Interviewed by CBS's "60 Minutes" for a segment that aired Sunday night, writer-activists Arundhati Roy and Bill McKibben argue that the Covid-19 virus now sweeping the globe has exposed the limits of humanity's ability to negotiate with or control nature's awesome powers—especially now that the geophysical and biological systems of the planet have been so pushed to their limits by human activity and pollution.
"We tend to forget that the physical world still is in charge," said McKibben, author of numerous books on the climate crisis and the co-founder of the global advocacy group 350.org. "I've spent, you know, 30 years trying to get people to understand that physics and chemistry matter. That you can't spin them. They don't negotiate. They're not gonna compromise with you. You have to do what they say."
As noted in the segment—titled "What will be the new normal after the coronavirus pandemic?"—world history is rife with examples of great social upheaval, whether wars or natural disasters or pandemics, leading to surges in human and social advancement. But as Roy points out, so much of what the United States, for example, has been spending its vast resources on turned out to be useless in the face of the Covid-19 outbreak.
"If [the coronavirus] were a war, then nobody would be better prepared than the United States," laments Roy, award-winning novelist and longtime human rights activist, in her interview. "If it were that you needed nuclear missiles or depleted uranium or bunker busters or tanks or submarines or whatever it is, there would be plenty. But there aren't swabs. There aren't gloves. There aren't masks. There isn't medicine."
Both McKibben and Roy argue that there is no reason that life should go back to what it was like before the virus struck.
Asked if the crisis should be seen as an opportunity to do things differently going forward, "what choice does one have," McKibben responded. "I mean, the dumbest thing to do would just be to set up all the pins in the bowling alley one more time exactly the same way," he said.
Instead of returning to the frequent "dystopian" reality of a hyper-polluted world, Roy acknowledges that it is time for humanity to reflect on some of the silver linings the pandemic has provided and ready the battle for a more sustainable and just future.
As Roy wrote in an essay in the Financial Times last month:
Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to "normality," trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
In his comments, McKibben said that maybe humanity does "still have a window to take a step back" from its addiction to endless economic growth and fossil fuel-driven society. "And if we do, maybe the Earth will meet us halfway," he says.
If the world is able to "flatten the carbon curve" in the same way it is now desperately trying to flatten the curve of the infection rate, he concluded, "then people might look back in 50 years at this time and thank us, you know, instead of curse us. 'Cause those are the two possibilities."
Watch the full segment: