Common Preservation or Extinction?
By Eve Ottenberg
May 29th, 2020
Despite Covid-19, the previous twin threats to human existence have not receded. Global warming and the menace of nuclear holocaust have proved more intractable than ever. Arctic temperatures soared to 80 degrees last week, and northern Siberia registered 86 degrees, as climate change fatally deforms humanity’s sole home world. But with a president like Trump, tearing up every nuclear treaty he can get his hands on and green-lighting development of new types of nuclear missiles, a future of multiple mushroom clouds can’t be ruled out either. Maybe it’ll be a twofer, and we’ll get both. If people keep electing climate-change-denying warmongers, this is distinctly possible.
But elections aren’t the only path to power. There are social and political movements, and they, argue Jeremy Brecher in the new edition of “Save the Humans?” should not be underestimated. Such movements can tackle his trio of concerns – climate change, disarmament and economic justice – by aiming at “common preservation,” which his book promotes through memoir, political analysis and outright exhortation. One way to achieve common preservation, Brecher argues, is globalization from below. “We learned you have to act globally to succeed locally – you have to go to Brussels to save your farm in Texas.”
Brecher’s book lists guidelines for common preservation with subheadings like “Advocate human preservation wherever you are,” and “Don’t let the movement give birth to new dominations and disorders.” He defines common preservation as “action in concert for human benefit.” That may sound vague, but he focuses it on his three aforementioned concerns. He cites promising early twenty-first century developments: “movements emerged all over the world in locations that were marginal to the dominant power centers. They linked up by means of networks that cut across national borders. They began to develop a sense of solidarity.”
Though “Save the Humans?” is pre-Covid-19, if anything, the pandemic highlights the importance of its three issues. Lockdowns, for instance, lowered air pollution worldwide by 17 percent. But as soon as China re-opened its economy, it surpassed its previous pollution levels. In the U.S., economic justice during mass unemployment has come to the fore – maybe not for Trump or senate republicans, but average citizens, thrown out of work, or compelled to toil in unsafe, Covid-19-infested environments like slaughterhouses, stare economic inequality in the face. Finally, nuclear war between, say, the U.S. and China has moved to the front burner, with Trump blaming China for the plague to distract from his own failures. Peace could be one of the disease’s most tragic casualties.
If “Save the Humans?” addressed the pandemic, what would it say? Doubtless that we should listen to scientists and doctors, who warn of a second wave of mass death if things re-open too quickly. There is also the problem of cutting corners to produce a vaccine, which the Trump administration appears to be urging. What happened with an H1N1 vaccine back in 2009 is instructive. One vaccine was rushed to market in the UK, but it caused brain damage, facial palsy and nerve damage to thousands of people. It may also have led to some deaths. If that happens with any of the Covid-19 vaccines, it will confirm a skeptical public’s worst fears, giving ammunition to anti-vaxxers – and the plague will spread and kill more people.
But for Brecher, doubtless the mass unemployment caused by Covid-19 would be central, because, as he says, the future hinges on the working class. He quotes Marx, “the working class is revolutionary or it is nothing.” Today’s revolutionaries, however, have more on their plate than any predecessors, including coping with an illness for which there is as yet little prevention and no cure. That disease could upend everything. It has already dumped almost 40 million people in the unemployment lines. Sudden mass dispossession amid plague could usher in the sort of dystopia portrayed in the Jim Crace novel, “The Pesthouse,” where society has broken down, de-evolved and never coped successfully with the disease that caused the catastrophe. Indeed as of last week, 24 states opened up despite uncontrolled Covid-19 spread. Without a vaccine, we may never get a handle on this pestilence. Any attempts at common preservation will have to bear this in mind, just as even one win, on the climate, stopping nuclear war or economic justice, will be truly revolutionary.
David Ranney is professor emeritus in the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois Chicago. Ranney has also been a factory worker, a labor and community organizer, and an activist academic. He is the author of four books and more than a hundred journal articles, book chapters, and monographs on issues of employment, labor and community organizing, and U.S. trade policy. His two most recent books are Global Decisions, Local Collisions: Urban Life in the New World Order and New World Disorder: The Decline of U.S. Power. In addition to his writing, he gives lectures on economic policy and politics and also finds time to be an actor and director in a small community theatre.