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Covid-19 and climate crisis: Writing prompts from Bruno Latour

Trump drinks bleach
Trump drinks bleach
“Trump drinks bleach graffiti in Minnesota” courtesy of Lorie Shaull Creative Commons

Sometimes, an irresistible writing prompt presents itself. Bruno Latour [1], a French philosopher and anthropologist whose work I’ve learned a great deal from, has started a new research/activist project (as he occasionally does), to collect ideas and experiences related to the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. As a long-term climate activist, he’s noted that the pandemic has forced us to take collective action, rather on a dime and on an unprecedented scale. What never quite seemed possible in relation to our very urgent climate problems suddenly became entirely possible — despite the evident economic damage — in order to save our hides in this generation. Treating Covid-19 as a kind of design probe [2] or prototype is certainly an ambiguous undertaking in the sense that a highly infectious and thus far untreatable virus is perhaps more tragedy than opportunity. But at the same time, crises typically only amplify and accelerate trends that were already underway, and journalists have certainly let their imaginations run wild [3] with what will (need to) change [4], speculations on whether capitalism will finally end [5], and so on.

So Latour has launched a publicity campaign (Reuters has a story [6] with more context) and a website [7] with four relatively simple writing prompts, asking visitors to reflect on “where to land after the pandemic.” I’m always happy to respond to surveys or be interviewed — especially when I don’t suspect that my data is being collected with ulterior motives. As a researcher myself, I think it’s good practice. So I found myself typing responses which ended up being slightly more elaborate than I had originally imagined. The exercise allowed me to articulate some previously disconnected ideas that had been swirling around my head in the last few weeks, and I thought the result was worth capturing separately here.

If you follow me on Twitter, it’ll be no secret that in the last few years I’ve become more actively interested in politics again. We’re finding ourselves in a moment of history where we have perpetuated a fundamentally broken and unjust economic and political system in which it is no longer possible to believe that minor corrections of the sort that electoral democracy used to offer will make the slightest difference to our collective future. Never mind how seductive it may seem as an idea, I don’t think we can “inflect” capitalism and make it change from within (through ideas such as green innovation, social entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility, charity, finding our company’s purpose, holacracy… or whatever else people are trying). Its inherent dynamics are what fuels it, and their purpose is for one group to accumulate more resources than everybody else. I believe we should be working towards a new system.

But what should the transition look like? Like you, I’ve read enough history to know that revolutions, by and large, seem fundamentally unattractive — both as historical moments to live through (no thanks) and to actually precipitate lasting change. I’m too old to see some kind of romantic promise in a socialist revolution. Wherever revolutions or similar popular uprisings have occurred in recent times — Ukraine, Chile, Venezuela, the “Arab Spring,” Hong Kong, the list is long — the results are either that the prevailing capitalist system is delighted and reinvigorated (after all, it thrives on crises), or some kind of further slide into authoritarianism — or both. I can’t disagree with the anger and disappointment that is being expressed — I feel those too. I just think that while we might win the occasional battle, we’re not really strategically advancing our overall position in the war.

I imagine there are many professionals like myself right now who are wondering what good their skills and experiences might do to move things in a more positive direction. It’s a great existential quandary, an agonizingly complex set of problems which — when coupled with being a certain age — runs the risk of looking very much like a midlife crisis, or — worse — the idle musings of handwringing privilege. It’s not just about what we can do right now (during the pandemic), but more generally: now that I can see where things should be headed, how can I contribute to that?

My own work is in strategy, innovation, product management, design and technology. On one hand, as Mr. Marx already knew in 1857, innovation and technology together constitute the core engine of capitalism [8], so perhaps these skills really cannot reasonably be repurposed to change the system itself. At the same time, I also know that there is a distinction to be made between skill and purpose — that it is quite possible to apply good design methodology [9] in ways that result in equitably designed products and services that don’t necessarily perpetuate wealth or power asymmetries. Increasingly, I think we need to work on what until 8 weeks ago I might have called “design viruses,” products or services that have the properties and desirability of their commercial equivalents but which are specifically designed to resist profit, intellectual property, disposability, negative environmental impact, surveillance/invasion of privacy, etc.

What follows are my responses to Mr. Latour’s writing prompts, edited for clarity and expanded where necessary.

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Where to land after the pandemic?

1/4 What are the suspended activities and behaviors that you would like to see not coming back?

Commuting to a far-away office.

Traffic jams on highways and in the city.

Flying to business meetings or conferences.

Going shopping all the time for things we only need a few times per year.

High rents and housing prices in cities because everyone needs to live in the city in order to be close to work.

2/4 Starting from an activity or behavior that touches you personally, describe why this activity seems to you to be noxious/superfluous/ dangerous/incoherent in the framework of your own life or in the life of others. (It is also possible that what you want to stop may put you in trouble as well).

I need to commute from where I live to a client’s office approximately twice per week, 100km each way. There isn’t sufficient public transit to get me there within a “reasonable” time frame due to lack of train routes and time required. So I have to drive. I have to get up very early, it takes a long time to get there, and Covid-19 has proven without a doubt that everyone can actually work from home using video conferencing and other ways of collaborating remotely (it’s white collar work). I have lingering ideas that being in the same physical space as others offers a “richer” way of interacting, but I’m actually not sure that’s the case. I also wonder whether my client’s previously unenthusiastic embrace of video conferencing is more about force of habit, availability of suitable technology, or perhaps a kind of nostalgia and not really something “real.”

