During the first months of 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic began raging, some commentators referred to the virus, and its consequences, as the classic “black swan”: a rare and unpredictable event as in the expression made famous by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. But many scholars, with Taleb himself leading the way, rejected this connection. For the scientific community, the idea of a global pandemic caused by a virus of animal origin was not just a possibility – it was a certainty. As David Quammen wrote in Spillover (W.W. Norton & Company) back in 2012, the question about a global pandemic was not if would have happen, but when. “Yes, it’s true. We knew it would happen,” Quammen told me when I met him. Scientists had been predicting it – there was a whole scientific community that for years, if not decades, had been saying that a new pandemic was on its way, and that it would be caused by a virus, which would almost certainly be a new virus from a wild animal. And that it could easily be an influenza virus or a coronavirus. Scientists were saying this in their publications, and I gathered their views and illustrated them in my Spillover. And others were spreading the same warning. It is impossible to believe that the world’s leaders and public health officials were unaware of these warnings. They had to be aware. Even when the leader was as ignorant as Donald Trump, he was still surrounded by people who told him that this could all happen.”
So how was it that the pandemic swept over us like an unstoppable wave, as if an alien from outer space had landed on Earth, whereas it actually came, as expected, from one of those “islands” of wild life that we were destroying? How is it possible that we didn’t we see it coming? “An excellent public health official named Ali Khan, formerly with the American CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Ed.] and now dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Nebraska, explained it to me: he said it wasn’t information that had failed, it wasn’t science that had failed. It was a failure of imagination. What he meant was that the people who received this information, and who heard these warnings, were unable to imagine that such an event would happen during their tenure, under their responsibility. They were told that to prevent the outbreak of a new virus from causing a pandemic, and to respond quickly, would cost money, lots of money, tens of billions of dollars to set up international networks and public health facilities. Now, if you tell a politician that it’s going to take tens of billions of dollars to prevent an event, he’ll most likely ask you: so, when’s this event going to happen? Will it happen before the next elections? At that point the scientists will say they don’t know when it’s going to happen, just that they know that it will happen. It might happen in a year’s time. It might be in a couple years or it might not happen for five years. And the politician will think: I’ve got an election in three years’ time. I’m not going to spend tens of billions of dollars to protect myself from something that isn’t going to happen before my next election. What the decision-makers didn’t understand, and weren’t even able to imagine, was that this something could happen three years before the election or five years after it. But the damage it will cause, even only in economic terms, will be, and indeed has been, thousands of times greater than what it would have cost to prevent it. This is a failure of imagination.”
It is said that Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the great English Romantic poet, used to attend the chemistry lectures at the Royal Institution. When someone asked him why he subjected himself to such torment, Coleridge replied: “to improve my stock of metaphors”. Italo Calvino was once scolded by Margherita Hack in the 1970s because, when writing about black holes, he got some scientific detail wrong, and had been “enchanted by the images”. Calvino’s slightly piqued reply was that for a writer who, like him, was “constantly on the lookout for images at the very limits of the thinkable, this is a hard blow: like coming across a “hunting prohibited” sign in a wood (science) that he views as a reserve of prized game”. That’s it: Quammen has this amazing skill. In his books, or when you speak to him in person, it seems he never strays an inch from his factual account of events. What he is most interested in is giving the reader the information, the context, and the order of events, so as to reconstruct the magnificent science stories that his books are about. But by doing so – and this is where we see his talent – he manages to spark a chain reaction of thoughts, images, and metaphors: his books have thus become not just authentic maps for finding one’s way around this new dark age, but also an amazing “reserve of prized game” for artists, writers, philosophers and visionaries.
