Nourishing community in pandemic times


From protecting ‘nature’ to supporting kin. The animistic turn in sustainability.

Illustration Future
Teaser Image Caption
Anthropocene assaults on biodiversity, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life.

“Animism is about what it means to be alive in the world.”

Tim Ingold, in Graham Harvey, ed., The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, London & New York, Routledge, 2013, p. 224

The corona pandemic makes us understand that the earth is a commons, and that our lives are shared. This insight is not a rational concept, but springs from an emotional need. Individuals accept hardships by restricting their contacts in order to protect community. The understanding that we need to protect others has been able to override economic certainties within days. Humans chose to put reciprocity first. Reciprocity – mutual care – is neither an abstract concept nor an economic policy, but the experience of a sharing relationship and ultimately of keeping the community of life intact. This community of life englobes humans, but also other-than-human beings. Only if we understand that the metabolic process through which we participate in life is an act of nourishing a community shared with other beings, can we move away from treating others – human and non-human beings – as objects, which need to be dealt with efficiently. Sustainability politics, therefore, should include the experience of creating fertile life within a community, considering human and non-human beings as kin, and putting the other’s wellbeing first. For millennia, and until today, this position has been taken by societies labelled as “animistic”. From the perspective of a community of life, these lessons of animism need to be revalidated, as being able to inform our actions with etiquette of reciprocity in the great society of being.

1. Corona and the common good

In these April days of the global pandemic 2020, women and men in most parts of the world have stopped moving. The busy global economy has come to a halt – with consequences which cannot yet be foreseen.

What has stopped are some of the most prominent activities of the western way of interacting with the world: Extensive travelling, most of the world’s air traffic, incessant trade and consumption, and a host of personal pursuits. Near to no planes in the skies above industrial centres, few cars on the streets, silence and an unusual clean air, in which city dwellers hear the vocalisations of wild animals with whom they cohabit, of birds and insects, for the first time in years.

Humans are asked to stop their activities in the name of something, which had not been much in the focus of western – and global – policy in the last decades: Community. Lockdown is not done in order to push the economy through individual competition, but to protect others. And in the ensuing silence, the wider community is felt: The silence of the stars at night, the buzzing bumblebees, and the Indian Myna’s calls.

This is not a romantic moment, however. For millions in poorer countries, the stay-at-home-orders are an existential threat of misery and even of starvation. Many poor people and migrant workers do not even have a home where to stay. Humans, forced to sit and wait in an enclosed space with others are suffering from depression and “camp fever”. Violence in families has surged.

The lockdown shines a light on the social nature of humans. It reminds of a fact neoliberalism continuously veils: The individual can only live if the collective, which she constitutes with all others, is able to thrive. The virus managed to have humans do what they were not able to do on their own: Sit down, be quiet, and behave so that others in the community are protected. We did not choose to do so, that’s admitted, and we hope to get back to normalcy as soon as we can.

There is a very real danger in many parts of the world that the readiness of humans to stop pursuing their private goals – and even stop securing their livelihoods through work – will be exploited by totalitarian regimes. The reductions of freedom by the lockdown could be turned into permanent rules in some nations, including European ones. But this does not change the observation that here humans are not acting from a purely egocentrical standpoint. They are acting from the experience of connection, from the experience that each and any represents the collective.

The virus has temporarily changed human ecology. Instead of devouring everything that moves, we are slowed down, we grant others space (quite literally, queuing at a street kitchen in safe distances), we sit and listen. The majority of the world population thus responds to what is the most important, though often unacknowledged, problem of global western societies – namely how to relate to those who are weaker, who are more vulnerable, and, from an ecological viewpoint, even those who are not even human at all, but other living beings: Plants and animals, streams and forests, rocks and mountains.

