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Sapiens schmapiens

We’re not as smart as we think we are

By Jennifer Stern

, |

Sapiens schmapiens

We’re not as smart as we think we are

By Jennifer Stern

, |

8 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic is a terrifying wake-up call for humanity. But will we heed it, or will we ‘overcome’ it as best we can so that we can continue on the self-destructive course that led to it? Certainly, the measures taken by governments, organisations and individuals over the last few weeks show that we can change our behaviour and expectations – if we are convincingly threatened.

And, right now, we are threatened and, thanks to the hard decisions taken by our government, we are convinced, and we are taking action. While this is, obviously, a good thing, it raises the question: ‘Why couldn’t we mobilise like this to deal with climate change, poverty, crime, violence and unemployment?’

A gun to our heads

More than 10 years ago, I heard a speaker at a conference say: ‘If we dedicated the same money, time, energy and resources into fighting global climate change as we did fighting the Second World War, we could stop it in five years, and significantly reverse it in 10.’ Or words to that effect.

That stuck with me. Climate change is a very real risk – not to the planet, as the marketers like to tell us – but to humans. The planet will survive; there have been extinctions before, and there will be extinctions again. In fact, if it weren’t for the extinction of millions of life forms – some small and seemingly insignificant, and some huge and magnificent – we humans would not have evolved into the planet-altering mutants we are. And, if we continue in the vein we have been for the last century or so, we may well become extinct. Or, perhaps, like so many sci-fi novels portend, and exactly like what almost certainly happened on the southern tip of Africa about 100,000 years ago, a small group of us may survive in isolation to slowly repopulate the earth. And that would be a good thing. Right?

Sapient is as sapient does

We call ourselves Homo sapiens (sometimes even Homo sapiens sapiens) because, we like to think, we are the cleverest darn species that ever lived, and we have not gotten over the Victorian notion that – if God didn’t create us directly from a rib and a bit of mud – He (yes, He) designed evolution with the sole purpose of ultimately creating humans to, you know, have dominion and all that.

Anyhow, it’s this mentality that has had us continually evolving – from foraging for our own food, to growing our own food, to buying our groceries online and raising children who don’t even know what kind of tree eggs grow on. We are dependent on such an interconnected web of technology that we would not know how to fend for ourselves without it. Many of us can’t even open our garage doors if the power goes out. Seriously, as we drive to the office in rush-hour traffic to sit behind a computer for eight hours, we somehow believe we are smarter than dolphins who spend all their waking hours surfing, fishing and having sex. There’s a reason they’re always smiling.

It’s time for the Millennials and the Born-frees to take action

The Second World War defined our grandparents and, for some of us, our parents. It was a time of insanity and unbelievable hardship, but it also, strangely, brought out the best in many people. We learned to value the needs of the herd – of our tribes and nations – above our own needs. Not of all humanity, of course. There was still the dastardly ‘them’ against whom we focused all that jingoistic, self-sacrificing patriotism and heroism. It gave what has become known as the Greatest (or in the USA, the GI) Generation a focus, a purpose and a common enemy. And, closer to home, the Struggle Generation showed, again, that people can make immense sacrifices if sufficiently motivated. Let’s face it – nothing unites humans more than the opportunity/need to gather together to fight something or someone that is ‘different’, and that threatens our survival and/or wellbeing.

For the Millennials and the Born-frees, or Zs, it seemed that it would be global climate change both locally and internationally, but – despite its undeniable ability to forever change the way we live in the world – that failed to sufficiently ignite us. Perhaps because, while the Zs and Millennials are set up to ‘inherit’ the earth, it’s still being run by their parents and grandparents, many of whom have successfully turned a blind denialist eye. And also, probably, because there was no-one, or no-thing, to blame except ourselves. No scapegoat.

That’s what makes COVID-19 ‘easier’ to deal with than climate change: we have something outside of ourselves to blame. This incredibly tiny, invisible little virus is the only thing since the Second World War that has been able to significantly change human behaviour on a global scale. Perhaps we should call it the Hitler Virus.

Symptoms vs causes – the Gaia Principle

We are united because we have a common enemy – SARS-CoV-2. But, really, how true is that? Let’s assume the Gaia Principle is valid because, quite honestly, it seems pretty credible. In a nutshell, the Gaia Principle states that the earth is a living entity, and that the atmosphere, all the rocks, the sand, the water, the plants, the bugs and the humans are a part of it in the same way our hair, teeth, organs and associated microscopic life forms (gut flora, etc.) are a part of us as humans. Of course, no-one has proved this, which is why it’s also called the Gaia Hypothesis, but it holds up as a thought experiment.

So, if the earth is a living entity, and all the rocks, plants animals, etc. have a counterpart in the various components of the human body, then – perhaps – we are the earth’s Coronavirus. If we compare the lifespan of the planet to the lifespan of a long-lived human (one of those bicycle-riding, wine-slugging centenarian farmers of the Blue Zones), we humans arrived on the planet a year or two after the Blue Zoner’s 100th birthday. And perhaps global climate change is the fever Gaia is employing to finally rid itself of this pernicious pathogen – and SARS-CoV-2 is one more weapon in the earth’s immune system. Perhaps, like other unsuccessful pathogens that kill their victims so quickly that they don’t have time to pass on the disease, we humans are so irreparably harming our host that we are accelerating our own demise.

