The Pandemic and Panarchy

We still hear the occasional plane–they have been taking off to the east due to a persistent weather pattern that has brought strong winds off the North Sea and brilliantly clear skies, marred by only the occasional contrail. The UK has now moved closer to a full lock down, something that was necessary to overcome the cavalier attitude too many people have toward COVID-19. Life is still not as restricted as it is in many other European countries, but still more so than in much of the U.S. The ambit of our London adventure keeps shrinking. So, just as Thoreau “traveled a good deal in Concord” we will be more studiously exploring our nearby–for now including the various parks and Wandle River path, but which could shrink to our little backyard, now sporting some kale, lettuce, and radishes and some perennial flowering plants (cowslip and primrose), all an emphatic vote for the future! Our neighbors (left) made a badminton net of their fence this morning.

A single contrail

The weather has been unusually dry, as well, so some watering has been necessary to keep the seedlings going. But with some favorable conditions, we could be eating greens from our own backyard in a couple of weeks!

On Sunday I went for a long walk from Colliers Wood up through Tooting and back, mostly on side streets. A walk like that drives home just how pervasive terrace housing is in London, mile after mile of streets like the block at right, mostly 2 stories in this area. Now all converted to gas heating, but you can count the 4-6 chimney pots on each one, once all venting coal smoke. We can be grateful that lung damage from that kind of pollution is now a thing of the past, here in London at least (though that CO2 still endures in the atmosphere). At one point I was walking along, the traffic noise so muted I could hear my footsteps clearly and a songbird, and I heard from an open window Miles Davis’s “All Blues” . I stopped and listened for a couple of minutes, to Miles, Cannonball, John, Bill, and Paul playing those sweet, vaguely melancholic notes. It seemed the perfect soundtrack for the moment, and I listened to the entire Kind of Blue album when I got home, one of the top 5 LPs of all time. (An act that produced its own puff of carbon, alas.) I also walked by St. George’s Hospital, one of the biggest in metro London and the destination of most of the ambulances we now hear constantly. Like every hospital in a region where the wave of infections has yet to crest, the staff there is bracing for the terrible triage decisions that await.

In a paradox that is probably being reproduced in the States, the stores in the past two days have been better supplied than in the previous week, when the magnitude of the pandemic was just dawning on people here and panic reigned. Panic has (mostly) given way to resignation, and a bit more patience. The scenes below from the weekend would be harder to find in stores today. Perhaps the plea from the NHS nurse that went viral over the weekend helped remind people not to be so selfish. We finally found some toilet paper after almost a week of looking.

The supermarkets are flourishing. Small businesses of all kinds are taking one body blow after another. Last Friday the UK government joined several other European countries in basically putting their economy into a deep freeze for at least 3 months. In order to minimize unemployment they have offered to pay up to 80% of the wages of workers in exchange for companies not laying them off (or, in slightly more ominous locution here, making them redundant), which will both ease the burden on the existing unemployment system and enable a much more rapid ignition of the economy in a few months time. Nothing of the sort is being considered in the U.S. as far as I can tell, which does not augur well for the U.S. economy, whose health was already something of a mirage even before the pandemic. Just as not all people are equally able to recover from COVID-19, not all economies will rebound the same way–due to pre-existing conditions.

Already it is clear that we have no idea what a future global economy will look like. Or a national economy. Or a local one. What is clear, and what should always have been clear, are the profound ways in which everything is connected. Western science devised a science and a nomenclature to acknowledge this reality: ecology (the study of one’s dwelling place, from the Greek). But the insights from ecological science have entered into the design and functioning of our civilization only superficially. It is worth noting that there are (and once were many more) cultures around the world whose very existence is so bound up with ecological principles that they don’t need a science to understand interconnectedness. As Barry Lopez writes of the Kamba people in his magisterial recent book Horizon, “I enjoy their company because they know in any given moment, as I do not, precisely where they are.”

The work of biologists Lance H. Gunderson and C.S. Holling and their collaborators in the Resilience Alliance is more vital than ever now. They coined the word Panarchy (after the god Pan, to invoke the idea that change is often unpredictable) to capture the way natural systems function at multiple scales. The Panarchy framework seeks to understand the interactions across these scales, “to rationalize the interplay between change and persistence, between the predictable and unpredictable,” and to better understand adaptation.

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