‘…we are currently situated in a posthuman convergence between the Fourth industrial Age and the Sixth Extinction, between an advanced knowledge economy, which perpetuates patterns of discrimination and exclusion, and the threat of climate change devastation for both human and non-human entities…’
Part 1 of this post on COVID-19, Young People and the Convergence of the 4th Industrial Revolution and the 6th Mass Extinction started the discussion about how we can understand the emergence of COVID-19, the disruption and crisis it produces, and how it needs to be situated in the convergence that Braidotti identifies. Particularly if we are to build productive scenarios for young people’s sustainable futures in places and lifeworlds that cannot return to ‘business-as-usual’.
In this post I want to develop this sketch to reference the emerging discussions that seek to make elements of this convergence more explicit – this post draws on work that is currently in-press*.
Quantum entanglement is the physical phenomenon that occurs when a pair or group of particles is generated, interact, or share spatial proximity in a way such that the quantum state of each particle of the pair or group cannot be described independently of the state of the others, even when the particles are separated by a large distance.
When you think of a cow, you probably envision an animal grazing, eating grass, and perhaps producing methane at her other end. However, cows cannot do this. Their bovine genome does not encode proteins with enzymatic activity needed to digest cellulose. What the cow does is chew the grass and maintain a symbiotic community of microorganisms in her gut. It is this population of gut symbionts that digests the grass and makes the cow possible.
The cow is an obvious example of what is called a holobiont, an organism plus its persistent communities of symbionts. The notion of the holobiont is important both within and beyond biology because it shows a radically new way of conceptualizing “individuals”. (Scott F. Gilbert, 2017, Holobiont By Birth, p.M73)
Central to that task is introducing a discussion of the concept of ‘entanglement’ and how it is used to many new materialist and posthuman discourses. The concept of entanglement has other meanings in fields such as quantum physics and various biologies. These meanings have tended to travel, mostly metaphorically, into these humanities and social sciences. In quantum physics, entanglement is suggestive of correlation, of things being connected, of things not being independent, of the observed being profoundly shaped by the process of observation – even if it at the quantum level these things, and their correlations start to look and act pretty strangely to those of us who live in, and understand, ‘reality’ at the non-quantum level (Macdonald 2019, Wilczek 2016, Vutha 2019).
In biologies, entanglements go by names such as holobionts, symbionts, and sympoiesis (Gilbert 2017, Haraway 2017). Sympoiesis, for Haraway (2017, p.M25) is a ‘simple word’ that ‘means “making with”. Nothing makes it itself; nothing is really auto-poietic or self-organizing’. Entanglements, here, are suggestive of relationships and connections that go all the ‘way down’, so that we start to question ‘Where does the “human” start and stop?’ (Swanson et al. 2017, p.M5). These ideas about entanglements are deeply troubling for ideas of the discrete, unique ‘individual’. Entanglement, further, raises fundamental questions about ‘human exceptionalism’ when what it is that we usually understand as the ‘human’ is, indeed, an organism that is home to billions of other organisms who have been deeply implicated in sympoietic co-evolution (symbiogenesis), in shaping many of the ‘traits’ that we have, over time, come to imagine as being distinctly human.
In feminist posthumanities, new materialisms, and scholarship on the Anthropocene translations of this idea of entanglement have travelled via various routes and processes – often with a lineage that draws on the work of Foucault and Deleuze (see, for example, Haraway 2016; Tsing 2015; Braidotti 2013; Swanson et al. 2017). As Stacy Alaimo (2012 p.476, see also Alaimo 2010) argues:
As the material self cannot be disentangled from networks that are simultaneously economic, political, cultural, scientific and substantial, what was once an ostensible bounded human subject finds herself in a swirling landscape of uncertainties where practices and actions that were once not even remotely ethical or political matters suddenly become so.
In a ‘two-headed’ collection titled Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (read from one direction, the book is subtitled Ghosts of the Anthropocene; read from the other direction it is subtitled Monsters of the Anthropocene), Heather Swanson, Anna Tsing, Nils Bubandt, and Elaine Gan’s (2017) Introduction: Bodies Tumbled Into Bodies plays with the idea that Monsters are the leitmotif of the Anthropocene:
Monsters are useful figures with which to think the Anthropocene, this time of massive human transformations of multispecies life and their uneven effects. Monsters are the wonders of symbiosis and the threats of ecological disruption. Modern human activities have unleashed new and terrifying threats: from invasive predators such as jellyfish to virulent new pathogens to out-of-control chemical processes. Modern human activities have also exposed the crucial and ancient forms of monstrosity that modernity tried to extinguish: the multispecies entanglements that make life across the earth, as in the coral reef, flourish. The monsters in this book, then, have a double meaning: on one hand, they help us pay attention to ancient chimeric entanglements; on the other, they point us toward the monstrosities of modern Man. Monsters ask us to consider the wonders and terrors of symbiotic entanglement in the Anthropocene. (Swanson et al 2017, p.M2)
COVID-19 and the death, destruction and havoc that it is wreaking is, in this sense, monstrous.
