We’re sheltering in place. We’re not going out. In some places in the world, like India, Italy, and China, their quarantines were so effective that for the first time in remembrance, one could see the Himalayas from 200 kilometers away, the canals of Venice were crystal clear, and the pollution cleared over Beijing (saving an estimated 70,000+ lives in China alone).
But not in the Netherlands. Home of capitalism and embracers of neoliberalism, why would residents here feel put out to change their patterns, to inconvenience themselves, to take this moment to reflect, rather than get things done and seize the business opportunity? We’re not a Catholic nation, so sacrifice for the community doesn’t come naturally.
And yet, as a philosopher, I sit at home, trying to get something done, while neighbors on every side of my apartment drill and cut, chisel and screw. The incessant high-pitched whiz of machines echo around the binnenplaats of our neighborhood more than ever with hammering and sawing like never before. The machines of building, rebuilding, and renovating are heavy at work in this corona quarantine. Quarantine in Dutch could be translated as ‘take advantage of this opportunity to get as much done as possible.’ All those side-project, delayed repairs, or prospective sells, are too juicy to pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Do the local inspectors inspect? Or does building just go on as fast as possible in this interim? It seems as if the construction business is booming, as eager capitalists wish to flip houses left and right. Buy low, fix up a dumpy place with bourgeois aesthetics and name-brand stoves and refrigerators, expand that kitchen by knocking out the dividing wall, et voilà! sell the house for twice as much as you bought it just a couple years back. I know this is business as usual, but during the quarantine, sometimes it seems even more cynical than usual.
I’ve also heard more low-flying propeller planes (the type that have no purpose but for ‘fun’ and polluting the atmosphere) flying overhead than ever before. While Schiphol might have reduced its daily flights, the amount of air traffic around Rotterdam, at least, seems to have barely dipped if at all.
The noise makes it hard to do my online teaching and calls at home, to do my quiet work at my improvised home office. I’m lucky to have a job that requires few supplied, and makes little noise. But part of public health as it intersects with public infrastructure is finding out how to better share our inconveniences, share our suffering more. Those working in logistics, food production, service work, and transportation, need our support in myriad ways. As in a war effort, there is much to be done to work together to support each other. Those who see this coronavirus quarantine as merely a holiday have an ethical duty to reduce their travel and externalities, and simplify their lives. Since coronavirus is a respiratory virus that affects the lungs, clean air as good medicine. We should maintain that we don’t pollute our neighbors’ lungs with sawdust for our own gain.
I propose that the Mad Max building explosion isn’t the only way to do a quarantine (and perhaps isn’t the most effective for public health, either). Instead of this building craze, doing all the obnoxious things that one would have done had time otherwise permitted, I offer a different tack. To deal with the particulate matter pollution, the noise pollution, and the general disturbance and unrest of motors, cement mixers, falling lumber, skill saws, power drills and other implements of machine-driven building, I propose that during this quarantine period that all building stores could also close, and people take a rest. Allowing ourselves to take a collective breath, might open space for reflecting on the purpose of our pursuits, if only for a month. This would provide a much needed exhalation from the Protestant Work Ethic that Max Weber so articulately burlesqued.
The compulsion to stay busy in many ways is a (mostly) healthy coping mechanism. In times of crisis, with loss of routine, throwing oneself into a new project – especially a physically demanding or potentially lucrative one – seems like a good solution. The stoics, however, cautioned otherwise. There’s a reason why most religions have a Sabbath of one sort of another, a regular, cyclical holy day on which all activity stops, and we rest from the dynamo of constant work and preoccupation that puts food on the table, shelters us, and makes the world go around. Because unless we take regular periods of reflection – conscious stops to our business – we might be mistaken into assuming that being busy is an end unto itself; that the constant activity is the purpose of life, instead of the play, reflection, connection to one’s family, friends, and nature that are the fruits of our labor.