Within a short time, the central pillar of our neoliberal world society has been turned over. Under an existential threat, something deeper emerges, a sort of an agreement about how to behave in order to protect life. We do not only protect ourselves, but the web of living relationships in which we are embedded. This is a very far-reaching gesture. It is an answer to the dilemma of how to treat the vulnerable other, which from a purely economic standpoint we were not able to find.

Now, however, under Covid-19, the answer has come about without much deliberation. Rather than following a technical plan or a long debate, it plays out before our eyes. We give the answer with our own vulnerable and contagious bodies, without allowing us much opportunity to consent or disagree. These bodies breathe, they set free, or inhale, invisible virus particles.

The lockdown, therefore, is not a political, but rather an ecological answer. The ecology has taken over the conceptual space. It turns out that we are inextricably linked to a living community. And the community we are acting within is bigger than the collective of humans. It includes the whole earth.

2. An ecological stress test

It has not yet been widely appreciated that humanity’s global reaction to the coronavirus is an entirely ecological event. The outbreak is not only an ecological happening in itself, it has also an ecological source. The pandemic needs to be understood as an ecological disaster. The fact that every human is personally menaced by this catastrophe should not seduce us into thinking that the disease concerns only public health and, therefore, is a human-only problem. To the contrary.

There is little doubt that SARS-CoV2 is an animal virus that crossed over into humans. Crossovers of this kind happen because humans are in too close contact to animals, predominantly to rare and wild ones, hunted and sold as bushmeat. Another hotbed of emerging viruses is factory farming. The coronavirus outbreak, therefore, is a consequence of the destruction of habitats, of the mass consumption of animals from rare species, of the human encroachment on what is not human.

The coronavirus pandemic is the first global ecological disaster of the 21st century. It threatens humans, but it has also been caused by humans through ecological destruction. As a consequence, the pandemic has caused an immediate change to our human ecology, to the ways we interact with one another, but also with the more-than-human living world. The change, at least for the moment, consists of granting others – humans and non-humans – space.

Ecological destruction is the opposite of granting other beings and species space. Its main driver is habitat transformation and industrial agriculture. Ecological destruction is the contrary of reciprocity. It is, therefore, the opposite of what human society is forced to prioritise right in this moment of the corona pandemic: Stepping back and caring for the others.

The coronavirus outbreak can be seen as a consequence of our global society’s refusal to grant others (humans and non-human beings) reciprocity and space. It is a symptom of a stance built into the objectifying, globalist ways of thinking: That granting space is not needed, as those others are just things, and things can be rearranged most efficiently by the forces of the market.

The coronavirus pandemic proves this view wrong. It shows that reciprocity is a key ecological quality, and it shows that reciprocity – granting the others space to live in order to keep our own – is asked of us as a key ecological contribution.

The pandemic shows us that reciprocity is a necessity that rules our lives: We can only exist in ecological mutuality. We are part of the ecosphere. We are nourished by it, and we perish through its viruses. Human beings do not stand apart from non-human beings, but are part and parcel of ecological exchange. The virus reminds us of a simple truth that nonetheless has been ignored. It tells us that we are part of the collective of life, and that we are, as all living beings, mortal – partaking in a cycle of birth and death that ultimately provides life with fecundity.

3. Microbial deconstruction of the Western Cognitive Empire

Granting others life as a key command of organising one’s own existence, and of building society, was never a concern of market thinking. To the contrary, it is deemed a hindrance. Reality here is construed as a dog-eats-dog world (according to the “natural state”, described by Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan). Reciprocity with the living world in this thinking is denounced as a naïve dream.

In the dominant tradition of socio-economic thinking following Hobbes, a “social contract” was supposed to secure stable livelihoods for individual humans by surrendering to the power of the state. This stability, therefore, was not achieved “naturally” through a human competence of granting others their space for life. The social contract played rather out as a small group of people in power overseeing and allowing material exchange through unmitigated competition of individuals seeking personal profits.

