Crisis and the Anthropocene

Alison Hulme, Senior Lecturer in International Development at University of Northampton

I’ll begin by asking you to picture a scene. I am outside my house, with my four-year-old daughter. It’s a Thursday evening; 7.56pm to be precise. We have lifted her (small) drumkit out onto the front gravel and I have grabbed a large frying pan and a wooden spoon from our kitchen. People are emerging from their doorways all down the street and there is an air of excitement and camaraderie that feels exhilarating and almost unknown in our times. At 7.59 we hear one tentative clapping sound, then more, then more. Our street begin to join in. One by one, people get louder. Some whistle and cheer. We bang our pots and pans. My daughter, having lost her initial bewilderment, goes absolutely crazy on her drumkit bashing any bit of it she can. The street love it. They are pointing and laughing and shouting encouragement up the road to us. Then, somewhere, some fireworks go off. We are all amazed. Just amazed. And moved. In fact I am still moved to tears writing this. Silly me.

‘The clap’ for NHS and keyworkers became a regular feature of lockdown life for us and part of what in a Radio 4 interview Peter Hennessey brilliantly called a ‘redistribution of esteem’. I am aware that not all streets are like ours, but my own experience is one of a huge sense of coming together. Last week, when it was the final clap, I felt overwhelmingly sad. Sad that it might all mean nothing in real terms. That it might not provide any legacy apart from sentimental memories. That is might not prove to be the glue that disallows any future politician to dismantle the NHS or underpay key workers. I also felt proud that some of my daughter’s earliest memories will be of these scenes, and that nobody can take that away.

I have been trying to analyse this great sadness I feel, and also my strange desire for things not to return to the way they were. I am painfully aware that many people’s experiences and challenges during this crisis have been and still are absolutely horrific. Indeed, a PhD student of mine fought for her life for five days; a friend of mine is having to use a food bank; another is suffering awful mental health challenges due to having to isolate. So, I know that my experience is (so far) one that is luxurious in many ways and I hope that what I write here does not come across as negating the very different ways in which COVID has affected different demographic groups for all sorts of unexpected reasons. I recognise the irony that whilst for me, finally, it did feel like ‘we are all in this together’, for many it was quite the opposite.

Yet still, with that caveat firmly in place, I cannot help but feel this crisis makes thinking about the Anthropocene even more relevant, and not just in the obvious sense that this is a global pandemic. Rather, it is relevant because at its core, it insists that we are all in this together. That despite huge inequalities, there is a fundamental truth to that idea, certainly when it comes to ecological disaster, but perhaps also when it comes to global health crises. Just as climate change has no boundaries, so too COVID knows no nation states. It attacks princes and prime ministers as well as refugees (and this is not to negate the far greater devastation it causes in more deprived areas of course). Most pertinently, COVID has brought us in some important ways, down a similar pathway to that which ecological concern does. We were forced to drive less and immediately saw the benefits. We were forced to rely on others more, and Ivan Illich’s conviviality was felt by many. We were forced to buy less and thrift became the new norm. And finally, oh heaven(!), saying these things and enjoying a life less imbued with capitalisation was perfectly acceptable. I realise that on a macro scale there was much capitalising of the crisis, not least with competing contracts for drug and PPE supplies; but on a personal level, life felt/feels freer of the kind of relationships and interactions that come with intense capitalism. Ah, and this then, is why I find myself not wanting ‘normal’ back; desperately seeking ways to hold on to some elements of lockdown life; and crying because the last clap is over.

Credit photo: Cosmin Popan

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