How we preserve our freedom in the battle against corona and other crises

15 Apr 2020

The worldwide corona crisis is unique in history, which makes it interesting for scientists. How do researchers in Nijmegen view the situation from their various disciplines? In part 7 of the series Science & Corona, philosopher Boris van Meurs analyses the differences in the approach to the corona crisis and the climate crisis. Why are we suddenly willing to give up so much freedom?

Okay, so the police hand out fines here and there to groups of young people in the park who continue to spread their blankets too close together. Every now and then you also hear about a ‘screw corona’ party. But in general the Dutch have been compliant since the beginning of the corona crisis. We work or study at home, rarely use public transport and we’ve cancelled all visits with family and friends.

Decreased freedom

‘Yes, I was very surprised by how easily we let our freedom be taken away,’ said Boris van Meurs, PhD candidate and philosopher. ‘I had expected more protest. I thought that a party like Forum voor Democratie would find the measures exaggerated – because of its distrust of recognised scientists.’ But the very opposite happened: the party led by Thierry Baudet argued in the Lower House for a full lockdown instead of the intelligent lockdown advocated by Mark Rutte and his advisors.

‘Evidently, health and individual safety are very strong stimuli,’ said Van Meurs. ‘Stronger than the freedom to go wherever you please. In the past it was almost the other way around: people demanded their right to go on holiday and to travel. But now that safety is being threatened, those things aren’t so important anymore. That’s also a bit frightening because you wonder what other violations of our freedom we will allow when faced with new threats. With just a snap of its fingers, the state assumes more power.’

Anthropocene

Van Meurs is researching how people interact with the earth. His research focuses on the Anthropocene: the era in which the consequences of human actions are becoming visible on the climate, for example, biodiversity and marine pollution.

‘In traditional philosophy, nature and culture are often seen as distinct from each other,’ explained Van Meurs, ‘and nature stands for everything that is not human. People are different sorts of creatures because we are self-aware. We are not subject to our instincts and we can free ourselves from natural laws.’ In his research, Van Meurs uses a different perspective in which people are part of the earthly system. He thinks that the corona crisis clearly demonstrates this because the non-human virus makes use of all sorts of human infrastructures. Thanks to air traffic, the virus could travel from China to Italy, where it created a new hotspot.

‘With regard to climate, our technology and networks work not only for us but also against us’

Van Meurs analysed that the freedom that people experienced in the pre-corona period strongly depended on the networks that people had created. ‘We thought that those networks were means to help us satisfy our needs, but it now appears that we are also being used by them. It’s ironic that exactly these same networks have made us so vulnerable. The more we thought that we controlled nature, the faster the virus spread among us.’

Van Meurs also sees this paradox of freedom in the network that is still functioning in the time of corona: internet. ‘Now that we can no longer get together to meet or brainstorm, we depend on digital infrastructure, which is also vulnerable in its own way. For example, the hackers in Zoom who try to eavesdrop on our conversations.’

Empty motorways

In his analysis, Van Meurs sees many things in common between the fight against corona and the fight against climate change. ‘There again, it appears that our technology and networks work not only for us but also against us.’

But the challenge of fighting climate change is much greater according to Van Meurs. ‘The effects against corona are more quickly visible. If you ignore the measures, you and your loved ones become ill.’ In the case of climate change, geological processes play a role that are inconceivable on a human timescale. ‘For example, the Milankovitch cycles that encompass a hundred thousand years and are used to define the beginning and end of glaciation periods. Or the slow build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere. That can initiate irreversible processes like permafrost melt, which releases even more greenhouse gasses. And then it’s too late.’

Does he think that the knife cuts both ways now that the measures against the coronavirus are also good for the environment? Motorways are empty and a lot of industry has come to a standstill. ‘You can see that the air quality is better now than it was before corona. At first I thought: this is an example of how climate policy could work. People can change. But only because it’s temporary – I don’t think people would accept this life in the long run.’

‘China’s approach shows that large-scale problems seem to demand a strong state’

Again, this is a challenge for climate policy. ‘That crisis is so large that we have to shift to a new way of life – to a new definition of normal that is liveable. Just like the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk talks of a meteorological reformation in which life doesn’t go increasingly faster but rather more slowly. But that is an enormous break with the values that are cherished in the West.’

However, given the dystopian predictions made by climate scientists – rising sea levels, extreme droughts and failed harvests – the moment that a change in lifestyle becomes unavoidable is approaching. Van Meurs: ‘So the question now is how can we use the lessons from the corona period. How can we convert long-term threats into political actions?’

Enlightened dictatorship

In that respect, we’re increasingly looking to the East, says Van Meurs. ‘I’m keeping track of the situation in Wuhan. The approach there seems to work – that’s a beacon of hope. At any rate more than in the United States, where Trump denied the problem of the coronavirus for a long time.’

Van Meurs says it’s ‘interesting’ to see that China’s authoritarian approach seems to be working. ‘Because it demonstrates that large-scale problems, like a pandemic and climate change, seem to require a strong state. And how does that affect our freedom? It’s going to be a real challenge to figure out how we can tackle large-scale dangers democratically. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in imitation of this, the green movement adopts more extreme ideas about authority. In that context, you hear the term ‘enlightened dictatorship’ increasingly often.’

What it all boils down to according to Van Meurs is that the term ‘freedom’ will have to be redefined. ‘We’ve begun to associate that with consuming, travelling, doing whatever you want. Freedom is broader than that – it can also be about looking for connections with the people around you, by being free to build local communities and repairing and reusing products. Those are also aspects of freedom that have received less attention in the capitalist system. If we can manage a transformation there, then freedom, democracy and respect for the planet could go hand in hand.’

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