This is why I am not surprised that one of the first things we start talking about is imagination. “Some things were surprising, while others weren’t,” Quammen continues. “The fact that it’s a very dangerous virus, almost certainly from a wild animal. It’s an RNA virus. A coronavirus. None of that surprised me: that’s what we were being warned of. What is surprising, what really surprised me is how unprepared we were. I was surprised by how hard Italy, and especially Lombardy, was hit in March and April 2020. It’s still a bit of a mystery to me and others why Italy was hit so hard in the early days. I talk about this in the new book I’m writing – I offer some of the hypotheses that scientists have come up with. Then I was surprised at how unprepared we were when it came to testing for the virus. We didn’t test asymptomatic people. When we at last received test kits that worked, we concentrated on people with symptoms that showed they had Covid. But this meant we knew nothing about the asymptomatic cases, allowing the virus to spread silently.” Quammen’s words again return to the theme of visibility, of what we can see and of what remains hidden. “The virus proved to be very, very adaptive. With new variants. The Alpha variant. Delta variant. Omicron variant. And now the Xe and Xj variants of Omicron. Each of these has come as a surprise: but the fact that the virus mutates is no surprise at all.” Imagination is also the ability to project oneself into the future, I say to him. “Right. The virus is still with us. It’s still on the rise in many countries. It’a not going to go away, not any time soon. It’ll carry on surprising us by changing, adapting, and evolving for years to come. For four years? No, more likely for forty. I’d say that in forty years’ time, children will be vaccinated against this virus and other coronaviruses, probably with a general vaccine that covers all coronaviruses. But this virus won’t have disappeared in forty years. It’ll still be out there. It will make people sick and it will probably still be killing people in forty years’ time. Not as much as now, but I believe it’ll still be with us.”
Fear of the virus is so great and pervasive because, on a symbolic level, it brings a ghostly, menacing apparition of its own double: in a distressing, nightmarish version, it overturns and then re-proposes the dream of globalisation with the transformation of the world into a single vast global city. The “end of the world” that the almost apocalyptic torment of the pandemic brought about is therefore the end of the idea of the world – of the natural world as opposed to a completely urbanised globe. The more man thought he was the absolute lord and master of a “totally enlightened” land, free of all risk and with no areas of otherness, the more this totality came rushing back in the alarming spectre of the pandemic. It is no coincidence that the other area where the term “virus” has taken hold is that of computer networks, and of the Internet in particular. Communication, and especially digital communication, increases proximity, and thus the potential for contagion. The pandemic has made the infrastructure of the world visible. The network is one of communication and exchange, of people and goods, of languages and ideologies, images and fears, stories and genomes.
“All my books, come to think of it, have to do with borders, with the idea of borders, and the possibility or inevitability that borders, frontiers and barriers will be violated. Borders will be crossed, frontiers traversed, and they will become porous. My first book, The Song of the Dodo, which came out 26 years ago, was about evolution on islands, and about what islands can teach us concerning evolution and extinction. You know why islands are so important? Because they are delimited. They’re just one long border. They are relatively small plots of land with very, very strong, absolute borders. For example, an island may be a piece of rainforest surrounded by the ocean. So that piece of rainforest is inhabited by creatures that can’t cross oceans. Both mammals and reptiles and even birds. Many birds are reluctant to fly even over 20 miles of open ocean. So the importance of the fragmentation of landscapes on the mainland has been recognised as extremely important because species can also become extinct on islands. And while we divide the mainland into islands surrounded by human civilisation, species will also become extinct in these areas. That was my first major book on a scientific topic. At the heart of my books there is, I believe an attack on, and a criticism of, a supposed border – a very common boundary in human thinking. And that is the boundary between man and nature, between the human and the natural world. People tend to think that we humans are somehow separate from nature. That we are above nature. But Darwin taught us that no, we most certainly aren’t. We’re part of nature. We’re animals. And that the boundaries between us and other animals are relatively small. There are quantitative, but not qualitative differences. We and chimpanzees have a common ancestor, from which we gradually started evolving about 5 million years ago. So these boundaries are not absolute. That’s the great lesson taught by Charles Darwin. And I guess it runs through most of my books.”
