STAYING WITH THE TROUBLE DURING CORONACENE

The world is attacked by an alien species; this is arguably the closest real-life experience to a Martian invasion our generation has and will ever have. However, in this particular case, the alien species has not come from outer space; it happens to have emerged and evolved on the Earth due to some complex socio-ecological entanglements scientists are yet to fully understand (interesting threads there for those who haven’t been on top “this side” of the corona news, including bats, pangolins, wet markets and factory farming). Its alienness is due to the fact that we have not been properly introduced to one another; no appointments were made, no protocols or etiquette were followed. This Earth-dwelling alien force-introduced itself into our lives and took away the banal variety of our daily agenda and declared its monopoly over all of the conversations we have with colleagues, neighbours, friends and ourselves. In addition, almost overnight, it forced us to change our consumption preferences radically (see meal recipes from famous chefs with three ingredients: toilet paper, hand sanitizer and pasta), to abandon the privilege of choosing to be “offline”, and willingly cancel our travel plans to exotic places in the coming months. For a change, we are not at the top of the food chain or the dominant species these days. Currently, we are scared animals sent to solitary confinement in our very homes (if we are lucky to have one), if not to hospital or grave (yet), collectively experiencing physical and emotional traumas by some microscopic and relatively simple life forms. Welcome to the coronacene.

Each one of us who are currently living under lockdown circumstances will have a vivid memory of how fast our reality have changed from that moment of ‘click’. My click occurred on March 10th. I was visiting Aalborg University in Copenhagen for two days as a guest professor. My host told me that the staff was expecting the university to close from the following week onwards. Before that moment lockdowns were a possibility that I hadn’t entertained; yes, they were happening but surely, ‘elsewhere’. The day after I flew back to Helsinki, where I work at a university as an international staff member, on a plane that was only a quarter full, Denmark closed its borders. I had already learned everything about the new coronavirus at the airport while waiting for departure and a lot about general epidemiology. The next day my university announced we were moving teaching online. That weekend I worked around the clock to be able to deliver my class on Monday morning, March 16th, remotely. In the afternoon of the same day, Finland declared a state of emergency; I followed the Prime Minister’s press briefing, which was broadcasted live on the national television, in a Facebook messenger group of three other international academics where a volunteer did a simultaneous translation. When it was finished, I immediately left home to buy cat litter for my two cats (I knew essential supplies would be available under lockdown conditions, however, I wasn’t sure if pet supplies were considered as such. It turns out they do; no current shortage of cat litter to my relief). It has been one week and five days since then (I’m writing this on March 29th); however, I feel like it has been eons. Two days ago, a new level of lockdown has been declared: those who live in the Helsinki region shall not leave the borders of the region. Some Finnish friends and colleagues have left to their family mökkis (summer houses) in the country. I am staying in my fifty square meter apartment in central Helsinki with my two cats and leave home daily for a short walk (if it is sunny) by the water and grocery shopping. I am increasingly anxious with the thought of my 80-year-old mum becoming sick, or worse dying, and me not being able to leave this country where borders are closed, to go to my birth country to care for my mum if need be, or worse, to attend her funeral. My boss told me though the other day that “Oh, but, you know, we’re all worried about our loved ones.”, so I guess, I should chill with this new and ‘life changing’ information I gained in that instant of exchanging ‘empathy’.

The first week of the lockdown was very surreal however ‘easy’ as there were immediate problems to be solved: Classes needed to be appropriated and delivered, all meetings that colonized my calendar weeks in advance needed to be held, invited guest lectures scheduled months ago needed to be video-recorded and sent to hosts, my small entrepreneur friends who lost all of their expected income in the coming months needed to be supported in their search to find solutions, a surge of fast emerging social innovations required to be followed closely (as professional curiosity) and care systems for the elderly in my apartment block needed to be established (as my community responsibility). I was worried but energized and very focused in the present immediacy of a rapidly unfolding crisis situation. Amidst this ‘flow experience’ I even managed to park the hurt and heartbreak induced by having been abruptly separated with my partner-of-two-years in mid-February, for reasons beyond our relationships. Once the immediacy of an emergent situation has past, around the beginning of this week ending (in the time of writing), my focus has started to shift to the ember that we all are currently sitting on in different capacities and at different resilience levels; me, on my own, in a country where I cannot even speak the language of and in a state of fresh heartbreak.

