Student Blogs VI: Human-Nature Relationships

This contribution belongs to a series of student blogs written as part of a seminar offered by EHC staff as part of our Research Master’s Environmental Humanities specialization. This year, this seminar was devoted to the Corona pandemic.

The New Normal?

Cyr Anouk Everaerts, MA Heritage Studies (VU)

In 2014, Bergtaller et all. argued: “finding better ways of living on our planet requires both long-term experimentation (…) and ‘risky thinking’, thinking that suspends our moral certainties, disregards the guardrails of polite public discourse, and tarries with complexity.”[1] In the current proliferation of the debates on the ‘intelligent’ lockdown in the Netherlands, the environmental humanities perspective could arguably be of value in finding ways and acknowledging the difficulties of how to live with the coronavirus.

Whilst the manifold challenges of the contagious disease disrupts society’s normal state of affairs and people are longing for the ‘cutting edge’, Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister tempered the expectations by introducing the euphemism “the new normal”. Even when the pressure on society will decrease, then still, do the circumstances not allow for the return to our former living standards. It seems as if there are no political choices behind the rather pragmatic measures. However, I would like to discuss the notion – implied by the reference to ‘normal’ – of a natural stability under threat that is to be mitigated.

It was Greta Thunberg arguing that: “there is a lot of talk about returning to ‘normal’ after the COVID-19 outbreak. But normal was a crisis.”[2] Even though the notion the Earth’s sixth mass extinction of non-human species, environmental degradation, soil erosion, pollution and resource overconsumption is addressed increasingly by policymakers and media outlets, it is a challenge for environmental humanities scholars to address the human dimensions of the corona and environmental crisis and reach a wide audience outside of the academic world.[3] However, the uncertainty and complexity of the current interval of time require the society at large to embrace a sense of coexistence and the effort of ‘risky-thinking’. To conclude, this seems more ‘normal’ than the situation before the corona virus emerged.

References

[1] Bergtaller et all. 2014, p. 266.

[2] https://twitter.com/GretaThunberg [last accessed on 16 April 2020].

[3] Bergtaller et all. 2014, p. 262.


Blurred Lines

Dunja Nešović, RMA Critical Studies Art & Culture (VU)

During a Skype call with my friend from Serbia that happened sometime in the beginning of the Corona crisis, he noted how amazed he was with everything being so intertwined. Economy, politics, culture, behavior, inter(as well as intra)personal relationships were all affected heavily by a newfound situation caused by this virus and deep connections between those areas of life were brought to light as well. As a non-human agent that spreads so vastly all over the globe, Covid-19 acts as a sort of a catalyst; by representing a threat, it calls upon new sets of rules and regulations necessary for protection from it, while simultaneously uncovering hidden structures that regulate our lives and societies during the time of ‘normalcy’.

While it might not be so hard to connect cultural (in the sense of man-made) aspects of our living environments and arrangements to one another inserting a different specie into that equation, which gravely affects the functioning of the societies around the world, brings forth the often-overlooked presence and agency of non-human species. The idea of the ‘environment’ acquires new meanings as the distinction of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ become blurred, or better yet, as the strings tying them together become bare. Human is no longer in the environment, but an essential part of it (at least from the perspective of the virus). Compartmentalization of distinct spheres of life (both in the practical and biological sense of the word) has collapsed. There is only one context now – the one of the virus-plagued Earth – which is so complex that it invites inspection of its multiple facets in such a way in which it is also necessary to keep the big picture in mind. Taking into account ‘the new normal’ which will be instilled during and after this crisis, having a cohesive perspective on ourselves and our environment would be one of the fruitful consequences of it.


Human refuge in nature after a pandemic

Renate Scheldwald, Clinical Psychology / Visual Ethnography (UU)

‘Rethinking Our Relationship to the Natural World After Covid-19’ (The Nation, 2020), and many other variations that all speak to the inevitable change in the human-nature relationship. If you are forced to stay indoors for long periods of time, your relationship to the outdoors changes. This becomes evident through personal experience: feeling more grateful for time spent outside, anxiousness about this being taken away, clinging to the (urban) nature still available to me. It’s confirmed by the never-ending stream of information about the virus as an environmental crisis, such as the ones above. From ‘we (humans) are the virus’ memes, to articles stating nature should be our refuge.

Refuges that, according to Tsing (2015) and Harraway (2015) have already ceased to exist. Harraway speaks about making the Anthropocene as short as we can, arguing that only after that we can cultivate ‘imaginable epochs’ that will be able to provide for new places of refuge in nature. But, it is clear from her manifesto of ‘make kin, not babies’ that she is not talking about places of refuge for humans. What refuge in nature can we as human species expect, after doing so much damage? One could argue we don’t even deserve the refuge of nature, something that the ‘we are the virus’ sentiment connects to. Is this changing relationship all about undoing damage, in order to deserve this refuge nature can offer?

In 2012, environmental journalist Jim Robbins wrote about an infectious disease model that shows how most epidemics are a result of people doing something to nature. With this he suggests that disease is largely an environmental issue to be solved by humans, because we need to stop doing that something. In other words, we need to intervene less in nature. Does this lessening of human involvement save nature from future harm? What space will there be for a human’s refuge in nature, in a world where we adhere to this call?

References
Haraway, D. (2015). Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin. Environmental Humanities 6:1 159-165.

Klare, M. (2020). Rethinking Our Relationship to the Natural World After Covid-19. The Nation. Retrieved on 16-04-2020 from https://www.thenation.com/article/environment/coronavirus-nature-humans/

Robbins, J. (2012). The Ecology of Disease. The New York Times. Retrieved on 16-04-2020 from:
https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/sunday-review/the-ecology-of-disease.html?smid=fb-share&fbclid=IwAR3z0kffE2qTXabdD7RaGjz7_8z0PbNVumhEconqQprZYoRu2fuFfLG2AHM

Tsing, A. (2015). Feral Biologies. Paper for Anthropological Visions of Sustainable Futures, University College London

Vidal, J. (2020). ‘Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?. The Guardian. Retrieved on 16-04-2020 from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/18/tip-of-the-iceberg-is-our-destruction-of-nature-responsible-for-covid-19-aoe#maincontent

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