But are we addressing the real risks?

Let’s face it – we are taking note of the virus. We’re taking it seriously, and we are implementing pretty darn extreme measures to combat it. But that’s just it. We are still in WWII mode. If guns don’t work, use tanks; if tanks don’t work, use bombs; if bombs don’t work, use nukes. If we extend that to the First World War, we can start with horses and swords, and, if we extend it to the Freedom Struggle, we can end with necklaces. Are you seeing a pattern here?

And, as we have done in every war or resistance in history, we are all making sacrifices – well, most of us. We’ve changed the way we do things – we gave up our Pilates classes and coffee klatches, for goodness’ sake! And even walking the dog!

Not without whingeing, of course, but we’re putting a brave face on it, and we’re trying to come up with creative ways of dealing with three – oops, five – weeks of lockdown. Because we believe that, with some discipline, some sacrifices, and a bit of luck, this is all going to blow over, and life will go back to normal in a few months. Does the term ‘Home before Christmas’ ring any bells? It was said about WWI, and it was said about WWII, but Reagan said it ‘best’ in October 1965: ‘It’s silly talking about how many years we will have to spend in the jungles of Vietnam when we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it, and still be home by Christmas.’

So, what is the real risk of COVID-19? Yes, the risk of becoming infected, and the risk of dying from that infection, is serious. But possibly more serious is the unintended fallout from the actions many people have taken, and are still taking – the stockpiling, the price gouging, the xenophobia, the fear of ‘the other’ when we should be standing together.

But, whatever happens, the pandemic will end – certainly not this month, probably not next month. Maybe this year, maybe next year, but it will end.

And when it’s all over?

To continue the metaphor of COVID-19 being the Millennials’ and Zs’ WWII, what will be the aftermath? What did our grandparents and parents do after WWII?

World War II stimulated and fuelled a technological acceleration rivalled only by the harnessing of fire, the invention of the wheel, and the First Industrial Revolution. And, once the war was over, all those technological ‘swords’ were beaten into ‘ploughshares’ that transformed the lives and lifestyles of a few people, and – more importantly – irrevocably changed the expectations of much of the human race. In South Africa, apartheid blossomed and fuelled a lifestyle for white people that was remarkably like the one (mostly white) returning veterans built in the USA; they came back from the horror of war determined to build a ‘better’ world, and they could only imagine one with more stuff, more labour-saving devices, and more energy consumption. Never mind – to quote a well-worn US election campaign slogan – a chicken in every pot; that pot was on a brand-new electric stove in a newly built house with a fridge to store the extra chickens, and a garage to house the car to fetch the chickens from the supermarket.

In the USA, the Boomer generation that was born out of that prosperity rebelled against the materialism of it, but most of them are now very comfortably retiring from a life in the corporate world. Closer to home, the Struggle Generation, many of whom missed out on an education, a childhood, or even seeing their 20th birthday, laid the foundation for the freedom we enjoy today – but it’s not the ‘better’ they had hoped for.

It is better, it’s just not the best ‘better’.

So, will we learn our lesson?

When the virus has run its course, and is beaten into submission by herd immunity, or even – unlikely but possible – is completely annihilated by our superior technology, will we go back to business as usual? Crowded trains, traffic-snarled streets, and intensive factory farming with its associated regular (but rarely reported on) outbreaks of novel pathogens?

Sadly, the evidence points to that happening.

In 2008, we were a nation of switchers-off of lights, we learned to read by the dim flicker of a 4-watt fluorescent bulb, and to find furniture in the dark with our shins; in 2017 we all bathed in teacups, and started sniffing our clothes when we took them off to see if they could be worn again before they needed washing. But, as soon as the dams started filling, we started showering for longer, and when it looked as if there was no load shedding on the horizon, we left the hot water geyser on all day, and stopped turning off the lights when we leave a room. We forget so easily.

But the big difference is that – unlike the ongoing Eskom fiasco, and the 2017 water crisis – COVID-19 is not confined to one country or one city. It is a global issue and, while it will be played out in different ways in different places, how it plays out will affect us all – regardless of race, creed or social status – and we know it. This is where it differs from climate change; there are people, governments and pseudo-scientists who have been, and are still, gambling on the fact that climate change (if it exists) may well affect subsistence farmers, and even some commercial farmers, and will probably be the end of some small, not-particularly-well-developed nations, but it will not affect them, because they have the resources to survive it.

Unlike global climate change, however, our present crisis has a face. Okay, maybe ‘face’ is too strong a word, but it is something to blame, something outside of ourselves, something we can fight, and even something we can kill, or try to kill – a convenient ‘other’. So, as we’ve done throughout history, we humans are working together to collectively combat the threat facing us – the ‘other’. But – and here is where it gets exciting – we are starting to realise that, as long as some of us are at risk, none of us is safe. Princes and paupers, actors and athletes, soccer moms and celebrity criminals – and even politicians and prime ministers – have all fallen victim.

So, the big question is: Will we learn from this, and find a better ‘better’ – a ‘better’ that is better for all of us, and an ‘us’ that does not exclude ‘them’? Because, as we are starting to realise, there is no ‘them’ – it’s just us!

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