Imagine a world where people live isolated in underground one-person apartments, talk to each other only through video-calls, and cannot go out because, if they do, they will not be able to breathe for long. You have just imagined the world of E.M. Forster’s novella The Machine Stops, in which humanity have altered the world ecosystems to such an extent that human life is forced to become increasingly isolated, artificial and protected.
With a few alterations, that is the world of the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, which most of you who are reading this have probably been experiencing for a few weeks. At the end of Forster’s story (forgive the spoiler) one character makes a short-lived, desperate yet joyful dash for freedom, running outside in the decayed police-patrolled natural world. What shall we do?
I have been in lockdown at my family home in Piedmont, as I write this, for almost one month. While in some respects my life has proceeded as normal – sleeping, breakfast, reading, writing, preparing lectures, brushing the cat, cleaning – in other respects all of that has happened in a hiatus, during which many commitments and responsibilities have been suspended, and a number of new questions have opened up, while other always-present questions have surfaced with greater urgency.
The lockdown measures imposed by the Italian government have been increasingly severe. At the moment, it is forbidden to go out for ‘non-essential’ pursuits. We cannot, for instance, take a stroll, we cannot visit friends or family, and if we go food shopping, we should do it quickly and only one person per household. Even the most introverted of us have started missing seeing their friends’ faces, and hating the screens that reproduce a slightly slowed down, eerie, two dimensional image of them.
Our bodies, already weakened by sedentary lifestyles, are becoming weaker, muscle-mass decreasing quickly through lack of exercise. We do what we can, setting up home gyms, doing yoga in our bedrooms, a few push ups in the morning. No running, swimming, no going for walks; hardly breathing in the fresh air, panting, moving, or sweating. I do a little gardening in pots on the balcony, which I hadn’t done before. All of a sudden tomato seeds seemed the most important item on my shopping list during my weekly, stressful visit to the supermarket.
During the first days of lockdown it was still permitted to go out for leisure and to drive from one place to another without a special reason. So we went for long walks in the countryside, where we discovered that many others had had the same idea. Seeing the paths in the hills crowded with people on a Tuesday afternoon made me think that perhaps in all this fear and sadness we could at least collectively recover a sense of enjoyment of being in nature.
I have not changed my mind. But what we can recover now, we can recover through lack. There are three, fundamental things that we cannot do right now: go outside for a long walk just to breathe in the fresh air (much fresher now, crisp, less polluted); see, hug, kiss or touch our friends; and move our bodies until they hurt, covering distances until we are exhausted.
What do these three things have in common? They are part of our animal nature. What else? They are the things that a strange, anthropocentric yet anthropo-destructive idea of progress has sought to eliminate. The things that in the name of comfort, modernity, or growth we have chosen to progressively give up. And now that the process is unexpectedly complete and that we are unable to have those things even to a small degree, our bodies are screaming. Shall we listen?
In Common with Other Animals
In her work on Kantian-based animal ethics, Christine Korsgaard makes the point that the things we value most and primarily in our lives, are the things we share with other animals. Among them are the exact three needs just listed, now denied and which we’ve been increasingly denying ourselves: social physical closeness, free movement, and contact with the natural world. When these things are missing there is little joy, little flourishing; no amount of internet speed can replace them.
Korsgaard reminds us of these things to show that even a Kantian approach, according to which humans have value because they are able to think ethically, needs to embrace other animals, because the things our ethical thinking values are those all us – all of us animals – value.
The rebellion of my animal nature, which I can say I’ve been feeling rising for years during days sitting at a desk, is manifesting now in the restlessness of so many of us in lockdown. In the ‘ahh’ of relief we’ve let out when we step outside in the spring sunshine for a minute. Here is my appeal: let us not treat this restlessness as a problem. Let us treat it as a symptom of reality, a helpful reminder of where we need to ground our activities from now on.
I keep reading about suggestions for maintaining a sense of normality, with activities organised for the sake of continuing as normal. As if, without that experience of ‘normality’, a chasm opens up for us to be swallowed into.
But these days are not normal. Continuing to fill the time to distract ourselves from that fact, and the unknowing that comes with it, is precisely to perpetrate the distracted, unmotivatedly-optimistic routine that allows unrestrained invasion of natural spaces, greenhouse gas emissions, accumulation of wealth while others have none, ingestion of other individuals and harmful substances, and progressive isolation in the pursuit of largely unexamined goals. The list could go on.
So shouldn’t we instead acknowledge the non-normal, take a good look at it, and show ourselves that being swallowed is not the only way to respond to the void left by our previous activities?
There is talk of reconstruction and change after the current pandemic. I hope that may be true. At an existential, affective and conceptual level, my suggestion is that we start by holding firmly to our animality. Keeping that at the core means a number of things: that we have bodies which we need to nourish and treat as bodies through movement, physical closeness, healthy food, sunlight, etc.. That other people are also animals, and as such they most of all need food, care, warmth, a roof over their heads – something which the current economic system and political structures are not fully taking care of, which, in this perspective, is a basic, fundamental lack.
It means that we are, in essential respects, just like other animals, pigs, cows, birds, fishes, goats, cats, etc. with whom we share bodies with pumping blood and beating hearts; the fact of being alive; of wanting to continue being alive, and of being sadly mortal. It means that for all of us animals to flourish a natural environment is not an accessory but simply necessary, and with that environment too we share a certain movement of life, development, needs and mutual influence.
This is philosophical and very concrete at the same time. It involves new laws and policies to give everyone a roof over their head. Travelling less and changing vehicles we use. Adopting a stray cat or dog. Feeding the birds in your garden. Stopping for a chat with your elderly neighbour and really asking her, “How are you?” You can add to the list, in your head or say it out loud. We need everyone’s imagination.
Another fact we have observed in the lockdown is that we are able to delay gratification and give up long term habits and wealth for the sake of something important. It is excellent news – considering the greater challenges we face such as climate change – that we are capable of changing our habits, such that the pleasure of satisfying those basic needs we are giving up now will return tenfold.
A Need to Change
I’ve lived in six different cities over the last ten years. I have friends, whom I miss, in all of them. I have been unable to adopt a companion animal or even keep a houseplant, because I am rarely in the same place for long enough. I have boarded so many planes I am scared to count them.
I have missed my parents, who are growing older in a country where I do not normally live. I have missed the cat whom I found and left with them before moving abroad.
I buy vegetables wrapped in plastic which I cook distractedly and eat my dinner quickly while I watch something on my laptop. I work in philosophy, yet rarely do I have the time to think and watch and wait for as long as it takes for something meaningful to come to me.
I am thirty five, and I am tired. I know, dimly, what I need to change, but I am afraid to change it if I see everyone around me going in the opposite direction, thinking I am insane. But maybe I am not alone in hoping for encouragement and a bigger movement.
The day I arrived here in Italy, on March 7th, I saw the buds appearing on the trees that line the avenue outside my house. I have been watching them every day since, observing their development into tiny pale green leaves and then into oblong bright green ones that now sway leisurely in the wind with a soft rustling sound. If I am going to change my lifestyle after these months, I’ll start with this.