In this picture, there are two domains: A world composed of dead things – nature – and a human society, built upon a treaty to fight nature in order to pursue individual goods and through this to detach human lives from material reality. This picture is marked by the classical “dualistic split”, which still deeply informs the ways of western thinking: The separation of culture from nature and a re-definition of non-human beings into “things”.

Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos has termed this setting the “Western Cognitive Empire”. French sociologist Bruno Latour has described the practice of the Western Cognitive Empire as the creation of “monsters”. Monsters are born when we split the living world (which by its own creates life by being offered reciprocity) into two incommensurable and hostile domains, nature and society. Despite the claim to achieve this, however, those domains can never be truly separated. Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic shows this impossibility to separate the human from the natural. In the outbreak, the material processes (the proliferation of the virus, the infection of bodies) change culture and society – and the social measures taken feedback on the course of the pandemic. Nature – a virus from wild animals – dictates how society behaves and society affords the playing field for the virus.

The coronavirus destroys the modernist claim that society can treat “things out there” as it wishes. It even destroys the idea that by sustainable actions, with a more efficient society, by creating larger preserves and buffer zones between society and “nature”, we can handle the problems created by humanity. Sustainable actions still treat the non-human parts of reality – the non-human beings and the proliferating elements of the earth system – as things and not as actors. We now learn that the world, which we share is not made of objects, but of others, who need to be treated with the right amount of reciprocity.

The Western Cognitive Empire has been set up according to this invisible demarcation line between the “objects” (including all non-human beings, and, frequently still, some humans, too) and the members of society who have been able to establish a social contract among each other. The cognitive hegemony of this thinking has enabled the destruction of non-human others (“nature”) and the extinction of human others in the “colonies”.

This cognitive empire is ipso facto colonialist as it tends to view everything and everyone who do not sign up for the society by contract as part of a dead nature made up of objects. The core motive for colonialism lies in this split and this split inevitably leads to a colonial, and hence, violent treatment of extra-societal others (humans not adhering to societal norms, other peoples, other beings, other elements of the earth system).

The coronavirus pandemic shows us with blunt force that this thinking is wrong. The colonialism of the western cognitive rule is not only destructive, but also self-destructive. In this, the advent of Covid-19 is the paradigm of an Anthropocene event. This is so, because the Anthropocene, our current epoch, is defined as the mix-up of human and non-human realities. We can find this mix in the presence of anthropogenic radioactive traces in the arctic ice three yards deep. Or in a virus (a virus!) that brings technological civilisation to a halt, making it resemble plague-stricken cities of the middle ages and their quarantine regimes, and that we have created, through deforestation, and trade of near-extinct animals for meat consumption.

The Anthropocene is not, differently to what many may have expected, the extension of the western rational regime into a stewardship over all of “nature”. Rather, the advent of the Anthropocene marks the end of the western cognitive dominion. The Anthropocene is the age in which societies experience that they do not stand above “nature”, and that, even more important, standing within “nature” (being a part of life) has a set of rules, which, if societies do not comply, will stop our partaking in this very life. The RNA-based actor coronavirus is the paradigmatic anthropocenic agent.

A growing number of natural disasters make us understand that we are part of one interconnected whole (think bushfires in Australia, or disturbed monsoon patterns, cyclones, drought in many parts of the world). But none of them are so directly threatening to you and me as is Covid-19. Through this, the virus offers us a community ethics. The pandemic shows us how to behave in the right way. This right way – granting the other the space of life – is summarised in the famous Kisuaheli term “Ubuntu”, meaning “you are, therefore I am”. It is the thinking of reciprocity, the thinking that we participate in a collective creating life, that we are collectively responsible for life, not only for ours, but also for that of the others, and for the fecundity of life as such.

The thinking underlying Ubuntu is animism. Animism is the idea that the remainder of the world is not made of mute objects, but of persons. Persons have interests, and needs. They are agents. An animistic approach believes that we need to establish reciprocity with these persons. We need to share with them in order to be granted our place and, even more important, in order to allow this place to bring forth life in continuity. In the pandemic, the world is stirring, and we keep still, and what emerges in front of our eyes, through our motionless state, is the need to share this world’s aliveness with all other persons, human and non-human, of which it consists.