We could see this corona quarantine as an extended Sabbath. As a moment when the headstrong resentful frustrated young men give up on their aggressive urges to gun their motors on their motorcycles to beat their chests in antiquated displays of male dominance. When we reduce our grocery shopping to once a week, and take up other, more reflective projects. When we visit those places which bring us joy and renewal, and linger a while, without the pressures of returning to meet stringent schedules. And that we put our ambitious projects on pause for a moment – especially if these create dust and mess (aural, visual, kinetic, or otherwise) that negatively affect our neighbors and community.
Precisely this return to community is the paradoxical opportunity here in this crisis. In every state of exception, we can either barrel on with business as usual, seeing everything as a nail because all we have is a hammer; or choose wisely to reflect on the ends of our society and our role in it. The government of Amsterdam has recently chosen to do the latter, adopting a donut economics model of providing a social floor and acknowledging the ecological ceiling of human activity. This is a laudable model for other cities and countries to follow. Infrastructural violence contributes to social injustices stemming from pandemics hitting the poor and marginalized the most, but also climate crisis and gentrification present asymmetrical harms due to the same underlying mechanisms. Realizing the moral truth that it is non-optional to take care of those in our community most vulnerable, as well as belatedly honoring the limits to growth, offers hope that humans don’t end up just doing the same damn thing after another, unreflectively, to paraphrase Arnold Toynbee. Adopting measures going to the origins and not just the symptoms of emergencies allows humanity to break free from deterministic loops which playing back the same mistakes generation after generation.
I work at night now, to enjoy the relative silence. The main streets still roar, but at least the buzz saws desist. As I pause, I wonder what it would be like for silence to reign. What would we feel in our urban environments? What feelings are we pushing away by compulsively motoring on? How majestic would our cities feel, if for once, if for only a moment, we allowed the stillness and silence to work on us?
I have a new blog post over at the Erasmus University Rotterdam initiative I’m a part of, the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity. This interdisciplinary research team from law, business, and philosophy brings together mavericks who work across disciplines, and are both cognitively and operationally open to working with and between traditionally-siloed faculties.
My latest contribution, Interspecies Prosperity: What it is and why it matters, deals with the paradox of health. As long as we’re preoccupied with our own health and well-being, if we are so to the detriment of our surrounding ecosystem, we end up getting sick, as we are of course permeable membranes to our environments. Hurting others to get ahead ipso facto produces the types of results in public health that we’re seeing today in the US, for example: 4 years straight of decreasing life expectancy. We’ve sunk all the carbon sinks, and compounded the growth on a finite space. Increasingly, in medicine, major institutions as well as rank and file physicians realize that we have to tackle environmental degradation and the climate crisis if we care about health, both at the individual and collective levels. This shift in priorities in medicine of course clashes both with personalized medicine and other expensive and pay-to-play forms of care. Unless we take care of our commons, our medical outcomes are going to be stochastically worse. Even it it’s not me or you, our chances of thriving and surviving go down significantly when we’re breathing contaminated air, have microplastics in our food and water, and toxins in everything we come in contact with. So, we have to learn the hard work of care for our environment, caring for our locality, and also the extension of commodity chains that like lashes connected to our every movement reverberate around the world in their ramifications. We have to learn to work together to take responsibility to clean up this mess. That will be the best medical insurance we can buy.
Senior author Eleni Linos, as well as CTCRE director Stan Glantz and myself discuss our recent paper in the BMJ and the paper’s origins.
Working at the CTCRE at UCSF allowed me to meet all sorts of medical practitioners aware of the influence of industry on the health of their patients.
One of those people I happened to meet, was Eleni Linos (now at Stanford), a dermatologist who had noticed throughout the years the influence of the tanning industry on spreading disinformation to the public on the health harms of tanning.
Lola Adekunle, Rebecca Chen, Lily Morrison, Meghan Halley, Victor Eng, Yogi Hendlin, Mackenzie R Wehner, Mary-Margaret Chren, and Eleni Linos’ paper “Association between financial links to indoor tanning industry and conclusions of published studies on indoor tanning: systematic review,” challenges the invisibility of industry as it attempts to blend in its research into the scientific public record. Our paper shows the impressive discrepancy between the scientific conclusions on the health harms of tanning studies with financial links to the indoor tanning industry found, versus those of independent, non-financially-interested researchers.
