The coronavirus has enormous revelatory power. All at once, it has disclosed issues of social justice and biopolitics, biodiversity and violence, scientific research and global economy. This power, however, involves a risk: focusing exclusively on the virus, people (and governments) might end up neglecting other key issues, first of all climate change. This is a risk that we cannot afford: the coronavirus, in fact, is not the ultimate catastrophe but one chapter in a bigger narrative of interconnected phenomena. It’s crucial to find a way to see the current emergency while also minding the future calamities that are incubating in our present.
The environmental humanities offer several ways to respond to this challenge. My proposal is to think the pandemic as a very particular object: a hyperobject. In this, I follow an ontological theory elaborated a few years ago by philosopher Timothy Morton in one of his numerous books.
What are hyperobjects? Unlike the objects of rationalist ontology that we usually picture as existing in a precise space and time (e.g. the tree outside my window now), hyperobjects are “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.” Take, for example, the solar system, the biosphere, or the sum total of all the planet’s nuclear materials: to tell exactly where and when they are located is as problematic as to define what we mean by “they.” “Massively distributed” does not necessarily mean gigantic: even a polystyrene cup, according to Morton, is a hyperobject. It might be on our table now; yet, it is also “massively distributed” in the future and across the planet in the shape of the myriads of microplastics transiting through our dumping sites, oceans, and bodies. Polystyrene cups aside, the most iconic hyperobject is global warming. Melting glaciers, rising seas, atmospheric currents, extreme weather events, droughts, fires, ocean acidification… they are not single phenomena but rather an “object” that is “massively distributed” in time (stretching from the industrial revolution to the next centuries) and space (infiltrating every corner of the earth). And this hyperobject is of course interlaced with all of its causes and effects: greenhouse gases, polluting emissions, rampant capitalism, unsustainable lifestyles, poverty, illnesses, migrations…
Seen in this light, the COVID-19 pandemic is a hyperobject, too. It is a “massive thing” constituted by the sum total of all the coronaviruses hidden in the body of each individual person, bat, pangolin, or wild animal. It dwells in the globe’s forests and hospitals, Asian wet markets and scientific labs, saliva droplets and particulate matter that act as viral carriers. Its temporality is also multiple: it’s the slow time of evolution and the fast time of multiplying cells, the time of quiescence and the time of contagion, the time of illness and that of immunity. Finally, this hyperobject also contains its causes and effects: destroyed habitats, shrinking biodiversity, decades of neoliberal economy, the industrial, commercial, and biopolitical maps of globalization, locked-down cities, solitary deaths, billions of irretrievably lost hugs. In this entangled web, “here” and “there” are closer than they appear, and the present always already overlaps with the future. From this perspective, a medical mask, too, is a hyperobject.
One of the features of hyperobjects is that they are viscous. They are attached to one another and are not easy to separate. It is for this reason that the pandemic hyperobject is powerfully connected to the climate change hyperobject. These two massive entities have many features in common: for example, their relationships to the impact of human activities on ecosystems and the planetary cycles, their proximity to political discourses and their material effects on people and nonhuman life. Combined, they can be scary: scientists believe that rising temperatures might free pathogens that have been trapped in the permafrost for millennia. Many tropical viruses are already thriving and spreading due to warmer climates.
Perhaps this theory is just a mind game, or perhaps it isn’t. Still, its approach is telling us something important: we cannot face the coronavirus crisis while keeping the planetary ecological crises out of the picture. When the COVID-19 emergency is over, there will be no excuses for tackling those crises. If we can see the pandemic as a hyperobject, we can also see everything else.