Only ignorance! Only ignorance! How can you talk about only ignorance? Don’t you know that it is the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness? And which does the most mischief heaven only knows. If people can say ‘Oh! I did not know, I did not mean any harm’, they think it is all right’.
– Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
Today, the 5th of April, is the first International Day of Conscience (IDC), which reminds us to engage in self-reflection to improve ourselves, our community and our world. It is fitting that the first IDC falls in a month that around a quarter of the world’s population is in lockdown: the coronavirus pandemic is not only a wake-up call, but the social distancing it has necessitated gives us time to pause and reflect. Even though we are physically apart, this is something we can do together. We must, as a species, view the pandemic as an unequivocal caution that we cannot return to our pre-Covid-19 way of life.
Many across the world have questioned whether the coronavirus is punishment meted out by ‘Mother Earth’ for the terrible way in which we have treated her. As humans we have the tendency to anthropomorphise the world around us when we are trying to make sense of events in our environment. Believing we are being punished may reflect our unconscious knowing that we are responsible for – or at least complicit in causation – of this disaster, what Freud referred to as our conscience or superego. However, expressions of concern that we ‘deserve to be punished’ may reflect a feeling of guilt conscience: the deep knowing we all have that, as a species, we have not been living sustainably or in a manner that honours the needs of the natural world around us.
As beneficiaries of the planet’s natural resources, we seem to have forgotten that if we take more than is right, more than can be replenished, then there have to be consequences. It’s the law of nature. As importantly, if we take unevenly, with no concern for the needs of the world’s poorest, there will be impacts. Rights come with responsibilities, but we have acted as if humans have all the rights and the planet must absorb all the costly trade-offs. We have refused – willfully or not – to consciously and proactively balance the accounts. It is perhaps understandable, therefore, why our conscience, our deep knowing of this unfairness, might be emerging in our thoughts of punishment with Earth as agent.
The word ‘conscience’ derives from the Latin word ‘conscientia’, meaning ‘with-knowledge’. Similar to conscious (from the Latin conscius), which means ‘knowing with others or in oneself’ or ‘being aware of wrongdoing’ (from conscire ‘be privy to’), conscience has come to imply an internal awareness of a moral standard and the quality of one’s motives, as well as a consciousness of the nature and impact of our own actions.
The pause that Covid-19 has forced upon us has driven many to examine both our individual and global conscience, to question whether and how our complicity – or at least carelessness towards the natural world – may have predicted this disaster. It has demanded a consciousness, a conscientiousness in both our personal and our collective behaviour.
It is fitting, perhaps, that this opportunity for reflection falls on the first International Day of Conscience. Never before – not even during World Wars I and II – has society been so completely shut down. In ‘normal’ life, we are constantly distracted: instant gratification, just-in-time thinking and incessant novelty and stimulation. So much frenetic activity leaves little time for contemplation or reflection, time to work on detrimental habits. Now, billions of people have been forced to stop. Perhaps we could use this unique opportunity to consider how we can transform our relationship with the planet in order to create a more sustainable social and economic contract.
Rethinking our relationship with nature and the planet means not only rethinking our entire mindset around the economy, at the core of which is the demand for growth and the use (and abuse) of natural capital. As Kenneth Boulding famously said, ‘Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist’. A report from the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service found that nature is in its worst shape in human history. The IPBES Chair said that, to rescue our planet, we must effect transformative change: ‘By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.’ We search for alternatives to growth as a way to measure success because it is this ‘success’ that is leading to our ultimate failure – the disintegration of the ecosystem of which we are just part.
Covid-19 has made us aware of our interconnectedness with each other and with nature, aware of the delicate balance of the global ecosystem and of our collective participation in creating conditions that are driving its destruction. We are witnessing the impact of our collective lack of conscientiousness on the planet. As we emerge from this global catastrophe, we will have the best opportunity we have ever had to reinvent our economies, societies and behaviours. We have to ask, when all this is over – because it will be over – do we want to continue to willfully ignore the consequences of our actions, or do we want to learn from the lessons this time provides?
Whichever we choose – and we will have to choose – the decisions we make today can no longer rely on ignorance as an excuse for inaction. We must respond to this wake-up call with a conscious commitment to change. It might be the last one we get.