In some recent op-eds this sudden yet perpetual discomfort and pain that we have found ourselves in has been described as grief; grief of real and anticipated, big and small, clear and ambiguous losses we collectively and individually are experiencing right now. Grief needs to be taken seriously as it is a delicate process; according to well-known theorists it is a process of transformation, indeed, however, such transformation is not per se for the better. Grief, only if handled with a regenerative and generative attitude, can lead to a stronger individual and collective self. In other cases, grief might as well result in the demise of existing resilience manifesting itself as depression and anxiety in individuals and as total or partial collapse and unrest in societies. Also, let me add here, collective grief is not a new experience as some have argued; many communities and for long have been experiencing collective grief due to losses induced by decades long ecosystemic and climatic collapse and centuries long colonization. Through coronacene, now the general population, regardless of the levels of privilege or wealth enjoyed and taken for granted in ‘normal’ times, are experiencing how it feels like to lose a basic sense of security and certainty in one’s immediate environment. For once, the ember sets all buttocks on fire then travel to hearts, but I’m afraid, looking at the shortcomings of broader scale reflections on learnings that are transferable to other immediate crises hanging over our heads as Damocles’ sword (climate change arguably being the most urgent and globally relevant), save the voices of already well-known thinkers, this collective grief may become a wasted opportunity. It surely will leave scars but perhaps not a memory of how quickly we hit the bottom, discovered myriads of capacities and knowledges that help us to cope and stay resilient and numerous ‘rights’ and ‘entitlements’ we left aside for the common good that we thought to be indispensable only a few weeks ago (academic travel from my own professional context being one). Once some normality is re-established, our pseudo-sense of security and certainty comes back, we may continue living amnesiac lives (because we have forgotten many pasts full of such learnings) and go back to relentless consumerism and community uncare; that’s what we are made to believe is needed to boost the economy after difficult times and forget about the solidarity economies we managed to build overnight in this case and in several instances before during local and global hardships.

What would it take to stay with the trouble during the coronacene instead? In her book[1] that inspired the title of this piece (but the content only loosely), Donna Haraway explains staying with the trouble as becoming response-able by stirring up the waters of our disturbing, devastating, turbulent times rather than hiding passively in the safety of imagined futures; this is required to “rebuild quiet places”. I’d like to put emphasis that hiding into the safety of imagined futures is altogether different than actively imagining futures that are alternative to what we are likely to get should things continue in the same way. In my opinion, rebuilding quiet places is a metaphor, referring to creating these alternative futures as stay with the trouble; as we stir up the now to reveal the rotten, murky foundations of the now. I’m not going to repeat borderline ecofascist memes here on how the virus “has given the Earth time to breathe” based on the factual and fake news on less pollution, reduced emissions and wildlife coming back to cities. This kind of separation between humans and nature is a remnant of the world we have built post Enlightenment, and as many of the dualisms our society has constructed since then, it is reductionist and dangerous. Staying with the trouble should instead require us to think along lines more sophisticated than those that only enable us to act upon used futures[2], the futures that don’t serve us anymore, such as those based on the assumption of humanity’s ability to dominate nature or that we can techno-fix every problem we encounter. I am also not going to give recipes for what kind of desirable futures might arise from this global crisis; first and foremost, we didn’t and don’t need a catastrophe to make us rethink our economic-growth-at-whichever-cost society the use-by-date of which has passed at least almost fifty years ago when The Limits to Growth[3] was published, if not earlier. Instead what I’d like to write about is how we can each start a process of staying with the trouble to rebuild those quiet places.

