Now that we’ve been living with the COVID-19 virus in the US for most of 2020, perhaps it is time to start thinking about how this pandemic can be viewed in the long-term perspective of history and even prehistory. Start at the beginning of this essay series here or browse all of the posts here.
Our society does not face one single problem, it faces many interconnected ones. The ecological effects of the rise of the world’s temperature are a threat to our way of life. Monocropping allows efficient industrial agricultural production, but it is ecologically unstable. Global interdependence provides us with many luxuries, yet it ties us all together for success or failure. Fossil fuels have underwritten the most complex society in human history, but they are a finite resource for whose end we have not planned.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid this interconnection bare. Early on, the dependence of the world on shuttered Chinese factories was felt before the virus reached Europe and North America. During lockdowns, stories of resurgent wildlife reclaiming public spaces were common. The boom and bust of agricultural products and food supplies were obvious to everyone. We saw the glut of oil and gas reserves due to reduction in transportation. And, most obviously, societal problems—wealth and income inequality, racial disparities, unaffordable housing, food deserts, and leadership instability—were made even more obvious.
Stable systems are adaptable systems, and to adapt, new information must be incorporated. Just because our way of life before the pandemic was working (more or less) does not mean it was perfect. If we refuse to recognize the problems we face, new information is ignored and adaptation cannot take place. In ancient societies, the population and leadership must have been aware of their impending collapse at some point, but it was too late to reorganize and sustain their way of life. Ignoring existing weaknesses within our system guarantees our collapse. Hubris causes people to ignore evidence and prevents proactive adaptation.
Hubris is excessive pride or arrogance. The hubris of any society will prove to be its downfall. Today, many believe that life will go on much as it has for the past fifty years: prosperity, rapidly developing technology, and improved quality of life. Politicians are proud to say that America, for example, will endure forever. Egyptian pharaohs said the same thing about their valley kingdom, as did the ancient Maya about their rain forest cities. The Romans felt invincible within their empire. Simply saying that things will remain the same or improve, just because they have for the last few generations is hubris. COVID-19 has shown us just how unstable our society has become: the response to the pandemic has precipitated the largest drop in US GDP history, the biggest surge in unemployment, and other negative social measures.
As information technology has exploded over the last few decades, we have gotten the impression that we are better informed about history, the environment, our economic systems, and medicine than any society in the past—this is also hubris. Consider that the ancient Egyptians had excellent historical records chronicling the rise and fall of previous periods of prosperity, as did the Chinese. All societies have a sophisticated understanding of their environments and how to exploit1 them efficiently, at least in the short term. We cannot discount “primitive” understandings of environmental and scientific phenomenon, either. Even though the Egyptians believed their annual flood emanated from a cave beneath the island of Elephantine, it does not undermine their sophisticated use of that floodwater to produce an agricultural surplus. Furthermore, what we understand to be scientifically true today will be upended by new data. In 3020, if history is any guide, our current understanding of medicine, astronomy, and science will be radically different. Systems and evidence that we do not yet understand must be affecting our lives, and future generations will think that our incomplete knowledge is just as quaint as the ancient Egyptians’ worldview seems to us.
Change is fundamental to human societies. We cannot take the current state of things as a constant. No society in history has marched towards greater complexity forever. Wishing things would stay the same or as we think they should be, is not enough. The world and environment are changing and always have been. Societies that survive are the ones that preemptively adapt to threats. It is when people refuse to admit that they must change that a society will collapse.
It seems as if we have decided that we want our lives to continue as they had before COVID-19, even though we are faced with the clear fact that this is not possible. This is understandable but maladative. One mental change we could adopt would be to accept that we’re “losing” a year of our lives. Imagine we’re all taking a loss for the year. Then, anything we can accomplish during this time is a bonus on top of the baseline loss. This might help us reframe the situation. For example, the goal of having children to head back to schools is fine, but not accepting new information and sending thousands of young disease-spreaders into the same concentrated location will lead to greater spread, as the camps that opened this summer demonstrate. Refusing to accept the reality of a situation has lead to the exacerbation of problems throughout history and prehistory.
