COVID-19 and the climate crisis now dominate our lives. The effect of the former is extreme. Images of death, endless discussion of restrictions, their implementation and the possibility of our release from them, dominate the news cycle. Comparisons are drawn between countries on everything from the extent of lockdown to the death count. In Australia the Prime Minister offered an ‘early mark’ to a well-behaved country, while State Premiers are ‘proud’ of their citizens. Elsewhere blame is attributed or denied. Honesty and mendacity parade as possible political positions. The climate crisis has slipped from view. Only five months ago in Australia it had an inescapable presence. A presence with the most emphatic register dated December 31, 2019.
The progression toward the events of December 31 started in a series of fires that, while a regular feature of Australian summer, commenced, uncharacteristically, in the middle of winter. Reading about and seeing news of bushfires in June was uncanny, leaving a sense that something “wasn’t right”. By September, the ferocity and number of the fires had reached levels rarely seen and by early October people had started to die. The fires reached international consciousness by November and December, when images of Sydney in an orange haze were flashed around the world. In Australia’s major southern cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra – these darkened and coloured skies made visible particulate counts that were the highest in the world. Australians, who always viewed the face-mask wearing of its Asian neighbours as an eccentricity, enthusiastically adopted them for fear of triggering asthma and other respiratory difficulties.
The imminence of the Christmas break created a sort of metronome for the increasingly worsening fire reports that persisted throughout December. As the end of the year approached, each day bought reports of new deaths or losses of property and an increasing tally of lost bushland – all juxtaposed with images of towering walls of smoke and flame. In a piece of impossibly perfect timing, the greatest ferocity of the fires increased as the year’s end approached. Advancing down the continent and toward the coast, finally, on December 31, the fires reached the town of Mallacoota where they pushed the summer holidaymakers to the beach, forcing them to spend New Year’s Eve with the unenviable status as Australia’s first climate refugees.
By their end, the fires claimed a total of 20 million hectares, more than one billion animals, 34 people, over 3500 homes, an air tanker, two helicopters and numerous fire appliances. After a lost decade of climate action in Australia – featuring a revolving door of Prime Ministers sacrificed to the issue amidst a national addiction to coal exports – change was finally in the air. But all this would immediately be overtaken by events in China as a novel coronavirus was detected in Wuhan, formally announced to the world by the WHO on December 31, just as people and tourists of Mallacoota were cowering on the beach waiting for military evacuation.
December 31, 2019 is not just a date. It presents a problem. The link between the Australian bush fires and COVID-19 is not arbitrary, for the bushfires cannot be separated from the inexorable transformation of the world’s climate. It is a crisis because it is a genuine turning point. And yet, the presence of that particular crisis is still met by denial and disavowal, to the extent that the Australian Government refused to discuss climate change. This response was not unexpected. An integral part of this crisis, one of its measures, is its refusal.
COVID-19 participates a constellation that includes the climate crisis. As deforestation occurs, the status of land changes and microclimates alter. Meanwhile, there is an increasing encroachment of humans into animal habitats. The status of animals changes, too. Regional distinctions – and thus local points of separation – are elided. Equally, the distinction between the edible and the inedible changes. The commodification of animals increases. As commodities, animals that had been separated by location, habitat and lifestyle, are placed together. The commodification of the animal, which includes its having become flesh, collapses points of separations. There are no clear borders in wet markets. There is a new possibility for contagion. Localised and manageable viruses are transferred from one commodified animal to another, from one carcass to another, from one body part to another. Species that had never encountered each other can be joined once wild animals are sold or have become meat. Borders have collapsed. The human becomes a vital link in a chain, over which any sort of real control has vanished.
The challenge, which is as much intellectual as it is political, is how this constellation is to be understood. The response to COVID–19 – the response to that which refuses the limitation of any border – has involved the acceptance of forms of restriction and the tightening of literal borders. The changes in border conditions over the past three months have occurred at all scales. States have established policed borders, movement within the city is controlled, entry to houses and apartments restricted, handshakes spurned, kisses impossible.
Borders have become more numerous and more insistent. Controls vary accordingly. Any loosening of restrictions that may allow, for example, a relative into the house, has to be understood as pertaining to the repositioning of a threshold within a more generalizable border condition. However, to concentrate merely on the biopolitical effects of COVID-19, as though they were not already part of the constellation that also includes the climate crisis fails to understand what is at stake.
