The COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as a metaphor for climate change. Antonio Pisanò argues that both can only be resolved when humanity channels the fear of death into the empathy, collaboration and discipline required for coordinated collective action.

Unite & conquer

COVID-19 has turned the world on its head. The economy at a standstill, society in lockdown. Our basic freedom of movement taken away. COVID-19 has disrupted the normality of our lives without notice. Individuals, governments and societies are in shock. My brain is trying to adapt to the new online lifestyle of WhatsApp breakfasts and Zoom dinners. The re-normalisation process is so fast that I am starting to forget how normal life was. The more I think about it, the more I am left wondering: what is normal?

Normal comes from the Latin adjective normalis, of the norm. The norm in Latin is norma, the carpenter’s square rule. For any given angle, the norma will give you a 90° line. In geometry a 90° line setting off from any given line or plane is called a normal, whose points are equidistant from the original line or plane.

The etymology of the adjective ‘normal’ gives us an interesting insight into the subjectivity of normality. In geometry there is not a single normality but infinite different ones. In society, the matter is somewhat less variable but a degree of multiplicity still exists. Our normality depends on our habits, beliefs, lifestyles. But all of these are largely dictated by our culture, which is the narrative that social groups follow to seek order and meaning in life, which, in turn, some people believe, is actually just a mix of chaos and chance. One way or another, we could say that normality is a subset of culture. Culture holds the secret code of human behaviours. And culture is key for understanding the spread of coronavirus and how to end the dramatic pandemic.

Like SARS, COVID-19 is a virus that has ‘jumped’ species, moving from animals to humans. Whether from snakes, birds or bats, scientists are working around the clock to trace the virus’s origins in order to unlock essential clues about how to treat it. At its simplest level of analysis, COVID-19 provides additional evidence that human and natural systems are interlinked and that the level of fragility/robustness of natural ecosystems has a direct impact, more or less severe, on humans. Beyond the evidence of humans’ connection to natural ecosystems, the ongoing unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic provides other relevant keys to better understand human behaviour and the path ahead for its evolution. The story of coronavirus comes from complexity and heads towards more complexity. It has its roots in the anthropocentric exploitation of wild animals to supply a segment of the food market where extra value is identified in the exotic and rare nature of game meat. Such market segments are poorly regulated and poorly assessed in terms of sustainability. In other words, the complex collateral effect of eating wild and rare animals is ignored, both in respect to the natural ecosystem the animals are taken from, and in respect to the human systems into which the product is introduced. Such market segments continue to exist because of certain human narratives. Large groups of humans are convinced that eating rare and exotic animals is right. The same amount of nutrients that came from the exotic rare game meat responsible for COVID-19 could be extracted sustainably from other sources, yet because of powerful human narratives, we end up eating weird stuff that eventually kills us. This is not to say that avoiding exotic and rare game meat will spare us from pandemic but it is meant to reinforce the importance of being aware of what we don’t know we don’t know.

Our society seems obsessed with bending our perception of reality to match our beliefs. Where humans should maximise their collective awareness of complexity and ecology, the linearity of unfounded narratives takes precedence. From coronavirus to climate change, the importance of reframing human culture in the context of complexity and empathy is crucial. Empathy is the evolutionary tool to handle complexity intuitively. Complexity and empathy go hand in hand like yin and yang, Apollonian and Dionysian, sense and sensibility, science and art … and so on and so forth. Without empathy, and more specifically mirror neurons, predators cannot ‘feel’ how a potential prey might behave and will be unable to successfully hunt and feed their young. Without empathy, early humans could not have organised themselves in more and more complex social structures, like clans and tribes, and would not have overcome the risk of much larger and stronger predators. As effectively argued by Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilization, and contrary to a simplistic take on Darwinian theories and evolutionary biology, empathy plays a crucial role in the evolution of species.

