Leiden International Studies Blog

Institutionalising environmental healing in times of COVID-19

Institutionalising environmental healing in times of COVID-19

The hiatus COVID-19’s preventive measures have provided us with presents a unique opportunity to reflect upon our imprint on Earth’s health. Here the medium is also the message.

Notwithstanding the need to reflect, discourses of planetary healing have been constructed based on selective criticism, often informed by racist and colonial biases. Thus, narratives of environmental healing need to be inclusive of the diversity of natures in the world, beyond the institutionalised natures of so-called supranational organisations and those in power.

This is not the first time ‘This is International Studies’ invites me to contribute to their forum. Two years ago, I was delighted to write about one of the aspects that attracted me to the field of International Studies the most: its vernacular multidisciplinary architecture. Back then, I broadly discussed the impact of trying to institutionalise ‘multi-disciplinarity’ on pre-existing multidisciplinary traditions amongst students and staff. In a nutshell: attempts to produce a localised definition and ethos of multidisciplinary was actually getting on the way of including the multiverse of conceptions and experiences of multidisicplinarity that had always existed in the programme.

Much of what we discussed back then can be applied to the institutionalising of prevention and healing in times of COVID-19, with different countries following standardised notions of ‘healing’ and ‘prevention’, often roughly translated from the frameworks of so-called supranational organisations, which do not really represent the diversity of experiences at local, collective and individual levels.

Units of measure such as ‘the global’, ‘the national’, ‘the regional’, ‘the glocal’ and ‘the local’ often take notions like collective individualism (i.e. exercising one’s individualism as embedded in a collective) for granted. Such multilevel hierarchies are constructed within a framework of macro-narratives of being and healing, narratives imagined and/or instrumentalised as ‘the universal’ by those in power. In times of COVID-19, the essentialism promoted by standardised preventive measures and institutionalised conceptions of infection, contagion and healing, only led to confusion at the very least.

Diversity, as a concept that suggests relativity of concepts and experiences is always at stake.
And it was just a matter of time until COVID-19’s narratives of suffering and healing would become instrumentalised as a sort of environmental justice, promoting ecoracist approaches to the environments and environmental orders of others.

A general Sinophobia infected most of the international press coverage of COVID-19’s contagion: from ortientalist approaches to Chinese society to the demonising of ‘Chinese identity’, from assumed universalism of culinary morals to fake news about the interspecies transmission of the virus, racism and orientalism was often dressed as critique. The diversity of human-animal relations across China and the sheer diversity of its individuals were almost always sacrificed in favour of tales of sociocultural supremacy stemming from the governing apparatus of ‘western countries’ and their mainstreamed media.

The anti-Chinese propaganda inherent in COVID-19’s coverage is just an example to critically unpack the racist biases already operating in our society. Often, racism and orientalism disguise as ‘critique’, by moving or starting critique at ‘home’ (be it the multiverses we come from and/or reside in).

Across Europe, a variety of authors and so-called influencers took it to their social networks to suggest the spreading of this new family of viruses was a call from nature: a sign that the consumption habits of ‘some’ were just wrong, that human-animal relations should be corrected, that it was just due to the ‘irresponsibility’ of some that we all now suffered the consequences. Such accounts often came from people who enjoyed certain degree of recognition and privilege, people who were read and whose words were digested as fact, often as critical fact. And as it happens, the inherent (eco) racist and othering of those who were assumedly to blame was disguised as critique. A ‘critique’ with no sociocultural basis, a form of suggesting the environmental orders of others were to blame for Earth’s suffering.

Elena Burgos map
Air pollution plunges in European cities amid coronavirus lockdown: Report

The environment is conceptualised and experienced differently across the world. During years of critical ethnographic research in Asia and Europe, it soon became obvious that not only the word ‘nature’ but also its conception, interpretation and experiencing differed from one place to the next, often within countries and regions. During years spent living in a multitude of natures (urban natures, island natures, sea natures, mountain natures); spaces where nature needed not be classified, named or dichotomised, different experiences of ‘the natural’ and ‘the human’ constantly spoke against the arrogant claim of suggesting ‘one nature’ and ‘one humankind’ for as long as it the one I am familiar with…

Unfortunately, accounts ascribing to institutionalised and politicised universalisms of ‘nature’ have long primed over those of people who were anyways conceived as a liability, negligible dialectic actors and removed from so-called global debates. It was either through a glorification or a demonising of local identity and indigeneity that the sophisticated environmental orders of many were excluded from the ‘fight against climate change’.

CC is a very good example of the fallacy of agency: often described as a global phenomenon by scientists and experts, often acknowledged as such by some politicians, oligarchs and other governing elites, but often formalised as per the environmental hegemon of the year. And with COVID-19’s lockdowns impacting on mobility, seismic activity and air pollution, amongst other, it was a sweet many of us who could not let pass without a good discussion about the ineffective systems our societies are constructed upon.

Tracing back to the impact of colonisation on environmental degradation, and up to today’s capitalist and neoliberal traditions, what a good opportunity to revisit the very notion of ‘nature’ and ‘ environmentalism’ our society’s institutions and orders promote and its frictions with the environmental experiences of many here in the Netherlands to begin with.

Yes, the world’s categorisation in different units of measures (i.e. nation-state, region, country) are fortunately often challenged while the categorising and politicising of its environments and narratives of environmental healing goes unchallenged at times.

Rumour has it professionals embedded in the Humanities are well equipped to approach social problematic more critically and holistically. Becoming an environmental anthropologist and a political ecologist has certainly led me to developing certain sensitivity to my own cultural biases and those of others.

Biases that are the basis of our society’s institutions, biases that define policies of welfare and environment, biases that have a historical continuity to the particular ontologies developed and promoted during colonialism and imperialism. And so, scholars in the humanities have recently started to investigate, study and research the sociocultural aspects of environmental issues. Things like colonial environmentalism, ecoracism, environmental economics, the politics of environmental knowledge, political ecology and a long etc. These are topics that approach the biases of contemporary environmental narratives and policy from a multidisciplinary perspective. Who would be more lenient and sensitive towards the human aspects of environmental sciences than those who focus on all-things human? Whether at the intersection of politics and environment, history and environment, heritage and environment, economics and environment, or religion and environment, the work of those ready to move beyond reductionist approaches to different environments and environmentalisms is sorely needed in today’s academia more than ever.

These newer approaches not only help decolonise existing curricula in the sciences but to revisit our own unchallenged corners; where the relevance of environmental practices, traditions and policy is either ignored or loosely covered. The social and the environmental can no longer be kept as a dichotomised conception, not even in places sporting more managerial and technocratic environmental paradigms, not even in the neoliberal fallacy of green finance or environmental management.

The socio-environmental binary has been crafted for us as a form of institutionalised nature, a nature that is in its essence selective, biased, and contradictory. This nature simply does not hold. We need new environmental vocabulary, we need new environmental translations and transliterations, we need environmental diversity as a pillar in its conception, even when it becomes formalised. It is time for those in the Humanities to (re) call for a more respectful (re) consideration of (environmental) critique and institutionalised ‘critical thinking’.