While it important to insist on the way COVID-19 has involved new regimes of the body and practices of confinement that are linked to the history of the body’s control, in addition to how it has given new inflections to racism, to concentrate on these dimensions alone is to fail to grasp its true import. This is where the problem emerges. There seems to be acceptance, as much by governments as by populations, that action is necessary, control is necessary. COVID-19 is a genuine crisis; anactuak turning point. While there is the expectation that there will be a return to an already given set of norms there is also the growing recognition that this expectation is more a fantasy about the future than an actual reality. The presence of COVID-19 opens up the question of the future in ways that resist immediate answers. This is the case despite the language of the Australian ‘snap back’ or ‘reopening America’.
If there are two concepts that organize the constellation we are considering here, they are border and future. They are an odd pair, indeed. What makes the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 acceptable is the promise of a future that will be just like the past, albeit a past that is now only 5 months old. And yet, this past, the one in which bushfires raged, was also the one where the reality of the climate crisis elicited no real response from government.
The climate crisis was accounted for in terms of being just one possible description of the current state of the world. Its presence was transformed into a point of view to be countered by another point of view. The crisis was not allowed the quality of being a crisis. The same thing occurs with the predominant governmental response to COVID-19. Whatever forms of governmentality that were brought in to control borders and thresholds in order to mitigate the spread of the virus are only allowed because there is the assumption that they will occasion a return to a specific sense of the present, the present that was there before. Were this to occur – and this is the present that guides government policy –, it would be a return to a present, in which the disavowal of the climate crisis would again become the norm.
Learning not from COVID-19 but from its presence within a constellation that includes the climate crisis requires understanding the primacy of relationality. Obligatory from one perspective, the imposition of strict and policed border conditions in order to restrict the spread of COVID-19 becomes, from another, futile if it is thought that there is a clear separation – a rigorous and absolute border – between COVID-19 and the climate crisis. The relation between them, however, is not causal. Rather, relationality is constitutive of the constellation.
Borders have different forms. They can be lines of separation or marked by variable forms of porosity consisting of thresholds. When taken together, however, they comprise fundamental elements of what needs to be understood as the border condition. Once relationality is assumed, formulations such as policed borders, lines of separation, thresholds, porosity, while underscoring the complexity of border conditions, are all different modes of relationality. Precisely because borders maintain relations the concerns of the border – the border condition – predominates.
The current state of wet markets is the effect of changes in the relationship between humans and animals. Edge conditions alter. New border conditions obtain. Those changes have to be incorporated within a setting created by an array of concomitant transformations, such as changes in land use, the planting of rapid development cash crops, and an increase in beef production. Each is a shift within a terrain that constitutes a new edge condition. The edge is part of the border condition. Modes of separation and connection take on new forms as the result of the climate crisis. Generally, therefore, to the extent that there is a shift in the modes of relationality, new and divergent points of imbrication and separation crop up as instances of the border condition.
Our response to the presence of COVID-19 cannot be to its presence as a singularity. Any real response has to start with the complex set of transformations of the border condition, within which the crisis is located. It arises from transformation within that condition, a transformation of the border separating animals and humans. However, that means that COVID-19 is implicated from the start within a set of relations, of which it is an after-effect. In other words, it does not have a separate individual cause that would be tied to it in a relation between singularities. There is no single cause – no originating event, or series of events – whose subsequent eradication would mean that the virus was eliminated and that the circumstances that gave rise to it were already absent. A significant point is that the aetiology of COVID-19 cannot be found in a single causal connection. The failure to deal with COVID-19 without recognizing the network of relations that constitutes it as a singularity would fail to understand what constitutes it at all.
The response to COVID-19 that concentrates on what is taken to be the purely biopolitical is clearly important. Hence, thinkers and writers such as Giorgio Agamben and Paul Preciado have made significant contributions to the identification of some of the issues, to which the emergence of the virus has given rise. Nonetheless, there is a fundamental limit to these analyses. The limit is clear. Firstly, without understanding COVID-19 as an event that occurs within a relational configuration staging the complexity of the border condition, its presence as an event is not fully grasped. Secondly, the future is only open as a possibility – or perhaps as an impossibility – if both the relational configuration that individuated COVID-19 and the specific determination of the border condition that allowed it no longer determine what is taking place. Designing the future has to begin, therefore, with how the suspension of these configurations and the senses of measure they entail are understood. While this means, of necessity, working at a range of different scales, it is the development of counter-measures – a project, in which design and politics intersect – that then becomes a precondition for the possibility of any future.