What makes the alarming power of the virus so great is that it touches on the most ancestral areas of the human brain, threatening not just the physical survival of the individual, but also that of humanity as a species, because the virus forces us to recall Darwin’s deepest and most sinister idea. The idea that man is truly an animal among animals, with nothing exceptional about him. And this means that, like other animals, he too runs the risk of becoming extinct. “Exactly, that’s right. There’s a lot of talk these days about the microbiome, for example. All our bodies contain other organisms – microorganisms, bacteria, viruses, archaea, tiny unicellular organisms, eukaryotes – and when these start causing problems we call it an infection, we call it a disease, and we take antibiotics and try to get rid of them. But we probably have tens of thousands of types of organisms living in us that do no harm or that are even beneficial to us. And they help balance out the processes. They live in our stomach, in our intestines, on our skin, on our mucous membranes – they’re part of our life. But not only, for there are whole sections of our DNA, in our very genome, that came to us from other creatures, not by vertical descent, during long evolutionary processes, but horizontally, as it were – laterally, from viruses, for example, which become part of our genome when they infect us. Endogenous retroviruses, for example: 8% of the human genome consists of viral DNA that came to us through these endogenous retroviruses. Viruses that go back and insert themselves into the DNA of our cells. And some of these have entered the DNA of our reproductive cells, eggs and sperm, and that has made them part of our human hereditary lineage. So we’re composite creatures. And so, as I say in my book The Tangled Tree (Simon Schuster), there are three categories that people think of as absolute but which have nothing at all absolute about them. The individual is viewed as a unitary, discrete creature. No, we are a community and we have merged with other creatures. Then there is the idea of a species as an absolute and discrete category. No: we’ve discovered that there is genetic material that passes sideways from one species to another through a process known as horizontal gene transfer. And, lastly, the idea that the story of life resembles a branching tree. A tree with boughs that always branch off. Now we know that this is not the case – this intricate tree actually has branches that also join up and intertwine horizontally, like a net. It’s a tangled tree.”
A threatening, impending totality. Something that’s both fascinating and terrifying. A mix of attraction and repulsion for something that transcends us. The enormity of something that is not immediately comprehensible to the human brain and its epistemological categories. An experience that is an all-out assault on the integrity of the subject. These are aspects that the interpretation of the pandemic has in common with the sublime.
Imagination. Visibility. The pandemic has forced us to rethink a whole series of concepts that have always been part of our way of viewing, imagining and thinking about the world. The virus and the contagion are invisible, whereas their effects (on people, cities, and the economy) are extremely perceptible. The pandemic is an event that involves everyone, since it has to do with the body, but most people lived through it at home, unable to see what was going even in their own town, paradoxically knowing more about what was happening on the other side of the world than on the other side of the street. “I think there are three great problems we need to deal with on this planet. And we ourselves are the ultimate cause of all three. The problems are interconnected, although this does not mean that one is the cause of the other. The three great problems are the loss of biodiversity and mass extinctions, climate change, and the threat of new global pandemics. These are the main problems and all three are interconnected. But it cannot be said that climate change is the cause of pandemics or that it is the reason for the loss of biological diversity. They interact with each other in complex ways. For example, climate change contributes to the loss of biological diversity by modifying ecosystems and making it hard for animals to survive, since the climate in their particular ecosystem changes. Climate change may have devastating effects on the Amazon rainforest – one of the five great forests on planet Earth – for changing rain cycles lead to greater aridity in the southern Amazon area, and indeed parts of the rainforest are beginning to turn into savannah and pastures. And then there are both natural and human-induced fires, together with deforestation by humans. This in turn affects rainfall because the rainfall cycle in the Amazon depends on the size of the forest itself. So climate change might push the Amazon rainforest beyond a certain threshold, after which the demise of the great forest would become inevitable. These problems all interact, but each one has the same root cause: and that is the human population. Our footprint on the world.”
So how is it possible to represent the unrepresentable and avoid the “great derangement” mentioned by the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh? In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press), Ghosh deals mainly with novels, but his considerations are applicable to much of contemporary art. How is it possible, Ghosh wonders, that our life (and our death, both individual and as a species) is determined by this huge global event that is climate change (but the same could also be said of the pandemic) and yet we are not able to represent it in our art and in our novels? We need to disengage the ideological mechanisms that make us push nature and the non-human and the global into the background: the sublime may be one way to do it, with the mix of terror and fascination that science faces us with and that art gives shape to. In other words, to deal with what the philosopher Timothy Morton refers to as “hyperobjects”: phenomena that are too vast and widespread, with their own temporal dimensions, as to be unthinkable and unrepresentable, such as black holes, the Anthropocene, or climate change. Or, indeed, the pandemic.
“I think of the three great problems I was talking about earlier as three great rivers,” Quammen tells me as we are about to say goodbye, “Three majestic rivers that flow parallel to each other, all flowing from a single mountain and all fed by the melting of a glacier on that mountain. And then they flow down from that mountain in parallel, sometimes intersecting each other, but their root cause is always the same: the melting of the glacier. And what is melting it is the size of the human population. It is we who are the cause of these three problems.”