Reimagining biodiversity narratives and pandemics

A #BiodiversityRevisited thought piece by Gretchen Henderson

Five days before any coronavirus cases were diagnosed in Italy, I disembarked a plane in Milan, greeted by officials in hazmat suits who swiped passengers’ foreheads with a wand.

If our flight had been a fairy tale, religious parable, or science fiction, the action might have symbolized a protective blessing to ward off a curse. Unknown to me, my temperature was being checked. Though I had been following the outbreaks in China and Iran, Italy seemed far from the trouble.

My destination was the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center at Lake Como, where I was meeting colleagues to collaborate on a research agenda for biodiversity. “Biodiversity” represents life on Earth in all its forms and interactions. Our group was gathering in a crisis: why long evidence of climate change had not shifted human behavior to save species and cool our baking planet.

Coming from the arts and humanities, I was an outlier at our table of scientists and social scientists, including the Chief Scientist of the World Wildlife Fund, the Chair of the Red List of Threatened Species, and other established and emerging professionals from places diverse as Australia, Pakistan, South Africa, and Colombia. Like a fly buzzing on the wall, I was there to help question the role of narratives in shaping understandings of biodiversity, a reminder that the way we tell stories matters.

Now, a month after that trip, the university where I teach in Washington, DC, has shuttered and sent home students as we transition to a Virtual Learning Environment. My objective revising syllabi has been to keep everyone at the table, if they have limited technology, connecting from time zones far as South Korea, or other pressures. The real lessons will come not from staying with our course material but from staying together to integrate this moment into our unfolding, collective story.

How we tell stories around Covid-19 matters, because stories start to shape our actions and reactions.

It may seem trite to mention stories in a pandemic. But since I teach stories and will continue to do so virtually in coming weeks, it’s hard not to see patterns. A pandemic tends to follow the “outbreak narrative,” as Priscilla Wald defines in Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (2008). The “outbreak narrative” chronicles “a formulaic plot” that identifies an emerging infection, spreading through global networks, to the “epidemiological work that ends with its containment.”

As this pandemic grows, different places are sending dispatches from the future in real time. “Writing this from Italy, I am also writing to you from your own future,” wrote Ida Garibaldi in The Washington Post on March 17: “From our state of emergency.”

Pandemics cut across all lines. Comparisons have been made to Ebola and SARS, but we have not experienced a global pandemic in our lifetimes. Few among us know centenarians who may have survived the influenza epidemic, too young to remember its ravages. My family’s only recollection was from my great-grandfather, a pastor who spent seven days a week, upon weeks, officiating funerals because so many people died. Told in hindsight, history seems linear. Yet over a century ago, at early moments of the influenza epidemic, entangled histories still had multiple possible futures.

“This is a new chapter: a new beginning,” I wrote to students via email when our virtual transition was announced, asking them to notice narratives unfolding in our midst. “How do we deal with new circumstances in new ways? How do we not fall back on old and worn narrative strategies?” Essentially, how can we co-imagine this story while it is being told?

In Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (2016), Ursula Heise asks, “What affirmative visions of the future can the environmentalist movement offer, visions that are neither returns to an imagined pastoral past nor nightmares of future devastation meant to serve as ‘cautionary tales’?”

Pandemic narratives mark history: from Homer’s classical Iliad, to Boccaccio’s medieval Decameron, to Albert Camus’ twentieth-century The Plague, to recent “Indigenous Futurisms” (coined by Grace Dillon) that refer to speculative fictions by Indigenous writers and artists who imagine futures beyond colonialism’s past pandemics and ongoing cultural obliterations.

Since all life on this planet is entangled, causes of pandemics are multifold – more than the virus alone. They arise from other contributing causes, including biodiversity loss. Scientific projections anticipated a pandemic like Covid-19, presciently filmed as the fictional Contagion (2011). Like the climate crisis, this pandemic wasn’t entirely unexpected.

Quarantine provides opportunity for reflection on daily behaviors that we are giving up or adapting. What is essential; what falls away? World War II brought rationing and Victory Gardens. Mandated shifts from Covid-19 are cutting pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. If we can make substantive changes during wartime or a pandemic, can we do the same for the climate crisis? Figuring out ways to come together in our current crisis, we may discover new ways to reimagine our entangled futures.

Related reading: Biodiversity Revisited