It could be said that the 21st century begun on 7 April 2020, just like the 20th century really started on 28 July 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War. If 7 April 2020 defines history, it is because half of the planet’s governments that day chose to lock-down 4 billion people, giving preference to the health of their populations over the growth of their economies, after having too long neglected the vitality of their ecosystems. The beginning of the 21st century lies in this triptych: life, health, the economy, in that order of priority. The bottom line is that the strength of the biosphere conditions human capacities among which social cooperation, in turn allowing economic activity.
On 7 April 2020, the economy as a social organization and economics as a system of thought were therefore finally put back in their rightful, subordinate place, where they must henceforth remain in order to stop harming human health and life on the planet. Increasing economic growth while degrading ecosystems and therefore, in turn, harming human health, is – to put it simply –a counterproductive and irrational development strategy in the 21st century.
More fundamentally still, this surreal and painful year lies in the tension between two dimensions of human existence: social cooperation and ecological interdependence. It was for lack of having accepted the second that we were deprived of the first. And it is by means of the first that we can fully realize the second.
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Let us recall the three main human strategies known to fight pandemics. Dispersion was the collective answer of native Americans in the face of viruses imported from Europe with the conquest, French anthropologist Philippe Descola tells us: to prevent epidemics from becoming pandemics, human groups must prevent the possibility of contagion by keeping their distance from one another. Michel Foucault, for his part, distinguished "the leper's exile" by banishment and "the containment of the plague" by lock-down, aiming respectively at a “purified community” and “disciplined society”. We did all three at the same time in Europe and beyond in 2020 to varying degrees: to “social distancing” was added the confinement of populations and the quarantine of the sick.
Because all of these strategies are about “breaking the chains of transmission”, all three lead to the breaking of social bonds. In a sense, it is exactly the opposite that we will have to do to democratically face the ecological shocks of the years and decades to come. It is the strength, density and continuity of social ties that will be our best shield, as shown by the study of the role of social networks in the face of heat waves. Hence the importance of tackling a plan for social revitalization rather than “economic recovery” in European countries and elsewhere: stepping up efforts to curb social isolation, valuing cooperation rather than collaboration, restoring confidence in institutions and interpersonal trust.
The “contactless society” in which we have been forced to evolve brings new challenges to reviving social cooperation, accelerating some worrying trends: the painfulness of digital collaborative intelligence, the end of leisure rather than that of work, the advent of the delivery society as the new consumer society, the victory of digital ecosystems over natural ecosystems. Hopefully, new social skills have appeared under constraint: speaking with the eyes, reading on masks and touching with words.
But de-socialization as the new normal is perhaps the greatest danger that an ever more directive digital empire poses to contemporary societies by immersing them in a world of high frequency and low intensity. At the inevitable time of good resolutions, let us wish for a happy digital deceleration and better social-ecological health in 2021.
Time Magazine, which should have made the new coronavirus its “person of the year”, invited us a few weeks ago to draw a large red cross on the months which have just passed and which together would form “the worst year ever”. It is the perfect illustration of human denial, which remains the greatest political force on the planet. 2020, the start of the 21st century: a year never to forget.
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