I doubt there is anything else we can talk about since the inauspicious arrival of COVID-19. The speed of contagion and the glut of fatalities, including large portions of doctors and nurses doing their jobs, have in less than a month forced at least 50% of humanity to live in quarantine. How can we remain silent about the massive unemployment, not seen since the 1930s, and the economic devastation, in particular of the tourist industry and of small businesses? Will anyone dare take a cruise ship again? (Personally, I hope not, they are the worst polluters on the planet). And then, who can ignore the sufferings of families, children, schools, and communities, all of whom have had to conform to social distancing and virtual communication as a mode of survival? The question on most people’s minds is, of course, what next? Will there be work? Will there be money? Will we be able to meet on the street? Can we kiss again? Consumerism has prepared us to be pathologically optimistic and believe that there will always be an “after,” reconstituting the world more or less the way it was before the crisis took its course. I would propose, however, a more realistic attitude. Rather than “after,” which may someday arrive when a vaccine and efficient testing become universal, the more accurate state of things is “during”. The pandemic that has engulfed the world provides a profound lesson that should make us all more aware. It may sound cynical but, despite the casualties, we should feel an uncanny sense of gratitude to Coronavirus, which is preparing us for the greater environmental emergencies that humanity must eventually confront.
Many experts, such as Inger Anderson, director of the United Nations’ Environment Programme, attribute the current pandemic to environmental causes, and thus the virus can be understood as the revenge of Nature. The human tendency toward over population, weakened immune systems, excess CO2 and fine particle production, and the overall burden to ecological systems is at fault. The consequences were predicted long ago in The Limits to Growth (1972), which in its updated version of 2004 set the climax of catastrophes for food and services in the fateful year of 2020. This was not the musing of doomsday mystics but of well-respected scientists and statisticians using computer models. While many of the authors’ predictions were inaccurate, most famously that we would run out of petrol by 1992, the current health crisis fits some of their prognostications. It should prepare us for the new context of the Anthropocene backlash. The familiar litany follows: the dissolution of the polar ice caps by more than a third, the rise in PH factor increasing the acidity of the oceans, endangering all living aquatic creatures(except medusas!), the mass extinctions of other species that has reduced biodiversity during the past century, the Greenhouse Effect forcing world temperature to increase 1.5 degrees. Such an ecological holocaust remains mostly the result of human agency, inspired by capitalism’s quest for eternal development, which most of us take for granted. The lesson to be learned from COVID-19 is that we are not ready to pay the price. Nor will we be ready for the rising waters that will afflict 70% of the world’s cities, nor the 50-degree temperatures that will stultify agriculture on many parts of the planet.
While the future for most occupations, excepting health care, seems up in the air, architecture, which has had a noteworthy role in the rise of carbon excess, will probably play a substantial part in the eventual “reconstruction,” once the virus appears to be under control. The story of Wuhan, where the Chinese military built two 1000-bed hospitals in less than 10 days, serves as an indication. Now that the dimensions of the crisis can no longer be denied, we can expect an acute demand for health-care projects worldwide. The disease’s impact on schools, housing, and above all public space will require major adjustments in design and behavior, unless, as the 45th president of the US suggests in his impulsive manner, we can inoculate people with disinfectants--but perhaps we should let him be the first to try. Adaptation is the mandate. There are so many empty buildings around the world, perhaps they should be converted into health facilities. The vacant Shard in London might make a better hospital, than phantom billionaire apartments.
If we were living in the age of Joan of Arc, the militant climate crisis crusader, Greta Thunberg, would have been burnt at the stake as a witch. Ironically, without any intended policy, her demands to stop using carbon fuels in our cars, to stop flying, to reduce polluting production, to eat less meat, and above all to live in panic until we have lowered our carbon footprint, are all being realized. The panic, however, is not because of the fear of the probable extinction of our species, but due to our temporary encounter with COVID-19. Meanwhile, satellite photographs reveal that since the pandemic began the air of Delhi, Beijing, Milan and Madrid, has never been so clean. The production of automobiles has dropped by 50%, while the price of gasoline has hit its lowest nadir. This turn to sustainable living has not been reached voluntarily, nor through national good intentions, but is the paranoid byproduct of international shutdowns.
Thus, I can’t help thinking Coronavirus has had a positive impact toward creating a more sustainable world. If we do not dramatically continue to reduce our patterns of consumption, we are destined to an extenuated heat death during the rest of the century. This is why I hesitate to agree that there will be an “after”, but instead believe the crisis was already here and will continue after the disease has subsided. While we may not be happy about it, the adaptation to Coronavirus offers the crowning lesson on how to radically change life styles for survival.
Credits © Richard Ingersoll for "Arquitectura Viva"