Culture is key to understanding the spread of coronavirus and how to end the pandemic

Yet empathy seems at odds with our main cultural framework, based on anthropocentrism, individualism and neoliberalism. Since the emergence of humanism in the 15th century, human intellect, applied to science and technology, has been the dominant narrative framework for humanity. Behind our humanistic shield we bounced off the evidence of a wider and more complex web, a web perhaps too difficult to explore with the computational power of the human brain alone. While empathy provides powerful subconscious insight into the behaviour of organisms and systems other than ourselves, it is ultimately dependent on perception and therefore hard to implement in the realm of objective sciences. In the evolution of their cognitive powers, humans possibly needed some extra help to manage complexity beyond the intuitive insight of empathy. In Chaos: Making a New Science, James Gleick highlights the emergence of chaos theory from Lorenz’s equations and Mandelbrot’s fractals in the ’60s and ’70s. Besides the exquisitely human ingenuity required to imagine the possibility of order in apparently random behaviours, the importance of digital computing should not be underestimated. Hand calculators first and personal computers later provided essential extra brain power for humans’ evolution towards the beginning of a rational and objective understanding of complexity. Humans today have great tools to embrace the interwoven web of life that holds together the biosphere. On the other hand, the fact that scientists have started to pin down the mechanics of complexity, does not necessarily mean that the weight of linear narratives has been lifted from the entirety of humanity’s consciousness. And it shouldn’t. Different levels and types of consciousness co-exist at once as much as different kinds of narratives and social constructs live alongside each other more or less peacefully. As effectively pointed out by Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens and Homo Deus, narratives are essential for human systems to function as they provide intersubjective truths for individuals to agree upon.

Why can’t people follow the rules?

Logic alone cannot solve the conundrum of why humans can’t get their act together and contain the viral contagion. So many of us are actively contributing to the viral spread, acting in complete cognitive denial. Are people just stupid (as in lacking in computational power)? Statistically, that is possible. While, on the one hand, the divestment from quality public education has had a direct effect on the average level of critical thinking and capacity to distinguish facts from fiction, stupidity alone cannot be responsible for the irresponsible behaviour that is contributing to the pandemic. Seemingly intelligent people are acting in seemingly stupid ways. Beyond the vague dualism of stupidity and intelligence, I believe that it is our culture standing in the way of logic. So many of us are stuck with our individuality. We all learnt to believe that we are unique, exceptional and amazing. We need to celebrate our uniqueness and individuality with seemingly unique products and services. Also we are told to plough ahead in life, in a highly competitive environment, leveraging our very own creative, ingenious, entrepreneurial skills. COVID-19 loves all of that.What COVID-19 doesn’t like is humanity thinking as a coherent, united, coordinated organism. What COVID-19 will struggle to cope with is humanity as a super-organism with true collective intelligence organising defence and counter-attack. To grasp the idea of humanity as a super-organism, we need abstract, systemic thinking, an appreciation of complexity, and above all, empathy and love. Unfortunately, those of us stuck in the narrative of individuality get very little of the above and pose a risk to all of us, regardless of the specific level of intelligence, education or income. How is the notion of humanity as a super-organism present in our cultures?

In the last few weeks, scanning through newspapers and social media, it is interesting to notice a recurrent pattern in how different social narratives make humans react to the pandemic. At first there is denial, then fear and more or less selfish action, then comes the embracing of complexity and empathy.

At first, denial

Local Chinese health authorities refused to believe that they could not manage the outbreak. Italian partygoers refused to believe that they should change their trendy lifestyle. French Smurf enthusiasts refused to believe that a foreign virus could bring their society to a halt. Some climate-sceptic Americans still refuse to believe that their great nation could be responsible for any environmental wrongdoing and, even if some wrongdoing is being done, refuse to believe that they will be affected and even if affected, refuse to believe that they should do something about it.

