Yesterday was my 60th birthday and I went to the beach with hubby and teenage son. I sat on a log and they went off to find me my birthday presents. Hubby came back with an invaluable plastic water pistol, which will be added to the collection. Teenage son came back with this:
We were trying to find a name for it and teenage son came up with ‘like the cthulu’ and when I started to explore this I came across ideas that make a lot of sense to me in the covid-times. Cthulu, of course, has multiple identities within fantasy, science fiction, science etc. It was brought into currency by Lovecraft, who was probably drawing on the word “chthonic” (of the earth). The concept has been further elucidated by Donna Haraway, the historian of consciousness in her 2014 talk about “Anthropocene, Capitalocene and Chthulucene: staying with the trouble”.
The anthropocene is that period we have believed that we were in. It was when we went to the moon and started to conceptualise the earth as Gaia. We created a new religion of environmentalism, which allowed us to join together and develop sciences of evolution. However, the test of any hypothesis is how workable it is. And the thing about environmentalism and ecological consciousness is that is has not worked. There is something else happening while we are engaging in this paradigg: all the time we march for the climate, while we sort our plastic and make ethical choices about what we buy, there is something else happening. This something is capitalism. The anthropocene is not a workable concept, because all the time we have been marching ‘the last drop of fossil fuel is being extracted from the tissues of the planet’.
In fact, we are not living in the anthropocene. We are living in the capitalocene. Our whole world has been reshaped by and for capitalists, while we have been living with the delusion that our new religion had any capacity to thwart any element of capitalism. Our ethics have simply provided a froth and a smoke screen, behind which capitalism can obtain billions and trillions more capital to invest in things that continue to wreck us and our planet. We have been living with this paradigm that is intent on deceiving us as much as any druids or priests ever deluded us in the past. Our goodness is simply another element that can be capitalised.
We have heard of disaster capitalism and how every disaster becomes an opportunity. There is also environmental capitalism, where greenwashing is done on a massive scale (Mike Moore, 2020). Of course it’s more complex than this – but most of us are waking up during this covid-crisis to the possibility that we need a new paradigm. What’s not complex is the realisation that at every level we are feeling duped by what is going on around us.
We need something that shakes us out of the mobility paradigm, where we blithely believe that mobility is gold and god. I speak for myself, when I say that the belief that I could be mobile is one of the most profound awakenings of my life. My early adult years were spent doing things like forging the documents that would allow me to get a passport to get out of Ireland; an early drama was having that passport confiscated by parents, along with the hardwon contraceptive (contraband in Ireland). Along the way, I managed to find myself on the other side of the globe, first as an exile and then gradually unfolding the possibility to keep going back and forth around the globe. I remember my missionary uncle telling me in the 1980s that refugees were going to be the issue of my lifetime and he was right. In all ways mobility has been the paradigm that is most closely tied with capitalism. In the year before covid I was in a position to be able to return to Ireland four times. This mobility paradigm has ruled my life, it is where I start to query my environmental credentials and the feeling/seeming impossibility of doing anything else.
Then along comes covid and my dreams are haunted by conversations with family where I explain that I cannot return anymore. After an enforced retreat at home, there is new consciousness arising. I realise that I already had the basic elements to think thoughts that were previously unthinkable. Somewhere along the way I learned to live with my own special virus. For the last five years, I have been learning to cooperate with something that felt like the enemy. I have learned that there is no heroism that his going to overcome my virus, I can only learn to live within the limits of what it means to be together. This means that I need to sleep when I am tired, and to exercise regularly and to eat well. It means that I need to learn to contain narratives that threaten my mental health. Honestly, I have learned to be grateful to my virus for relieving me of the belief that I can be superwoman, or that I am alone.
So, when Donna Haraway talks about the Chthulucene I am ready to hear her. Our gods are no longer the singular ones of christianity or gaia. Our gods are now the viruses and all the other beings that we live together with. Our narrative is now one of composting together in ways that can enable the next generation to flourish. It opens us up to deeper listening to the beings that we are. In meditation we learn that we are shades, and shades of shades. We learn also that we are beacons to each other. We have a hive mind that we already know about. We can be as intelligent as this virus. We can learn to communicate in ways that acknowledge our depth of connection.
We need to find the words and the narratives. Our story is no longer one of heroism – of venturing out alone and conquering the world, then coming home. This is not the reality. And neither is it real to think that we can ‘beat’ this thing. We can’t. We might have been able to beat bacteria for a while, but viruses are a whole other thing. Maybe now we can be less parochial, and we can re-normalise our world. Maybe we can de-stablise the capitalocene and dance our way into a new balance.
For this we need artists and scientists. I trust that my teenager will be that scientist and my role is to find ways to create that environment. I still ask my forever question: “Good people exist, how is this possible?”. But I no longer answer with heroism. The highest levels of communication are needing to be learned and awakened in order to find ways to live in community. This community is not just human, it is all of life.
Harraway, Donna, 2014 “Anthropocene, Capitalocene and Chthulucene: staying with the trouble” https://vimeo.com/97663518
Moore, Mike, 2020, “Planet of the Humans”, https://youtu.be/Zk11vI-7czE