I have been trying to work “less” (fewer hours per week) for a few years now (I’m a freelance consultant). It would save me money and stress if I could do most or all of my work from home. It would also leave more free time to do other things.

Working remotely as standard practice would maybe put some aspects of my work at “risk” because not everyone thinks it’s 100% possible to collaborate entirely remotely. But it’s possible that this is a risk I’m more willing to explore now, since clearly we can’t go back to what was going on before.

I feel less certain about international travel. We have known for a long time that air travel is massively wasteful and a huge contributor to the climate crisis. However, unfortunately, I live in Canada and my closest relatives in Germany and Australia, respectively. We are part of a modern diaspora. There is a difference in quality between the relationships I seek with my business clients and my family…

However, I also think we could increase the price of air travel (maybe through regulation/law?) back to what it used to be in the 1980s. This would deter people from traveling on a whim, or too frequently. We used to have to “think harder” about how frequently we traveled, and planned for it differently. International trips were “events,” you went for a longer time and might visit a place only once in your lifetime.

3/4 What kinds of measures do you advocate so that workers/employees/ agents/entrepreneurs, who can no longer continue in the activities that you have eliminated, are able to facilitate the transition to other activities?

I suspect that making broadband internet a regulated “utility” service will be important. Capitalism, as in all things, hasn’t delivered an even distribution of internet access for all populations (even though universal access would actually create the conditions for increased overall commercial activity, but the system is too fragmented to play a long game). If we think of the internet as infrastructure similar to roads, electricity, water, waste removal, snow clearing etc., we realize that it should be available to everyone to facilitate equal, or at least sort-of equal, opportunities for everyone to work, communicate and experience leisure.

At the same time, online shopping and fast, more environmentally friendly deliveries, would have to become a universal pursuit. With very few exceptions, most “things” could theoretically be bought online and delivered to the home, provided the risk of returning things was relatively low. This would reduce wasteful commuting further.

This sort of change would unfortunately eliminate many retail type jobs, especially in North America, where so much of the economy is based on retail. Measures would need to be explored to deal with that. Universal basic income makes sense in theory, of course, but always fails in practice — it’s similar to how consumers think about insurance: you never think you need it until something catastrophic happens. UBI is like that: we don’t consider it seriously while the economy is in “good” shape (and we could therefore afford to start it), and when things go badly, we say we can’t afford to think about it.

4/4 What could you concretely do (alone or with others) to ensure that the activity you wish to remove (or slow down) does not resume?

We could develop better ways of thinking about, and practicing, online work collaboration. It’s both a conceptual and practical problem. We need to explore ways of eliminating our deeply ingrained cultural assumption that being remote is worse than “being there.” There is some interesting theoretical work on this [10] that was done in the early 1990s in the human-computer interaction field, discussing telecommunications product design. Those of us working in the space between technology and society would need to work on re-setting the horizon of our collective imaginations around this.

Generally, the objective of “activism” and/or “innovation” in this space should probably be to develop “new normals” and field-test them to see if, in time, they begin to no longer feel like “less than” what we used to have.

This seems to me to be the biggest issue today when it comes to what one might call a “leftist” or “environmentalist” imagination: the proposed solutions, of which there really aren’t very many in the first place, seem austere and not very attractive. Capitalism, as we know, is very good at connecting and playing to our desires. It has (re)structured them over our entire lifespans to be oriented towards products and services which have certain properties that respond to and amplify these desires. And these products and services have now structured our assumptions of what satisfying experiences should be like. The challenge, then, is to develop experiences that are as good as — or even better than — those capitalism provides so effectively.

I think we have many, many people now whose entire schooling and work experience has been about optimizing capitalist experiences for profit. And I think the Covid-19 crisis may have woken up some of them to the possibility that they need to re-deploy their knowledge and skills. So why not build new experiences that facilitate great remote work (for example), or a different kind of travel, or different kinds of energy generation/distribution, or new kinds of agriculture, etc. — and initially do so in ways that focus on “high quality” experiences in the sense that we’re used to? Cultural, economic, business “viruses,” so to speak. Designs that deliberately aim for product/service adoption first, but that then deeply resist profit-taking and appropriation by those seeking to accumulate wealth or power. I’m thinking along the “open source” spectrum of work, but maybe a little further. The reason everyone admires but practically nobody uses Linux or LibreOffice is because they are not as desirable as their for-profit equivalents.

To be clear, this would be done as a transitional model, not to “rescue” the capitalist system into an ever more insane future, but as a way to gradually enter into some kind of controlled interregnum between the present-day system and an unknown future which we cannot yet clearly imagine — and whose properties we’ve not been able to articulate (and this fact is always held against us, as if our inability to fully imagine an unknown future invalidates its possible coming-into-existence a priori). Imagining and making the future are likely one and the same — and it has to start right now.

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You can fill in your own responses here: https://ouatterrir.medialab.sciences-po.fr/#/ [7]