizes civilizations as “fixed systems within vast non-linear systems.”1 I’d say this description is accurate. At some point the mounds of Cahokia and citadels of Mohenjo-daro crossed the line from being integral, maintained facets of living communities to being mere ruins. What happened? We in fact know that Cahokia was abandoned due to deforestation-induced flooding, political infighting, and finally a massive earthquake,2 while the (probable) salinization of crop fields around Mohenjo-daro was accompanied by shifts in the course of the Indus River plus a series of earthquakes.3 In effect, the vast nonlinear systems of climate and geology confounded the linear assumptions of continued agricultural sustenance that engender cultures to become sedentary. So the ancients of the Mississippi and Indus valleys pulled up stakes and left. 

We’ve all gotten a taste lately of what it’s like when sedentary culture’s expectation of linearity runs up against the biophysical vicissitudes of Earth. COVID-19 has scrambled global supply chains, and what began as a run on hygiene products has rippled out to shortages of computer chips, manufacturing parts, food items, and other consumer goods as factories worldwide contend with rolling waves of covid-related closures.4 The grounding of the Ever Given container ship this spring in the Suez Canal seemed to be a metaphor for the breakdown of commercial normalcy while literally deepening the supply chain morass further.5 But beyond the material realm, COVID-19 has also undermined the ecosystem of human services we in the industrial world depend on. I can’t speak for other countries, but in the US a deficit of healthcare workers6 and childcare workers7 has grown to acute levels since the pandemic began. Even celebratory fixtures of modern life like the Olympic Games have not been spared. The “Tokyo 2020” graphics at this summer’s Olympiad served as an omnipresent reminder to TV viewers that one of our most vaunted gathering of nations was also waylaid by invisible lifeforms likely unleashed by disregard for wild animals and the nonhuman realm.8

Ever Given grounded in the Suez Canal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I went deaf in my left ear at the age of 18. At the time I was already experiencing progressive hearing loss in my right ear, and I was making plans for my life that depended on me not experiencing anything as drastic as sudden hearing loss. I’ve also had to contend with other unexpected health complications. So I’m intimately familiar with the ways in which expectations of linearity become a conceit. This sustained exposure to disruption is why I don’t think the covid-related convulsions afflicting the world are temporary hiccups. Rather, they feel like dress rehearsals for the more significant discontinuities we will have to adjust to as the exponential processes of global warming ramp up. So it could be well advised to get used to disruption rather than long for a golden pre-covid era when the flows of labor, commerce, and our familiar modes of living were seemingly unimpeded.

This cognitive shift towards an expectation of further upheaval does not have to be prep for some sort of atavistic low-tech future. In conversation I’ve been referring to my experience of these years of cultural and personal transition as a ride, as in “I’m riding the tumult.” Only lately have I noticed how this choice of verb aligns my subjective experience with how a surfer regards the ocean. Surfers paddle towards one of the most recognizably nonlinear manifestations of nature—an ocean wave—with relatively little assurance that they will emerge unscathed. Yet if they do catch a swell and ride it in full, they can get exhilaration out of the process and find that, once the water has calmed, they are better for the experience. 

It all comes down to perception, which is an exercise of free will. Choosing to “ride” tumult does not deny instances of devastation or mass casualty (we are in the middle of a pandemic after all). But while the media goes into histrionics about the disintegration of normal and many people further broadcast this narrative of fear by demonizing something as trivial as a face mask, the rest of us can choose to transmute something frightening into a learning experience. When a critical mass of people turns the unknown into an opportunity for growth, then we are laying the groundwork for that longed-for societal metamorphosis process. 

The disintegration of predictability—our conceit of linearity—is not the end of the world. It’s the end of the world as we know it, where our institutions are okay with proceeding with business as usual while atmospheric carbon dioxide rises to its highest level in 3 million years9 and we careen further into the planet’s sixth mass extinction. Unlike the people of Cahokia or Mohenjo-daro, we know where environmental despoliation and political dysfunction is taking us. So treating our paradigm’s loss of predictability as a learning opportunity is a matter of societal survival. If we do in fact turn the current global tremors to our advatage, we may look back on these years as the invitation to the more beautiful world we ended up creating.



The Language We Use

We are at war. Certainly in a healthcare war. We are not fighting an army, nor are we fighting another nation. But the enemy is here – invisible, elusive, it progresses. It thus requires a call to arms.”[1]


President Emmanuel Macron delivered those words to the French people in March of 2020, when the novel coronavirus was beginning its exponential spread in Europe and North America. Macron’s use of military memes to characterize COVID-19 has become standard for politicians and public health officials to the point that it is hard to think of the COVID-19 pandemic as anything other than a battle. Less than a year after Mr. Macron issued his warrior cry, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party trumpeted that it had “defeated Covid under the able, sensible, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi.”[2] Not to be outdone, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo proclaimed in a May public address about his state’s loosening of virus restrictions that “New York is coming back, and it’s a testament to the strength and grit of New Yorkers who banded together, stayed tough, and fought as one to defeat this COVID beast.”[3]

As a global society, we are only just past the nadir of the millenia-long Age of Separation, so this bellicosity isn’t surprising. Those of us brought up in the industrial mainstream are conditioned by the foundational myths of our culture to relate to the nonhuman world around us by identifying an exterior enemy and declaring all-out war on our target. Usually, this initial antagonism begets more violence. Think of how fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides are sprayed on industrial crop fields. Inevitably, succeeding generations of pests evolve new defenses against the onslaught, and like Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, chemists in turn must develop still deadlier biocides to keep up. In the United States at least, all one must do is examine the abysmal failures of the “War on Drugs,” the “War on Poverty,” and the “War on Terror” to find further evidence of our war mentality’s shortcomings.

