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Nature, Covid-19 and Species Fear
Can we rise to the challenge of converting our angst into effective action?
By Victor M. Toledo Jane K. Brundage Posted in Environment, Politics, Social Change on August 11, 2021
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While I was writing this article, Julio Moguel’s essay was published in Aristegui NoticiasWhy is the current crisis also an existential crisis?, which in spite of its brevity is an enlightening and visionary article. Moguel suggests that

“the march of the three horsemen of the apocalypse — climate change, inequalities and pandemics — is no longer presented as a fleeting imaginary of the planet’s living human animals, but as a decisive factor”.

Within a crisis of civilization, Moguel identifies a theme that we noted in our essay Modernity and ecology, published in 1993 (Political Ecology, 3: 9-22) and translated into several languages. I dealt with this issue extensively in the book Los civilizionarios (Juan Pablos Editor, 2019).

Lea este artículo en español aquí

Along with the ecological and social crisis, the existential crisis is in fact one of the three major crises in the modern world. Contrary to what many suppose, this triple misfortune today achieves what is perhaps its highest expression in the history of humanity. In full harmony with the main thesis of Moguel’s essay, I explore here the confluence of the three horsemen of the apocalypse in the appearance of a species, or existential, fear as the main disruptive element, but one that at the same time, also constitutes an opportunity for the “creation of hope” in a world in crisis.

This collective and widespread fear arises from the tremendous battle that humanity is waging against the virus (microthreat) and from the catastrophic events caused by the global climate emergency (macrothreat), but also from the limits of a civilization that has no more to give.

We are living in a dangerous time, where everything depends on humanity managing to overcome what is the second period of maximum risk in its history (the first occurred when the Homo sapiens population was reduced to a minimum and trapped on the coasts of South Africa due to the effects of extreme freezing weather). In the end, our species is the only survivor of the 10 that made up our genus. Time has passed, and what we observed from afar as a horror movie has been getting ever closer without us noticing. Today we are already part of it. From mere spectators or movie fans, within a few decades we have become actors in the drama. The first time I heard the idea that ours is a species that can die, I was stunned. It was in Francisco Garrido Peña’s book,  Introduction to Political Ecology (1993). Today that idea is almost commonplace.

These three calamities ravaging today’s world are causing millions of human beings on the planet to suffer or endure that species, or existential, fear. This collective and widespread fear arises from the tremendous battle that humanity is waging against the virus (microthreat) and from the catastrophic events caused by the global climate emergency (macrothreat), but also from the limits of a civilization that has no more to give.

This is expressed in the disruption of our daily lives at all levels (individual, family, neighborhood, community, national, etc.), and in the collapse of all future expectations, as laid out in the optimism of the industrial system under such precepts as development, progress, economic growth, etc., and under such values as individualism, competition, consumption, and blind faith in economics and technoscience. For the vast majority, the ideology of comfort, security and pleasure has been shaken, and this shock is revealed in innumerable atypical or abnormal situations.

Did anyone imagine the occupation of the Capitol by the barbarians, or the yellow vests besieging France, and the Extinction Rebellion in England, the streets of Hong Kong or Colombia taken by the masses, a campesino [peasant] with a sombrero presiding over Peru, indigenous leaders leading Bolivia and Chile, or a Mexican president challenging Washington and passionately defending Cuba?

President-elect Pedro Castillo and vice-president elect Dina Boluarte celebrate after their election win was confirmed. Photograph: EPA. [Peru’s new president to take charge of divided country ravaged by Covid, Dan Collyns in Lima, The Guardian, July 27, 2021.]

Two institutional reactions outside the norm are the promulgation of the two encyclicals by the Catholic Church (about the ecological and social crisis) and the plan of the Chinese Communist Party and its government to return the country to an ecological civilization by 2035.

The great challenge is not to deny this fear, as the followers of D. Trump or J. Bolsonaro and various alternative intellectuals have done, but to take responsibility and overcome it, avoiding paralysis and nihilistic or cynical attitudes. In other words, converting fear into preventive and effective action, into awareness of all species.

The challenge is enormous, because it involves truthful information, knowledge, flexible thinking, radical change in attitudes and values, good sense and courage. In a sense, a return to an identity common to all. It is about civilizational change operating at the individual level.† The appearance of a new political individual who fights for the rescue of the species. A new being in the world and a new politics with, from and for human and non-human life. An ecopolitics.

Translated by Jane K. Brundage

This essay first appeared in Spanish in La Jornada, and in English in Voices of Mother Earth.

VME Note: For an article focused on precisely this issue, see From Systems Theory to Citizen ActionPhila Back, Phila Back blog, July 27, 2021.

+   +   +*Victor M. Toledo, research scientist at the Institute for Ecosystem and Sustainability Research (Instituto de Investigaciones en Ecosistemas y Sustentabilidad), Morelia Campus UNAM, is a Mexican biologist with PhD from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Dr. Toledo has combined his scientific training with studies in economic policies, agrarian cultures and rural sociology. An expert in ethnoecology (the cross-cultural study of how people perceive and manipulate their environments), his studies and theoretical contributions regarding the relations between indigenous cultures and the natural world are recognized internationally. Dr. Toledo served as head of the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) in the administration of Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador from May 2019 to September 2020. See also: Victor M. Toledo, Biologist, Ethnoecologist: “Passionate for Life”.

Victor Toledo

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  1. Without a doubt, we are witnessing complicated, complex and difficult times. It is important that we all do our best to better understand the nature of our crisis. And that we do our best to find a new way of coexistence, a new world economic model and ultimately a social and climate justice that allows us as a human species to survive.

    1. Well said, Hugo. And efforts such as yours at are leading the way. May many, many others wake up before it’s too late.