What it Means to be Human (in Times of Crisis)

[Laura Mai] Friday, April 3, 2020

I sit at my desk, looking out of the window, listening to birds chirping.

Thoughts racing. Heart beating. Lungs breathing.

In the early hours of the day following BoJo’s announcement of a UK-wide ‘lock-down’, I woke up slightly irritated when my little friends started their singing at dawn. Now, I am used to their song. And it brings me great pleasure (have a listen).

Over the past two weeks, as I re-arranged my life to fit into a 12 square metre apartment, I noticed a couple of blue tits (cyanistes caeruleus) getting comfortable in the hedge growing outside my window. They appear to be building a nest. I guess it is that time of year. Every day in ‘lock-down’, I greet my little friends when I open the window after waking up in the morning; by the time I go to bed they have gone silent. They are early risers. Over the past two weeks, I learned that my singing friends are early risers.

I also realised that something entirely natural (birds sitting in trees making noise), to me – a city dweller by choice – seemed surprising. The usual soundscape of my East-London habitat is that of combustion engines powering two or four wheels, interspersed with solos of roaring aircraft engines. But with the ‘lock down’, London road traffic has decreased significantly; and LCY Airport (about six miles away from my window, the winged choir and the hedge) has suspended operations. Nature’s sounds are audible again. And finally, I notice the two-meter stretch of green in front of my window. It is full of life.

As I sit at my desk, listening to my little friends going about their business in the hedge outside, I wonder: What does it mean to be human in this time of crisis?

Thoughts racing. Heart beating. Lungs breathing. Birds chirping.

Immediately, Donna Harraway comes to mind. Harraway writes:

‘Critters interpenetrate one another, loop around and through one another, eat each other, get indigestion, and partially digest and partially assimilate one another, and thereby establish sympoietic arrangements that are otherwise known as cells, organisms, and ecological assemblages.’

(Donna Harraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press 2016) 59)

That’s right. We are critters. Critters living through crisis. A crisis that fundamentally challenges assumptions about our role and our capacities on this planet.

SARS-CoV-2, in a gruesome, undeniable yet invisible manner, shows how humans are deeply intertwined with, dependent on, and reacting to the ‘environment’ (better: planetary support systems): ‘planetary, animal and human health are inseparable’. In other words, we may finally have to take seriously that the division of the world ‘into a box marked “Nature” and into one marked “Human”’ is untenable. (Clive Hamilton, ‘Human Destiny in the Anthropocene’ in Clive Hamilton, Christophe Bonneuil and François Gemenne (eds), The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis (Routledge 2015) 34).

Thoughts racing. Heart beating. Lungs breathing. Laptop humming.

An email notification pops up on my screen. A reminder for an online meeting. 

Online catch-ups with friends and colleagues. Online yoga to stretch stiff muscles. Online clubbing to lift dull spirits. Online dating to waste time. Online ‘house parties’ for fun (?). Online COVID-19 consultations  – you name it.

Being human in a time of crisis modifies our relationship with technology; and few of us are able to grasp risks and potential implications of the choices we make now.

Does being human in a time of crisis perhaps mean living in ‘a nature-culture continuum which is technologically mediated and globally enforced’? (Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Polity 2013) 82)

Blank. Where do we go from here?

I have begun to think of what is to follow these intense weeks, during which Europe and North America approach their (first) peak of the pandemic, not as an ‘after. Rather, we seem to be on the road to a new ‘normal’. Eventually, we will be able to achieve a sense of normality again. Eventually.

The immediacy of the experience of crisis, its global reach and the way in which SARS-CoV-2 challenges fundamental notions of what it means to be human will burn itself into the collective and individual psyche.

It is an opportunity to collectively find better answers to what it means to be human.

Thoughts racing. Heart beating. Lungs breathing. Birds chirping. Laptop humming.

This blog entry has been inspired by a forthcoming paper in a Special Issue of Transnational Legal Theory ‘Environmental Law in the Anthropocene: Transnational Dimensions’, available here.

Laura Mai | London | April 3, 2020

Published by pzumbansen

law professor.

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