Resilience and Stability
One way to think of the effects of unforeseen catastrophes is by examining resilience and stability. Scholars interested in the interplay of society and ecology—and in our case a pandemic—have articulated an important difference between these two properties:
Resilience determines the persistence of relationships within a system and is a measure of the ability of these systems to absorb changes of state variables, driving variables, and parameters and still persist . . . Stability, on the other hand, is the ability of a system to return to an equilibrium state after a temporary disturbance. The more rapidly it returns, and with the least fluctuation, the more stable it is.Holling 1973:17
Ecosystems, populations, and societies exist on a continuum, shown in the figure. In the long term, a stable and resilient system might be severely affected by a drought, famine, and disease but would be able to recover quickly. An unstable and non-resilient system would collapse under the same stresses. A society with high resilience but low stability are able to persist but their social organization and way of life are constantly in flux. Other societies have high stability but low resilience and are calcified, or “set in its ways.” The ancient Maya, Egyptians, Romans, and Mesopotamians fall into this latter category, as they were unable to absorb the changes of the world around them and adapt accordingly. They overemphasized stability at the expense of resilience.
Resilience and stability function slightly differently on the short term. Resilience means a society can keep its major systems functioning smoothly and life is relatively “normal” in the face of adverse conditions. Stability is when a society can bounce back from disruption and return to its previous state quickly.
We can see different levels of stability and resilience in the response to COVID-19. In China once the disease was accepted as a reality by the government, what were then seen as “draconian” measures were taken to shut down affected regions. This was a major disruption in day-to-day life (low resilience) but once the danger cleared and contact-and-trace protocols were put in place, it appears (from my limited vantage point) that life returned to some type of normal (high stability). In Europe, they saw it coming and made early changes to adapt. Notwithstanding the Italian and Spanish hot spots, Europe also showed low resilience, in that their lives were severely affected by a lockdown for two months, but now the continent is returning to some normalcy with schools and workplaces opening back up, another example of stability.
The US is a global outlier in response to COVID-19. In this rubric, the US has shown more resilience in the face of the pandemic. By refusing to shut down and/or opening up as quickly as possible, the US has attempted to keep its systems functioning as normal during a difficult time. If we were able to successfully do this, it would show incredible levels of resilience. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and it seems that everywhere that has tried to carry on “life as usual” has caused worse outcomes. This means that our resilience is poor. This failure of resilience is likely to wreak havoc on our ability to return to normal later on, that is, it will contribute to poor stability.
Ecosystems, societies, and even individuals can be seen as going through a boom-and-bust cycle: a young society, for example, starts with little but quickly exploits its surroundings to create a larger community, which it is unable to sustain and leads to collapse (or a “release”) and reorganization into a new society that starts the cycle anew (Holling 2001:394). Resilience theory is another lens, or point of view, through which we can examine the rise and fall of ancient societies2 in the long term and individual shocks to social systems in the short term. I think it is especially useful to gauge how a society deals with unexpected (and often uncontrollable) catastrophes.
In the next post, we’ll look at different types of human-caused disasters and our responses.
Gunderson, I. and Crawford S. Holling, eds. 2001. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Island Press, Washington, DC.
Holling, Crawford S. 1973. Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4:1–23.
———. 2001. Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems. Ecosystems 4(5):390–405.
1In anthropology, when discussing resources the term “exploit” does not have a negative connotation.
2Resilience theory has a wide following of ecological and social scientists. Gunderson and Holling’s (2001) Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems (also www.resalliance.org) provide an introduction. Indeed, this book could be recast from a resilience-theory point of view quite easily, and reading some of this background might give the interested reader a deeper insight into the interconnectedness of the systems I have only been able to treat on a superficial level.