Guest blog by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

‘This is our third week of lockdown, or “shelter in place.” We are only allowed out to visit the grocery store or for exercise. I am fortunate to live in a small coastal town in Northern California, so my morning exercise was in a rain-soaked landscape on a path towards the shoreline, my only companions a small family of quail scurrying along in front of me. Finally there was a space to reflect, to look out at the landscape of this pandemic that has taken hold of our world so completely.

First I must acknowledge that my own life has not changed very much. I love solitude, live quietly, and prefer our home cooking to going out to eat. As long as I can walk and buy bread and vegetables, I am satisfied. But across the world a very different story is being told, full of anxiety, fear, and real concerns, people losing life and livelihood. We do not know how this story will unfold, or for how long we will be in its grip, but we can begin to read the signs.

The most obvious sign is that, despite the posturing of politicians and populist drives towards nationalism, we live in an interconnected world. Beginning in late December, within three months a new virus spread from a market in Wuhan, China, to most countries around the world. This is the reality of our present civilisation. And just as the virus spread, so did its economic effect, as the supply lines of our global economy froze. Global leaders tried to close borders, but the virus was already a pandemic, prevalent throughout the world, and global markets went into free fall. We are now looking at a global economic crisis as well as a global health crisis.

The most common sense response to the virus has been to self-isolate, to close everything except essential services. Isolation is the oldest and most tested way to prevent the spread of a disease. In the Middle Ages whole cities were quarantined to prevent the spread of the plague. Today schools and businesses have been shut down, and more recently the pubs in England and the beaches in Florida have finally been closed, all to limit the spread of the coronavirus and help stop our health systems from being overwhelmed. And suddenly we are in the midst of an economic crisis—our consumer-driven society brought to a halt. Because almost 80% of American workers live pay-check to pay-check, this crisis is unfolding very quickly. Do you pay the rent or buy groceries, and what happens when you can afford neither? And in the world’s most vulnerable countries the danger is amplified, the poor even more destitute, the rickshaw driver without customers having nothing to feed his family.

We are part of a global civilization, and our present economic structure is suddenly very fragile. In a few months it can fall apart. We are already seeing the markets in free fall, crashing 30%, and in America unemployment is set to soar to levels not seen since the Great Depression, leaving millions without work. The most powerful economy in the world is seen as a house of cards, easily blown over by the breath of a virus.

We appear to have no other economic model than our present consumer-driven culture. This is like a monoculture when a disease strikes, like the potato famine in Ireland, except that there is nowhere to emigrate, to begin a new life. And none of our politicians or leaders offer any alternatives, instead they can only promise a quick return to “normal.” But is this really what our world needs? To quote the English writer Paul Kingsnorth:

All this civilization wants to do is to get back to normal. Normal is cheap flights and cheap lattes, normal is Chinese girls sewing our T-shirts under armed guard, normal is biblical bushfires and barrels of oil, normal is city breaks and international conferences and African children poisoning their bodies sorting the plastic we have dumped on their coastlines, normal is nitrite pollution and burning stumps and the death of the seas….. We should be saying: no more normal. Not now, not ever. (Finnegas, Emergence Magazine)

Yes, the fear of those who are confronting this illness is real, as is the anxiety of those living pay-check to pay-check. But this pandemic has also triggered a collective anxiety, one that can be felt even out here on the coast, where my only companions are the rain and the quail. This is the anxiety that comes from the deep wisdom of the collective psyche, that knows our civilization is coming to an end, that it has passed its sell-by date, and has no understanding of what comes next.

Just as a forest is connected by an underground fungal network, enabling individual trees to communicate with each other, and can warn each other of danger by releasing chemicals into the air, so are we all connected together deep within, sharing the wisdom and knowing of the Earth, our common home. And this network is sending us warning signs, that our present way of life is not only unsustainable, but over. Even when this pandemic comes to an end, we cannot afford to “return to normal” for very long. This present crisis can awaken us to the reality that we need a new way of life, one that is truly sustainable with the Earth and Her “other-than-human” inhabitants. This virus can be heard as a part of the cry of the Earth—calling to us to change, adapt, awaken from our dream of eternal economic growth, the nightmare that is destroying so much of Her fragile beauty and wonder.

Unless we are caught in the strange delusions of denial, we recognise that the coming climate catastrophe is real, we have seen it in the bush fires in Australia, the hurricanes and heat waves. We may even have noticed the “windshield phenomenon” of “insect apocalypse,” in which flying insects have decreased by three-quarters in the past 25 years (vitally significant as insects are essential to food webs and the existence of life on Earth). And as CO2 emissions continue to rise, in the words of Greta Thunberg “Our house is on fire.” This is not normal, and even those caught in the false promises of our consumer culture feel anxiety, even panic, in the depths of their psyche, in the core of their being. Rather than thinking this is a global emergency we will “get through” in a few months, there is a call to be receptive to the deeper meaning of this experience, to listen to life itself.

Are we able to stay in a place of insecurity and unknowing, open to all the questions that belong to this landscape into which we have stumbled? How can we prepare for a future so uncertain? Can we hold true to the simple values of care and compassion, for each other and for the Earth? Do we contract into fear or open towards love?

We can see hope in the way people are helping and supporting each other, in families and communities, friends and strangers (in Britain over 400,000 people volunteered to help elderly people quarantined at home). And if there is another light in this present crisis, it is in the shifting of air pollution across China; ducks, fish, and clear waters returning the canals of Venice. And possibly the shock of the pandemic will warn us of the danger of denying science, of waiting until it is too late. Maybe we can finally recognise that we are all in this together, and that the imbalance of the Earth can and will affect us all, suddenly, unexpectedly. Or maybe, like those people partying on the beach in the midst of calls for social-distancing, we are already too drunk to care.’

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee is the author of many books including ‘Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth’ and ‘Including the Earth in Our Prayers:  A Global Dimension to Spiritual Practice’.  The focus of his writing and teaching is on spiritual responsibility in our present time of transition, spiritual ecology and an awakening global consciousness of oneness.

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