I became an adult during the pandemic. Because of that, it was a pretty pitiful affair compared with the intoxication of what an 18th birthday is meant to be. Turning 18 is always going to be scary, but it is especially in a society that renders adulthood as something repellently formal.
To be an adult is to be civilised. Or so I’ve been taught. Wilderness is an antonym for civilisation. Since we see “civilised” as being a desirable trait, where does that put “wild”? We look at a soppy dog by a fireplace or a flock of compliant sheep and brand them domesticated, smug in our role as domesticator, not realising that humans are perhaps the most domesticated species of all, with
75% of young people spending more time indoors than prison inmates.
And yet, despite our apparent repulsion for mud, insects and the most elemental aspects of nature, we are fascinated by wilderness. The story of the “wild child” captures everyone’s imagination. Whether it’s Mowgli in The Jungle Book, Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf, the exposure of Paris on the slopes of Mount Ida, or Tarzan, there is something undeniably attractive about those who are reared by (non-human) animals.
Because of that innate fascination – some call it “biophilia” – almost anyone can fall back in love with the natural world when given the opportunity. It just gets harder the more age and society claw you away from it. When the dreadful tide of the pandemic came rushing in, it brought incomprehensible destruction and devastation. But it also brought new experiences that many had missed.
I remember those spring mornings, as damp and steaming as a newborn calf, more intensely than any other time in my life. The silence in London meant we could suddenly hear frogs serenading each other and birds singing soaring orchestral farewells to winter. Many noticed that day when the daffodils thrust their heads into the sunlight, and watched as the grey British winter thawed out and life was renewed. It’s ironic that the pandemic, which sent many of us scuttling into fields and parks with our eyes wide open and our ears straining to hear the birdsong, stemmed from our destruction of nature. It was poetic justice of sorts.
The coronavirus is a secondary, symptomatic crisis. We are creating a vulnerable and fragile planet, and as we do so we become ever more vulnerable and fragile too. Our war against nature is a war against ourselves. If this pandemic teaches us anything, it must be that we cannot continue with business as usual. Viruses and disease are environmental issues. About 75% of emerging diseases are zoonotic. It is a stark and frightening reminder of our vulnerability. Although we have been to the moon, created the internet, concocted miraculous cures and conceived complex cultures, we are still bound to the laws of the natural world, and will never be exempt from the havoc we wreak upon it.
I went into the pandemic as a child and came out, in legal terms, as an adult. I don’t know if anyone ever feels like a true adult rather than an impostor in a suit, paying taxes and pretending you’re on top of things, but I do know that we have to change the idea that becoming slowly disillusioned with the natural world as you grow up is an automatic process. It’s not. It’s what we’re taught in this culture at this moment.
Until recently, many of us had not realised the effect that our disconnection from the environment was having on the world, because although the impact was being felt across large parts of the planet, the bubbles of privilege gave some of us the luxury of anticipating destruction rather than experiencing it. Now we know the consequences at first-hand, and there’s no going back.
We must use what we have experienced, what we have learned and what we have felt, and channel that into a determined effort to challenge political apathy and drive political will by questioning the very fundamentals of how our government is approaching the environmental crisis. It’s no longer about modest adjustments as we tinker at the edges of the system; it’s about changing the very story we tell ourselves. It’s about changing our national narrative from one of endless growth and consumption to one where values of respect, compassion and wellbeing are at the heart of what we do. Remorseless and unstoppable growth in the human body is called cancer. So why, when it is on Earth, do we call it progress?