“You talk as if a god had made the Machine, “cried the other. “I believe you pray to it when you are unhappy. Men made it, do not forget that. Great men, but men. The Machine is much, but not everything.”

                                                                              EM Forster, “The Machine Stops” 1909

“Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side.”
                                                                              Ernest Schumacher, “Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered,” 1973

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The coronavirus is a pause to our absolute conduct. We have antagonized the angel of Earth for a long time now. We have extracted the very soul of Nature for financial gain. This must end, because if we do not, we will end. Because this decade is the last that Nature will allow us to remedy our ways. EM Forster, who prophesied the runaway civilization we now have, would understand stalled cities, empty freeways, lockdowns, empty theatres, the apparent abolition of normal human interaction and discourse as we have know it for the better and bitter part of human history. The coronavirus, like the locusts, like plankton, are Nature’s smallest subjects and yet it is these humblest of creatures that will impact humanity most over the coming decades. It is the workings of Nature’s tiniest armadas that will most influence civilization in the coming years.

“The Machine Stops,” published in 1909, was clairvoyant in its anticipation of the internet and communications we have today. Its main protagonist, Kuno, is living underground, dissatisfied with humanity’s mechanized and sanitized world. The world worships the machine. Technology is master and eventually the life support system needed to live above ground is abolished. Only when the Machine begins to fall apart do the main characters realize that Nature is the only thing that matters. It is a profound warning, this prophetic book.  

Can we continue to run the engine of this civilization with the same pace, greed and lack of consciousness we began with the heyday of globalization 50 years ago? Today we are out of sorts with proportion. With moderation, with reticence. There are plans to carve up the bottom of the sea as we have drilled for oil and coal and uranium above ground for decades. Is this what we really need? Is this virus, this lesion, going to make us rethink the numbing, blinding, machinations of industrial giantism as we have known it? It seems that the virus is David forcing the Gargantua and Goliath of the human frame to slow down. Let the pollution dissipate over China and Italy and find another way to conduct ourselves. Let the fever, the temperature of the world come down before earth asphyxiates. Let us rethink growth. Permanently. Before we pass out.


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Jobs will have to return. Travel will need to return but in less frenzied fashion. Students will have to be pardoned for not being able to pay the exorbitant bills manufactured by the elite class. Business will have to come back to support the edifice of our species. But the flaying of the rainforest for oil and palm oil cannot go on as planned. The last orangutans cannot be lost for our toothpaste and shampoo. The Amazon could be gone as we have known it before the end of the decade and then what will be the point of school except to tell the kids, we have failed.

The TEEB, the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, initiated by Pavan Sukhdev of Citibank, knows Nature has a value that needs to be incorporated in civilization’s decision making. Mangroves are irreplaceable. The forests are worth trillions, and they regenerate their worth each and every year. The cost of biodiversity loss is incalculable. We have to mainstream the economy of our society within the organic order. Modern economics is in denial. The extractive industries have taken too much of a toll on the planet. We have to push the reset button.

The coronavirus is forcing us to reappraise our place alongside Nature. It is finite and it is being disemboweled. What is at stake when we are past this stage of the war upon us, will be the need to recognize that worse will meet us at decade’s end if we do not change. The virus is forcing us not to be complacent before what globalization has wrought. Years ago some gathered to witness Kirkpatrick Sale destroy a computer with a sledgehammer before the New School in NYC. Was he acting like a modern-day Luddite? It was our utter dependency on the machine that disturbed him. He foresaw what EM Forster’s machine would become. All of globalization today is dependent on the machine. What the cell phone and computer do for the individual is paltry compared to how it supports the multinationals and makes everything they do possible. The frenetic emphasis on exports, the overweaning rage for profits has to be mitigated, the imbalances corrected, or the lungs of the world will collapse. The balance sheet between humanity and Nature does not add up.

If the diminishing flocks of birds and fish and elephants and whales and insects cannot convince us to change Moloch’s ways, then legions of infinitesimal, invisible viruses will once again be unleashed. And these unlike Napoleon’s armies, or the Wehrmacht’s power or Caesar’s centurions, will be unscrupulous denizens burying deep inside our flesh, penetrating even more deeply into our blood, far below the armor of denial.

In the old days education was first hand. As Forster says, “Vashti was seized with the terrors of direct experience. She shrank back into the room, and the wall closed up again.” Our reckoning with Earth has come. Health is not mere lack of sickness, just as peace is not just a lack of war.

This moment is unequivocal, and it should make us more civic and conscientious of our immense fragility. If this fragility can be seized, shared and articulated, we can move in the direction of that which supports life on this Earth. So far life has been measured by the antics of Wall Street and the biosphere continues to cry. That political faction still devoted to oil and gas and coal companies’ profits and not the commonwealth is on the wrong side of history and on the wrong side of evolution. It is on the wrong side of biology. On this small planet, biology ultimately reigns. We ignore Nature’s lessons at our peril. 

Those activists fighting to protect the larger creature called Earth are the true warriors of our time. Those who persist to suck the marrow not out of life but from Life will see its execution. The technocrats believe they have “harnessed Leviathan.” But it is the same mistake Ahab made with Moby Dick. America, young among countries, can rise to the occasion and master the contagion now flowing in its blood and soul. So far there is no vaccine to cure the willful disparity we have created between those who have and those who have not, between the human and non-human world. We are being taught the lesson of abject humility before something much dearer than the Machine. It is called Life. Our life, as a species, and the Earth’s depends on it.

“We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralyzed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops — but not on our lies. The Machine proceeds — but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die.”  

                                                                                    EM Forster


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Published on Mar 23, 2020