The World Health Organization warned in its 2007 report that infectious diseases are emerging at a rate that has not been seen before. Since the 1970s, about 40 infectious diseases have been discovered, including SARS, MERS, Ebola, chikungunya, avian flu, swine flu and, most recently, Zika. With people traveling much more frequently and far greater distances than in the past, living in more densely populated areas, and coming into closer contact with wild animals, the potential for emerging infectious diseases to spread rapidly and cause global epidemics is a major concern.
This section is ‘in-the raw’ at this time. It curates a small number of articles from The Guardian newspaper where various experts in diverse fields are building on the work done over the last 40 years or so on zoonoses and there emergences – and the entanglements of these emergences with human activities, and with what Rosi Braidotti (2013) calls the thanato-politics of necro-capitalism. A politics that is about who and what is a resource to be exploited. Who and what is disposable. Who and what dies. A politics in which some humans are more valuable, more important, more ‘human’ than others.
We will return to developing a number of these themes in future posts – particularly in relation to the possibilities for capitalism to deliver on the idea of ‘sustainable development’.
‘Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?
‘…a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19, the viral disease that emerged in China in December 2019, to arise – with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems.
Research suggests that outbreaks of animal-borne and other infectious diseases such as Ebola, Sars, bird flu and now Covid-19, caused by a novel coronavirus, are on the rise. Pathogens are crossing from animals to humans, and many are able to spread quickly to new places. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate in animals.
Tip of the iceberg
“Pathogens do not respect species boundaries,” says disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory University’s department of environmental sciences, who studies how shrinking natural habitats and changing behaviour add to the risk of diseases spilling over from animals to humans.
“I am not at all surprised about the coronavirus outbreak,” he says. “The majority of pathogens are still to be discovered. We are at the very tip of the iceberg.”
Humans, says Gillespie, are creating the conditions for the spread of diseases by reducing the natural barriers between host animals – in which the virus is naturally circulating – and themselves. “We fully expect the arrival of pandemic influenza; we can expect large-scale human mortalities; we can expect other pathogens with other impacts.
Yet human health research seldom considers the surrounding natural ecosystems, says Richard Ostfeld, distinguished senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. He and others are developing the emerging discipline of planetary health, which looks at the links between human and ecosystem health.
“There’s misapprehension among scientists and the public that natural ecosystems are the source of threats to ourselves. It’s a mistake. Nature poses threats, it is true, but it’s human activities that do the real damage. The health risks in a natural environment can be made much worse when we interfere with it,” he says.
Ban wildlife markets to avert pandemics, says UN biodiversity chief: Warning comes as destruction of nature increasingly seen as key driver of zoonotic diseases
As the coronavirus has spread around the world, there has been increased focus on how humanity’s destruction of nature creates conditions for new zoonotic illness to spread.
Jinfeng Zhou, secretary general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, called on authorities to make the ban on wildlife markets permanent, warning diseases such as Covid-19 would appear again.
“I agree there should be a global ban on wet markets, which will help a lot on wildlife conservation and protection of ourselves from improper contacts with wildlife,” Zhou said. “More than 70% of human diseases are from wildlife and many species are endangered by eating them.”
* Peter Kelly, James Goring, Meave Noonan. School Strikes for Climate: Young people, dissent and collective identities in/for the Anthropocene, in B. Schiermer, B. Gook and V. Cuzzocrea (eds) Youth Collectivities: Cultures, Objects, Belonging, Routledge.
Seth Brown, Peter Kelly, Scott Phillips. Belonging, identity, Time and Young People’s Engagement in the Middle Years of Schooling, Palgrave.
Alaimo, S. 2012. States of Suspension: Trans-corporeality at Sea, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Summer 2012), pp. 476-493
Alaimo, S. 2010. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self. Bloomington: Indiana UP
Braidotti, R. 2013. The Posthuman, Polity Press, Cambridge.
Gilbert, S. 2017. Holobiont by birth: Multilineage individuals as the concretion of cooperative processes. In A.Tsing, H. Swanson, E. Gan and N. Bubandt (eds) Arts of living on a damaged planet. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. M73-90.
Haraway, D 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Haraway, D. 2017. Symbiogenesis, Sympoiesis, and Art Science Activisms for Staying with the Trouble. In A. Tsing, H. Swanson, E. Gan and N. Bubandt (eds) Arts of living on a damaged planet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. M25-50.
Macdonald, F. 2019. Scientists Just Unveiled The First-Ever Photo of Quantum Entanglement, Science Alert, July 13, https://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-just-unveiled-the-first-ever-photo-of-quantum-entanglement[accessed 24/02/2020]
Swanson, H., Tsing, A., Bubandt, N. and Gan, E. 2017. Introduction: Bodies Tumbled into Bodies. In A. Tsing, H. Swanson, E. Gan and N. Bubandt (eds.) Arts of living on a damaged planet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. M1-14
Vutha, A (2019) What is Quantum Entanglement?, Cosmos, May 17, 2019, https://cosmosmagazine.com/physics/what-is-quantum-entanglement, [accessed 24/02/2020]
Wilczek, F. (2016) Entanglement Made Simple, Quanta Magazine, April 28, 2016, https://www.quantamagazine.org/entanglement-made-simple-20160428/ [accessed 24/02/2020]