4. The family of being(s)

Animism, the cosmology of indigenous peoples, is the most radical form to think and to enact reciprocity among human and non-human persons. To understand the full scope of this radicality, we need to rediscover what animism is. It has suffered a long time of misrepresentation within the western cognitive empire. The idea that naïve “native” humans live in a Hobbesian natural state adulating spirits and demons in trees, rivers, and mountains is a false myth. This misrepresentation stems from projecting the western cognitive mindset on what the so-called “primitive people” are doing, when they, for instance, ritually give thanks to a tree-being. It comes from not getting the radical reciprocity animism is engaged in.

Through regarding colonial knowledge as surpreme, we have unlearned what ecological knowledges and alternative worldviews entail. A central principle of this knowledge is that it is not actually about knowing in a western sense, but about sharing a world. Animism accepts that all beings co-create a world that is continuously producing life, and takes responsibility to keep this cosmic fecundity going. It understands the cosmos not as made up of things, but of agents, which all resemble humans in the fact that they, like us, crave for life, express their needs, and are required to interact with one another.

“Animists are people who recognise that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others…,” religious scholar and anthropologist Graham Harvey observes, providing the best up-to-date definition of indigenuous, animistic cosmologies.

In a cosmos of relationships, reciprocity is required in order to thrive, and it is required from all sides. In a world of relationships, we are not atomistic indivduals set against one another, but we collectively create one coherent process of life. The collective is as important as the individual. This collective is not only human, but made of everybeing and every force of reality.

Ecologically, the social definition of an attitude required to produce life is accurate. If we look from a formal point of view, an ecosystem is the embodiment of reciprocity. It consists of a host of beings related in endless ways. Ecological life is always lived in relationships with others. An ecosystem is a commons, shared and brought forth by all its participants. It is not an assemblage of egoistic agents. For a long time, Darwinian economics of nature have overstressed competition (the “natural state”) and not paid due attention to the host of dependencies within competitions play out. (For a deeper discussion see Weber 2013 & 2019).

So a view to substitute the crumbling Western Cognitive Empire is already at hand. It is the etiquette of reciprocity we can find unconsciously executed in ecosystems – and culturally instituted in societies, which have managed to live in mutuality with those ecosystems for a long time.

To explore this view, the west will need to step out of its intrinsic supposition that “western rationality” after all is the way the world works – and everything else are mild or severe superstitions. Scientific anthropology has started to attempt this humble position, asking, with Edoardo Kohn “How Forests Think” , instead of “what indigenous people think about forests”.

The animistic attitude, attempting to share the productivity of the cosmos among its participants, contrasts the basic principles of the western cognitive model (see table). Animism is not about material objects being possessed by spirits. It is about constructing a culture, which enables reciprocity, and about a cosmology, which integrates the experience of being part of a fecund collective.

Core Beliefs of Western Culture

Core Beliefs of Indigenous Thinking

1. I am because you are not.

1. I am because of you.

2. Egoism lise at the heart of our being.

2. Reciprocity makes being possible.

3. Reality ultimately consists of dead matter.

3. Everything is alive.

4. We need to avoid our individual death.

4. We need to keep the world fecund.

These principles play out in different key fields, which all are crucial areas of conflict in the Anthropocene. It turns out that most conflicts of the Anthropocene are grounded in difficulties in maintaining good relations through sharing the cosmos.

5. Commoning for kin

An animistic answer to the central problem of how to maintain good relations is that we can see our membership in the living cosmos as being part of a vast community of beings. Our behaviour has the potential to make good relations possible – relations that let others and ourselves prosper. As these relations are of an embodied nature, we can, in accordance with an animistic view, put it even more radically: In this cosmos, all persons including the non-human ones are kin. As kin, they help us, they give us the assurance of being received well, but they also demand being treated in a way so that they can thrive.

