Wild at Home: some observations on the imagination of nature in a time of pandemic

These stories of rewilding also adopt a different narrative structure, one that involves a ‘nature strikes back’ imaginary and rhetoric of awakening which associates humans with virus and disease. Some have, indeed, nicknamed the global Coronavirus pandemic “Earth’s vaccine”, the universe’s way of making the world a better place. This is a clear case of eco-fascism (2), which has roots in white supremacy and xenophobia. To preserve the environment – those who sustain this vision say – we must sacrifice people (guess who must live or who must die!). 

Taking account of these ‘hazardous times’ requires attention and reflection on the interspecies relations that make and remake our socio-ecological world, especially because the effects of climate change (i.e. in the forms of zoonotic diseases and increased urban wildlife mobility) make people fear non-human species and, more broadly speaking, environmental changes. Think, for example, to how the exaggeration of bats’ negative traits – without regard for their positive role in ecological systems – could ultimately lead to their needless and intentional elimination. 

In conclusion, what I’m pointing to here is the importance of changing our habits of mind as a way to build transformative, environmental futures. The comforting and discomforting power of nature isn’t just about gloomy times. It is what has allowed and structured human socialisation to nature. These visions are closely related and show that our sense of what we consider holy about nature is tied to what we fear of it.

The romanticization of the healing powers of nature and the different forms it might take is an inadequate basis for environmental concern and action. Although sometimes it might make a positive contribution to the environment in situations where humans are conscious of a direct benefit to themselves, it presents the natural world as ‘other’, atemporal and universal. 

We must shift these common ways of conceptualising nature. The ‘care labor’ of nature will soon run out like toilet paper if humans don’t cultivate mindful attention to nature’s agency, which these days seems so disruptive only because we still have troubles in seeing ourselves part of a larger socio-ecological system. 

(1) Timo Helgert, Return of Nature, 2020; (2) Johnson J. We are not the virus, Verso blog, 27 March 2020