For this purpose, I’d like to refer to a typology developed by Karen O’Brien[4] in an article in which she discussed how society can transform to meet climate change targets. According to this typology there are three spheres of transformation: the practical, the political and the personal spheres. The practical sphere is about the specific actions, innovations and behaviours that directly contribute to a ‘desired’ outcome. The political sphere is about the systems and structures that are in place which create our everyday reality, that facilitate or constrain practical responses. This sphere is about shared interests and understandings as well as where disagreement and dissent are expressed, norms are challenged, and social movements are formed to address structural issues. The personal sphere, on the other hand, is about the subjective; the worldviews, beliefs, values and paradigms we hold individually and collectively. These subjectivities influence how we perceive and construct the structures and systems in place, what is individually and collectively imaginable, desirable, viable and achievable and how and where the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘others’ are drawn. This sphere essentially governs the other two implying that transformation in this sphere is a prerequisite for transformation to take place in the other two.

When it comes to transformation, regardless of whether at personal or societal level, the general tendency is to intervene (only) in the practical sphere; thinking in terms of techno-fixes and incremental behavioural change. This is one of the reasons we are failing to address systemic, large-scale interrelated challenges, such as but not limited to climate change or a global pandemic. Instead we should start with transforming the personal and the political, keeping in mind that currently our key technology and behaviour to fight against the pandemic are ancient: soap and washing hands, and not Tesla Cybertruck or an equivalently frivolous ‘novelty’. We have the technology and, as evidenced during this pandemic, the ability to adjust our behaviour to create a world that is serving the needs of all (human and non-human) without compromising from our well-being, again as evidenced in the past weeks doesn’t require much more than meaningful connections, interpersonal practices of care in community and institutional settings, a basic level of income and functional systems of provision (in this particular instance we have realized the importance of healthcare and education systems that serve all and not a select few who can afford and have access to these). Oh, let’s not forget about singing in balconies, or Teddy bears in windows and yards, and the green spaces lucky urbanites threw themselves into when it got too much to #stayathome.

Staying with the trouble while staying afloat, both individually and collectively, is in fact the only way to take some agency in creating the futures we desire as the world our generation has got to know is crumbling in certain ways. This is not to say that “we” is unified or “the desired” is collectively held. Each one of us will need to formulate their own questions across these three spheres and start to reflect on. As I warp this piece up, I’m starting to formulate my questions to ponder upon as I spend my days staying at home being inspired by my current closest kins – my cats. My first questions are: 1. How can I build care-based relationships underlined by the values that are most important for me; freedom, justice and integrity; 2. How can I care for my immediate and broader, more-than-human communities now and as this century further unfolds?; 3. How can I, as an academic and a citizen, assist in co-creating alternative futures that will replace hard and soft institutions of our society that are not serving for the values I choose to stick with?, 4. In what ways my own worldviews, values and beliefs are holding onto used futures and how can I change these?

[1] Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. North Carolina, United States: Duke University Press.

[2] I borrow this term from a futures scholar and practitioner, Sohail Inayatullah, who is known for his work that invites us to closely examine and deconstruct our deep and long-held assumptions about how futures might unfold before starting to imagine alternative futures.

[3] Meadows, D., Meadows, D., Randers, J., & Behrens III, W. (1972). The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books. Available from https://clubofrome.org/publication/the-limits-to-growth/

[4] O’Brien, K. (2018). Is the 1.5°C target possible? Exploring the three spheres of transformation. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 31, 153–160. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2018.04.010

 

Published by

Dr. Idil Gaziulusoy

I am a lecturer/researcher in the area of design and innovation for sustainability. My research is about system innovations and transitions for sustainability and aligning micro, meso and macro-level changes towards the necessary societal transformation. I am particularly interested in developing theories and tools/methods to help organisations to actively participate in upcoming systemic changes through developing social, organisational and technological innovations using design thinking, systems thinking, sustainability science and futures inquiry methods. I work as Assistant Professor of Sustainable Design at Aalto University.

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