This interview was conducted via email on 11 May 2020
Bryn Jones Square: Do you think it could be argued that our present situation, one of doubt, fear, and uncertainty, is in fact the perfect breeding ground for change?
Todd Dufresne: Let’s start with our “present situation.” It’s not often we can say, realistically and scientifically, that we are living through a world historic event. Not just an historical event, such as a war or important milestone, but a world historical event. These ultra-rare events are qualitatively and quantitatively different from historical events. The asteroid strike in the Yucatán over 66 million years ago was a world historical event. The same holds for the Ice Ages that began 2.4 million years ago. These epochal events are markers—intellectual and physical markers; grave markers—of what came before and what came after. They changed everything. The pandemic we’re currently experiencing may be paradigm shifting, but it isn’t an epochal event like the climate emergency.
BJS: Is the coronavirus a feature of climate change?
TD: Epidemics and pandemics are a scripted, predictable part of life in the Holocene, the epoch of the past 12,000 years. They’re not new. At the same time, experts expect new and even more deadly viruses to appear with the melting of the arctic permafrost, currently underway. So in this respect Covid-19 does seem like a prelude to things to come, a wake up call of what to expect over the next fifty years. But unlike, say, the raging Australian fires of late 2019, it’s unclear to me that the coronavirus is a clear-cut signal of climate change.
However, we can say with certainty that the coronavirus was fuelled by globalized capitalism, the same force that fuels climate change. So there is a connection.
BJS: What is it?
TD: First of all, the mistreatment of animals is a systemic feature of the way we feed billions of people on the planet. Some dangerous viruses, from the Avian and Swine flus to Covid-19, are “zoonotic,” that is, they jump from animals to humans. This jump is caused by our food industries, by a desire to maximize profits at any expense, and so they’re really human-made. To that extent they are ready measures of, and judgments about, our inhumanity toward other living beings. I’m amazed that food activists haven’t been more vocal about it during this pandemic. Second, the Covid-19 virus simply followed the flows of capital. The rapidity with which it encircled the world is amazing, with a relatively short delay between the news cycle and its appearance in all the communities along the global production network. Covid-19 thereupon destroyed the very markets that it flowed along and, returning to your opening question, opened a gap, a cultural, political, and intellectual gap, between what was and what could be. Or again, the virus has made possible changes that were seemingly impossible only four months ago.
BJS: So the pandemic has done to us what you expected from climate change over the next few decades?
TD: Yes, I think so. Exactly. The pandemic has, first of all, given us a preview of climate change, even if it is in fact a very mild preview, because life under climate change is about to get far more catastrophic for people over the next ten to thirty years. And, once again, the pandemic has also ushered in what seems like a paradigm shift in our thinking about what is possible concerning the supposedly unmovable, inviolable economy. About capitalism. It turns out that we can, in fact, mobilize the planet in the face of a significant existential threat. The impossible is suddenly very possible. So the pandemic may not be a world historical event, but it is a very significant historical event – one that may help us deal more effectively with climate catastrophe.
BJS: Are you saying that the pandemic may actually save us from climate catastrophe? If so, isn’t that a bit harsh?
TD: You’re right on both counts. Yes, we should be sensitive about the people who have died and will continue to die from Covid-19. But if the pandemic wakes people up to the real existential threats of ecological destruction, most especially climate change, then maybe they will be ready to take the next big steps we need—now, not in fifteen or twenty years—to save parts of our civilizations before they are destroyed as we enter an epoch of planetary conditions entirely different from the ones we evolved to thrive in.
BJS: As we become part of this world historical event?
TD: We are already a part of it, whether or not we know it or believe in it. For belief has nothing on the myriad experiences of climate-related suffering. My basic argument in The Democracy of Suffering is that we are about to be schooled on the difference between the good old days of life in the Holocene and the new world of extinctions, calamities, and sufferings that are baked into the Anthropocene. I’m afraid that this future is now. There are no more cans to kick down the road. If we’re wise and sufficiently lucky, the current pandemic will wake us all up to what is possible, to who we can become, and to what still needs to be done in the face of catastrophic climate change. So a dark kind of optimism is warranted. We should make the best of it while we can, not in 2030 but today.
Bryn Jones Square received her PhD from Oxford in 2017. She is an English Instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and her current research explores empathy through the lenses of literature and neuroscience.