Then, fear

Chinese citizens fully embraced the use of breathing masks and protective clothing. Italian students enrolled in the northern Italian universities, despite the very clear instruction to stay at home to limit the spread of the virus in the country, jumped on trains to go to their parents’ home elsewhere in Italy (and reach the protective all-encompassing powers of the mamma), in ways not necessarily effective to contain contagion … quite the opposite. British citizens, despite exhortations not to panic buy, cleared the shops of toilet rolls and hand detergents and sanitisers, effectively preventing other citizens from staying clean and washing their hands, thus increasing the risk of viral spread. In light of the poor political response to the Paris Agreement pledges, a growing number of American students are more and more scared for their own future and have taken to the streets with Fridays for Future and other movements.

Finally, embracing complexity, empathy, action

In China, the pandemic peaked and the number of new cases diminished dramatically. The management of the viral spread resulted from the combined action of top-down government policies and bottom-up citizens’ responsible collaboration.The fact that China has managed to curb the exponential curve is a key factor in finding a way through this crisis. Italian society, from showbiz to sport, from religion to business, has found new solidarity and, almost overnight, government and an increasing number of citizens have started coordinating actions to reduce the burden on the health service, which has responded with greater efficiency. The positive impact of united action should be emphasised also to counter the dysfunctional impact of fake news and fear mongers. Similarly, European businesses have mobilised to allow remote working and reduce the probability of contagion. Emergency budgets have been hastily announced to try to save national economies. Countries and citizens have stepped up, embracing the intricate complexity of the situation.

Not enough, we could say, and in a rather mixed way, as some cultures retain more collective consciousness than others. Capitalist liberal democracies are proving less effective in coordinating social response compared with less liberal or more community-oriented social structures. The relevance of culture will provide an interesting angle to assess the data, once confirmed, on how Japan and South Korea are managing to contain the viral infection better than Italy or the US.

In more than thirty years climate change has not triggered a reaction proportionate to the threat

Still, before all of this is over – and our social scientists are able to study the pandemic phenomenon retrospectively – we have a very urgent issue to resolve which involves reinventing our culture and redefining a new normal. If we could zoom into the generic domain of normality we may see that, already within our culture, we have the germinating seeds of a promising new order.

In a few months, COVID-19 has triggered individual reactions a global scale because it affects the ultimate core value of our collective narrative, which is ourselves, our own health and happiness. Humans have reacted accordingly to the scale of the threat. Because the impact of COVID-19 is complex, empathy and cooperation are the most effective policies to manage the emergency. Unlike the coronavirus pandemic, in more than thirty years, climate change has not triggered a reaction proportionate to the threat, probably because it does not immediately affect the core values of the anthropocentric- neoliberal paradigm of our societies. Climate change needs an even higher level of empathy to be understood compared with COVID-19. Only if one is able to empathise with a flooded village thousands of miles away, with the dying last male white rhino of a practically extinct species, or with the future of fellow humans yet to be born, will one suddenly understand the scale of the global threat climate change poses for all life on Earth. And then act accordingly.

The challenge is therefore not to replace human narratives with almighty artificial intelligence but rather to go back to culture, the single most important narrative for humanity, and embed complexity and empathy in our core cultural values.

Selfish and linear narratives have only kicked the can down the road, delayed coordinated and collaborative action and made the emergency harder to tackle. Although the pandemic is still on the rise in many parts of the world, on the basis of the recent data coming from China, it would seem that humans are well equipped to fight back COVID-19. We most certainly hope so.

Discipline and danger

While most people like an easy life and find existential meaning in a reassuring routine, others don’t mind a bit of hardship and risk getting a glimpse of their own version of existential meaning. I happen to belong to the second group.Why the hell am I doing this? Sometimes I can’t help asking myself. Usually it happens when I’m hanging from a 300-metre vertical drop, with only a few spiders and birds staring at me, their answer being: ‘Honestly, I really don’t know what you are doing up here’. Or it happens when a lovely holiday with friends turns into a struggle against Neptune, battling four-metre waves in 40-knot winds with all the sails reefed down, trying to surf the crest of the waves and glide down the other side hoping not to damage the vessel my life depends upon. Or it happens after an intense ‘learning’ session at my local dojo with a better sparring partner (most of them are), whose fast and precise kicks and punches leave me concussed and confused, pondering the fact that I truly don’t know what I don’t know. Rock climbing, sailing and martial arts are great fun. They facilitate the release of endorphins and adrenaline. They are unequivocally dangerous. Beware of anyone who says otherwise.