Jerod Stapleton also published for the British Journal of Medicine an editorial on our article, concluding that “We must challenge industry attempts to change the conversation about tanning.” Stapleton is no stranger to the harms of tanning, having conducted significant research on the health outcomes, as well as leading a paper in JAMA Pediatrics titled “The American Suntanning Association: a “science-first organization” with a biased scientific agenda.” Indeed, according to the tanning industry’s January 2015 issue of Smart Tan, the ASA succeeded in convincing (bullying?) the CDC to remove claims of a 75% increase in melanoma risk from sunbed use that had previously been displayed on the CDC website.
As co-organizer of the Positive state obligations concerning fundamental rights and ‘changing the hearts and minds’ conference at Erasmus University Rotterdam January 30-31, 2020, I cordially invite my colleagues working on cognate topics to attend.
The conference is free of charge, but registration must be completed beforehand.
This international conference will cover topics of enduring relevance and growing importance concerning (the reach of) positive state obligations in relation to prejudice and discrimination; and will address these from a multidisciplinary perspective.
While it stems from a legal perspective, the contributions go far beyond traditional definitions of the law to reach into the societal movements and norms that create and influence law.
As an academic, I crave silence. In fact, without silence, I can’t think. And since thinking is my job, in our current media blitz steal-your-attention economy, I’m often miserable. When I don’t wish to work from home or my office, or am on the road, there are scant places where I can simply walk in, sit down, open my computer, journal, or book, and get to work. It’s a tyranny of noise. Or in the words of Grand Master Flash in “The Message”: “It’s like a jungle sometimes It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.”
The noise, the stress of noise, the violence of noise, is one of the elements that push us close to the edge.
As I study harmony inside and outside, among humans and between humans and nature, silence – or the science of listening – plays major. If we wish to cultivate a harmonious society, where we can invest our resources in art and movement and beauty and biomimcy and regeneration, then we need to create the conditions where we no longer have to contend with broken social norms; where crime is low to nonexistent; where hunger is nonexistent. Where we’re not polluting our air and our pure water is sacred. Where we respect silence and freedom of movement enough to create large carfree swaths of our cities. Where we find better ways to deliver goods like rail and cargo bike. Where we plant trees for shade and beauty.
People always lament: how do we get from here to there?
I always answer: queerly. Asymmetrically. In fits and starts. Non-linearly. Start with where you are. Don’t wait for a new city. Transform what you’ve got.
Buckminster Fuller always said that it’s easier to create alternatives and magnetize the world to the new innovation than to battle antiquated ideas. We have to actively make the old ideas obsolete by making the new ones simply more sexy.
But how do we make silence sexy? How do we make the tao sexy? How do we make sitting around and doing nothing (meditation) sexy? How do we make things sexy without the manipulative strobe-light grab you by the eyeballs and ears approach of hype-media that has come to be the dominant carnie form in late capitalism?
We do this by fairyrings of trees, solidarity circles of silence, nested neighborhoods of stillness. Dedicated communities upon communities showing the shades and nuances and varieties of silence, stillness, quietude, tranquility. We show the 1001 ways of doing silence. The abundant variety of nuance. We help people downregulate from numb dumb shouting blaring beeping to listening to jazz, then classical, then kora and koto, then the water in the river, the wind in the leaves, their own breath. We take people down in stages. We titrate with waves of in and out, so it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, so severe. But it does become all-encompassing in a non-cloying, non-forced way. Like the unforced force of the better argument – which only works under the auspicious conditions of listening and self-reflection and openness – silence can be won. It can be wooed.
For if we don’t have places to think, what good are our cities? Without silence, how do we think? How do we enter conversation, if not from a place of knowing our own thoughts? How can we truly join a crowd or a team if we don’t already know the beautiful solitude of trusting our senses, by living in places of beauty and the song of the elements?