Note: This is the REVISED version  (June 23, 2020) of an essay written for an international cyber-conference on the COVID-19 global pandemic. 

How To Destroy Civilization: COVID-19 and the Exploitation of Animals and the Earth

Steve Best

“Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvelous as being there in the beginning.”  ― Jean Baudrillard

  1. Apocalypse

Many past cultures have thought that they lived in apocalyptic times and expressed a foreboding sense of doom and ending. From the Book of Revelations to cyberpunk, apocalyptic visions have been a mainstay of human culture. In contemporary 21st century conditions, the signs of apocalypse are everywhere, from collapsing ice shelves in the Arctic to wildfires raging in California, Australia, and Brazil; from superstorms pummeling coastal towns and island communities to millions of refugees fleeing the ravages of drought, poverty, famine, and conflict; from lingering specters of nuclear annihilation and (bio)terrorist attacks to species extinction and runaway climate change. And now, on the heels of numerous recent viral outbreaks, we are witness to the scourge of a global pandemic inflicting suffering and death around the globe, a massive economic meltdown, and cities turned into ghost towns or petri dishes when not in flames over systemic racism and police brutality. All the while, authoritarianism rises, democracy wanes, and power concentrates into ever fewer hands, as promising signs of resistance emerge.

Whereas all past apocalyptic visions were rooted in fear, paranoia, fantasy, and superstition, visions of chaos and collapse today find grounding in mathematical projections and scientific facts. In our current era, apocalypse is an immanently unfolding objective reality that we are accelerating toward at breakneck speed. For the last 50 years or so, postmodern forms of culture and theory have articulated pronounced feelings of exhaustion and endings. We have heard much about the death of metanarratives; the end of history; the disappearance of the social; the demise of truth, reality, and the subject; and of course, the passing of postmodernism itself.[1] Postmodernism arises amidst paradigm shifts that register across the disciplines. but these changes barely scratched the surface of seismic changes unfolding in society and the objective world that had allegedly disappeared into the text or impenetrable fog of hyperreality. For what we are witnessing is not the end of modernism or modernity, but rather the immanent collapse of the expansionistic, growth-oriented enterprise we call civilization — the dominant institutional structures and ideologies that human beings have built over the last 10,000 years during the Holocene epoch.

Our present moment is so radically novel and extreme we have to think of it in geological, not merely historical terms, for we have created a new geological epoch — we are transitioning from the Holocene to the Anthropocene.[2] Humans have expanded their technological and world-altering prowess to such an extent they have disrupted every living system on the planet – most evidently in the emergence of a sixth (human-caused) mass extinction (right now, 150 species go extinct every day) and with the rise of fossil capitalism and its causal effect in global warming and climate change, thus creating  a radical break in the history of humanity and the earth itself. Since the 1970s, in just the last half-century, humans have reduced wild animal populations 60%, and within the next few decades we will obliterate an additional million plant and animal species.[3] To indicate the extent to which one species has usurped the planet on its unending path of destruction, humans have hitherto destroyed 83% of all wild animals and half of all plant species, such that 96% of all mammals on earth are now humans and their cattle.[4] Only 15% of the planet’s forests remain intact, the rest have been cut down, fragmented, and degraded, as grasslands and wetlands suffer a similar fate. Continue reading