It just so happens that a linguistic shift away from antagonism over the past 4 years has been pivotal in my own healing process. As with cancer, many neurofibromatosis patients refer to their medical predicament as a fight and their diagnosis as the enemy. By the time I turned 22, however, I was tired of combat and ready for a different approach. So I began entertaining the concept that my diagnosis wasn’t something to be fought at all but perhaps contained wisdom that needed to be integrated. I would find out that such a belief is axiomatic in many indigenous ontologies. These marginalized worldviews hold that illnesses are the result of an imbalance in the group—be it a family, a town, a nation, or the global whole—and thus have their own spirits. This deeper, more considered approach to illness has opened new potential storylines as I try to disentangle myself from the labyrinth of sickness. One such narrative is that my higher self chose to be born with a chronic medical condition in order to understand wetiko—the mind virus of separation—and to assimilate the karma of my progenitors (at least one of my ancestors, for instance, was directly involved in the early genocide of American Indians). However such an explanation might sound to you, the idea that there’s intentionality wrapped up in my medical condition gives me agency and a path forward. One step I can take now towards healing is to break the intergenerational cycle of violence by repudiating the language of violence.

So, what of COVID-19’s spirit? If COVID-19 is the product of an imbalance, then anthropogenic global warming and its constellation of related crises is the pandemic’s likeliest root cause. The respiratory failure and fever associated with COVID-19 do bear a sinister correspondence to the pollution and ever-more-intense wildfires and heatwaves being inflicted on the planet. It then follows that humanity’s response to COVID-19 could determine our response to the systemic ecological crises that threaten to erase all our achievements. 

A friend of mine told me last summer that she had a dream in which COVID-19 appeared to her first as a feral cat, then as a reptilian monster, and finally as an impoverished peasant woman. The peasant woman my friend described reminds me of the archetype of the crone, who often appears in mythic stories as a teacher come to redress her children’s ways. Now that COVID-19 is nearly endemic, we as a global society can at least accept the unavoidable challenges of a novel coronavirus and commit ourselves to learn whatever lessons COVID-19 might teach. Ultimately, though, my friend’s dream gets to the core of the material world’s plasticity. Since collective storytelling determines the behavior of the subatomic particles that comprise our reality, a collective COVID-19 story framed around warfare means we may have to contend with an enraged animal or a Godzilla figure instead of a well-meaning teacher. Furthermore, COVID-19 could mirror back our bellicose language by behaving like a true wartime enemy. It could “gather intel” about our defenses then ambush us again and again. Currently the Delta variant is sustaining COVID-19’s rapaciousness, and health officials are issuing warnings about the Lambda variant as well. Eighteen months since COVID-19 entered the collective consciousness and world leaders began declaring war, it’s questionable whether we’ve defeated anything. Again, war begets more war.

As of this writing, COVID-19 has officially killed a little over 4.1 million people, but the real toll is likely much higher.[4] By all accounts, emergency rooms in regions hit hard by the pandemic have at various points resembled war zones, and medical workers there have been forced to make decisions usually relegated to battlefields. In the face of such devastation, it can be tempting to reason that it is irresponsible to regard COVID-19 as anything less than an enemy that must be exterminated. But COVID-19’s wide reach is a direct result of governmental ineptitude plus an institutional unwillingness to put a brake on economic growth (there was hardly a murmur of calling off Milan Fashion Week 2020, even when it was known that the virus was established in northern Italy).

Perhaps you are unconvinced by my spiritual appeals. But there are more prosaic reasons why the language of war should be avoided when referring to COVID-19. A letter to the editor from a doctor published in the New York Times in the early days of the pandemic has his to say:

“Military rhetoric in this and other articles is clouding the public’s understanding of what it is like to work in a hospital right now. Medical staff are not soldiers ‘fighting a war,’ and we are not ‘in the trenches’ or ‘on the front lines.’ We did not sign up for this; unlike the military, medicine is not a career for which we ever expected to die.

“Medical staff are being forced to work in extremely unsafe conditions. Furthermore, the burden of care often falls on the lowest-ranked workers. Resident physicians, for example, work 80 hours a week with one day off. Opportunities for residents are scarce outside of hospitals, so we cling to our jobs to avoid ruin.

“Medical workers have already died in the United States, and more deaths are coming. We will be called ‘heroes’ to hide the truth: we were killed on dangerous job sites.”[5]

Notes