The practice of extreme sports brings risk management from the safe distance of an Excel spreadsheet to the scary reality of survival. Being in close contact with life-threatening danger triggers repeatedly our fear of death, which is among the most powerful ancestral instincts we possess. Fear, when correctly channelled, triggers our stupendously resourceful survival mode. Unfortunately, extreme sports don’t make you immune from COVID-19 but they help in understanding the vital correspondence of causes and effects, of correct and incorrect action, of life and death. Crucially, they teach us that we aren’t unstoppable, unique and amazing as our mainstream consumerist culture has taught us. We are weak. We are fragile. We break and bleed very easily. Nature is unthinkably more powerful than us. A single movement in the rock crack and all the quickdraws and ropes are gone … and maybe we die. A drastic change in weather, perhaps made worse by our lack of experience, planning or action, and we fall overboard or our mast breaks, or the engine goes, or we run aground … and maybe we die. Against nature, we are infinitely weaker and we need each other. We need each other to complete the climb in safety or to sail the boat to harbour as much as we need each other to overcome COVID-19.

In all sport practices, whether extreme or not, discipline is essential. Interestingly, discipline is also essential in complex social structures or social super-organisms like armies and religious orders. But discipline is equally essential to hermits and lone travellers and people confined to isolation. Discipline blends elements of risk management with insights of existential meaning.With a bit of luck, if we follow the rules, we can reach the summit and complete the sail, we can win the spar and overcome the virus. Discipline is all the more effective when we have the cost of not following the rules clearly in mind.

Death and dying

The cost of not following the rules can be life. On a rock face, in the sea or in the middle of a pandemic. It is important to acknowledge the possibility of death and to channel the fear into discipline. Denying the possibility of death, ignoring the risk, only increases the chances of a negative outcome and puts the people around us at risk.

It is rather unfortunate that our culture has made our relationship with death slightly dysfunctional. For most of our lives we simply ignore death. We do anything to avoid its image. We invest time and money in the artificial alteration of the signs of age and decay. We act as if the linear promise of endless economic growth and endless life could be achievable. We ignore the circularity of life and death and, as a result, we are poorly prepared for death’s inevitable occurrence.

It wasn’t always this way. Pre-modern rural agricultural societies faced death in various forms on a daily basis due to lower levels of sanitisation and poor healthcare but also because they were closely connected to nature and its ruthless food chain. Because of the fragility of human life, people had to stick together. Social cohesion was crucial to make it through the winter. Multi-generational living was a no brainer in order to leverage everybody’s resources and maximise the chances of survival. Humbleness and fear of nature were natural instincts to inform a shared discipline of simplicity and hardship. Fail to conform and people might die.

Act, now

COVID-19 is forcing individuals to embrace their belonging to the super-organism of humanity. On a daily basis we hear of neighbourhood help groups, online support, WhatsApp dinners, Skype breakfasts and balcony singing.We are instinctively drawn towards checking on one another. All those acts are the unquestionable evidence that when we drop the self-delusional mask of modern supremacism and anthropocentric linear growth, we automatically reconnect to the super-organism of humanity. Alone we are fragile, easily breakable mammals. Together we give life to a bigger self, a powerful interconnected nebula of social cooperation, empathy and love. We can and must evolve our culture quickly, letting go of the illusion of endless humanist power and bringing back pre-modern values of collective intelligence and natural symbiosis.We must redefine our normality and act together against COVID-19. And when the pandemic is over we will have to hold onto the newly gained value of collective humanity and understand, once and for all, that humans are a part of our biosphere. COVID-19 is a small, hopefully short, and definitively painful reintroduction to the fragility of humankind. Climate change is the full story. Perhaps Gaia is watching us, giving us a last chance to evolve. Stay at home and keep safe.

Author bio

Antonio Pisanò is a director of Marcel Mauer Architecture.