This post originally appeared on Environmental History Now, a website dedicated to showcasing the environmental-related work and expertise of graduate students and early career scholars who identify as women, trans and non binary people.
Crises tell us a great deal about our political and social economies. They reveal to us our own particular relationships to systems of exchange and governance. When we are in crisis, we witness—if we choose to—the extent to which social orders that have purported to benefit us actually fail us. Better able to see the fissures of systems under pressure, we begin to understand the inherent flaws of many of the structures we’ve created to govern our daily lives—the ones that valuate our humanity and rationalize our existence on this planet.
Environmental crises, as a specific brand of crises, have a peculiar knack for not only exposing the nonsensical nature of many of our institutions and hierarchies by rendering them impotent but for also making plain human fragility. We are fragile not simply because of our futile, albeit relentless, attempts to coerce nature into operating at our command. Rather, we are fragile because the ideologies to which we so dearly cling eventually escape us in times of utter distress and chaos. Societal models disguised as democratic but engineered to fit the interests of those in power quickly disintegrate along with our faith in them. Bootstrap capitalism, individualized healthcare, and stratified educational opportunity, once ideological tenets that held together the most formidable of political establishments, become impractical concepts in the face of great tragedy.
Scholars have and continue to document how disasters exacerbate social inequalities. It is well-known that those who are poor, of colour, and/or lack full incorporation into the nation’s body politic are most impacted by natural devastation. Environmental disaster constrained to regional borders regularly exposes the vulnerabilities of the least among us while still allowing for business as usual. Rarely are our systems dismantled when disaster strikes those who most lack resources and access, no matter how unjust or exploitative they are found to be. Often, wealth and power can buy those who have it out of devastation, so the need to reform or revolt becomes moot.
But what is to be said of the ecological calamity that strikes us all? The one that is no respecter of persons? That does not acknowledge borders? The one that tanks stock markets for more than three weeks? Or, causes small businesses to close and corporate chains to lay off their employees? What is to be said of the one that sends home the children of suburban districts and those of the cities? A global crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic reinstates what our social orders mean to rearrange: humanity. We are but humans. Complex and fragile. Interconnected and dependent. Our need to survive supersedes our economies of conviction… usually.
This is not to say that some of us have never cared enough to modify our epistemologies. Rather, it is to say that many of us have never believed they could really be changed. We endure capitalism, and from within our Western American context, we know it to be how things have always been and, perhaps, the best way things could possibly ever be. Trapped within a colonizing framework of domination and exploitation, we think it antithetical to high modernism to nationalize healthcare, or give people a livable wage. Except that crises, especially environmental ones, remind us that it costs much more to keep the system running as it is. “Handouts” once propagated to be the demise of self-efficacy and personal accountability (as well as a gateway drug to laziness) have now become the “emergency aid” we all need to survive the unexpected blow of a pandemic. The weight of the term no longer holds poisonous water because the humanity of whom it now applies to has been invoked to reframe its very meaning.
Our ideologies escape us.
Patricia Hill Collins tells us of the controlling images that dictate the lives of Black women subjected to heteropatriarchal racialized capitalism. In her appraisal of Black women’s perpetual fight against stereotypes that control our relationships to capital and structures of power in American society, Hill Collins offers a useful formula for situating the ideologies that escape us in this time of crisis. The desire to expand the welfare state in this global moment mocks the political economy that configures poor people, Black people, women, the disabled, the indigenous and the undocumented as the bane of our democratic republic. The images that closely tie these marginalized subjects to a system of “handouts” prove to be just as tenuous as the very system itself. Indeed, “created to justify the economic exploitation of [marginal people] and sustained to explain [their] longstanding restriction to [the lowest ranks of society], the [welfare image] represents the normative yardstick used to evaluate all [oppressed people’s] behavior.”
A pandemic shatters this controlling image, if only temporary, in order to justify the State’s intervention on behalf of those who should have otherwise remained on top. It is so we come to see that the notion of state welfare is not what frightens us or upsets us most. Categorically, we seem to agree—even if just in times of crisis—with giving help where it is needed. As members of a capitalist state, however, we convince ourselves that letting the perennially unfortunate fend for themselves is better than sharing our piece of the proverbial pie. Otherwise, we’d have to reckon with the brutal fact that most of us don’t deserve the portion we were dealt and that we did not, in fact, do anything more noble or exceptional than the other person to get it.
The stigma of receiving aid in times of need and crisis has proven to be a selective one. What ultimately discomforts us most is not that there are people in need in the system of capitalism—the logics of that economy have already justified this. Rather, it is who those people are that makes us most uneasy. When it is the darkest, most illiterate, most destitute of us who are in need, we end up having to face the fact that there is something wrong with our systems. We are forced to reckon with the ways they fail to work fairly. We begin to see, perhaps more than we’d like, that they do not work for everyone. That there are gaps. There are holes that bleed out the most vulnerable and those historically relegated to the margins of our society. But when the threat of ecological decay endangers us all, rather than just the least desirable among us, we dispel of our ideologies if only under the façade of “special circumstances.” Only, we’ve been making exceptions all along. Rather than critique the ways our monstrous institutions abuse and mistreat us, we trick ourselves into believing that because they’ve been around for so long it must be alright. That the fractures now apparent are but anomalies. Thing will work out, we tell ourselves. Except, they won’t. And, now, none of us are alright.