Reciprocity with other – human and non-human – persons plays out in two fields: It requires us to treat the distribution of material provisions as a sharing of the productivity of the biosphere. And it allows us to experience this sharing as an emotional involvement, hence reconnecting with our own aliveness and enjoying it as a prime intuition of successful relationships.

I have called this new double stance “enlivenment” we can build from it a “poetics for the Anthropocene” , an art of creating and maintaining mutual fecund relationships sustaining cosmic productivity. And we can experience ourselves as sources as well as recipients of this productivity.

If reality is a society of beings, individual behaviour is fruitful to the degree that it joins into this cooperative worldmaking. The distribution of material goods hence follows what we call a “commons economy”. Exchange and distribution is not a reaction to scarcity, but enables everyone to participate. A commons is not a resource, but a set of relationships. It is a collective process of co-creation, which nurtures all participants, which is upheld by everyone, and which in the end feeds into the productivity of the cosmos.

For the commons philosopher and activist David Bollier, commons are “realms of life defined by organic wholeness and relationality. They stand in stark contrast to a modern world whose hallmark is separation – the separation of humans from ‘nature’; of individuals from each other; and a separation between our minds and our bodies”. And precisely these commons are blossoming in pandemic times.

With the onset of the pandemic, observers have noted a host of spontaneous resurgences of commoning – from neighbourhood networks volunteering to do shopping for the elderly to tailors shifting production to face masks and giving them away to the community for free. As Bollier observes, these behaviours are more than momentaneous bouts of altruisms. They rather represent the care for community, which is a spontaneous driver in human behaviour. 

To a western mindset, this is somewhat baffling. Under catastrophic circumstances, people educated in the western tradition have learned that in the natural state, as Hobbes conceived it, brutal egoism should prevail. But to the contrary. As Rebecca Solnit observed in her classic on mutual trust in times ofcatastrophes, the increased reciprocity arising in hard times makes the people involved feel good in a deep, meaningful way.

To a western eye this can seem astonishing – from an animist viewpoint it is the norm. The same is valid for the feeling humans experience when they care for non-human kin – for plants in a garden, for pets in a household, for endangered species. In western terms these emotions are difficult to explain. From an animist viewpoint, they are showing how we need to behave. Nourishing the fecundity of the cosmos is a deeply animistic experience, because it is about feeling welcomed through welcoming the other. It is animistic for the reason that it is not a technical attitude, but a feeling experience.

These two dimensions – enacting the world as a commons through reciprocity with all beings, and experiencing this sharing relationship as my own and others’ aliveness, and hence the cosmos’ true character – cannot be separated. Only when we understand that the metabolic process through which we participate in the ongoing life is an emotional experience for all who are implied in this, can we proceed from the attempt to efficiently distribute objects to truly engage in an exchange with kin. Only then can we belong to family.

An aboriginal person, asked about her relationship to country, answers: “This rock is me.” Having an identity is derived from belonging. Through this, the human experience of beauty can be explained as the experience of being loved as part of family, the experience of one’s own love for that family or a particular member of it, and one’s desire to sustain that family, to give back.

Animistic sustainability is performative. It always requires a dialogue with a real other, a tree person, a jaguar person, a river person. Sustainable actions cannot be done without the etiquette of relationship, and without enacting the simple rites of reciprocity: Before we can save a place, we need to ask it to receive us in grace and to allow us to get in touch. And we need to express gratitude in words and in actions.

Animism, the enactment and culture of interspecies reciprocity, cannot teach us how to better manage “natural objects”, but shows how to sustain a cosmos giving life to all its members. This will require us to rethink traditional sustainable practices. US botanist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer, herself an American Indian, masterfully put what is required in her principles of “The Honorable Harvest”: “Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.”