Crisis of Perception: What do our major challenges have in common?

This coronavirus public health emergency is a time-compressed capsule view of a lot of our big crises– climate emergency, bad energy policies, privatization and enclosures of the commons, unthinkable levels of inequality and human suffering, shock doctrine [1] economics that doesn’t work for 99% of the people, and all the rest. These are things we (many of us) haven’t been able to grasp, in part, because there’s too much time between cause and effect (i.e. system delays). Not with coronavirus. The ripple, check that, TIDAL WAVE of this pandemic is happening fast. And to be honest, it is surreal.

Thomas Moran, The Chasm of the Colorado, 1873-1874, oil on canvas mounted on aluminum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Lent by the Department of the Interior Museum, L.1968.84.2
Note: This is not the painting referenced in the text.
One of the best analogies of our interrelated “crisis of perception” as Fritof Capra terms it is this from the social theorist Mike Davis. He used an old Grand Canyon exploratoration as a metaphor in his critique of the financial crash of 2008, but it surely applies to the interrelated crises now. Davis wrote:

Let me begin, very obliquely, with the Grand Canyon and the paradox of trying to see beyond cultural or historical precedent. The first European to look into the depths of the great gorge was the conquistador Garcia Lopez de Cardenas in 1540. He was horrified by the sight and quickly retreated from the South Rim. More than three centuries passed before Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers led the second major expedition to the rim. Like Garcia Lopez, he recorded an “awe that was almost painful to behold.” Ives’s expedition included a well-known German artist, but his sketch of the Canyon was wildly distorted, almost hysterical.

Neither the conquistadors nor the Army engineers, in other words, could make sense of what they saw; they were simply overwhelmed by unexpected revelation. In a fundamental sense, they were blind because they lacked the concepts necessary to organize a coherent vision of an utterly new landscape. (emphasis added) [2]

Ives, in his own words, said at the time:

The region is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado river, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed. [3]

Here’s to hoping that this pandemic, which is going to be disruptive and painful on a mass scale, will help us to accurately ground our vision and sight so we can honestly perceive our common ecological landscape and redesign our being within it. Maybe once we do we’ll see a great transition in the nick of time.

[1] Shock Doctrine, a book title by Naomi Klein that reveals how disasters of all kinds, natural and human made, are deliberately used by powerful capitalist agents to seize power, resources, and freedoms from inhabitants of disaster areas.

[2] Mike Davis, Can Obama See the Grand Canyon: On Presidential Blindness and Economic Catastrophe. //

[3] National Park Service. The images from the Ives expedition portrayed the canyon as dark and terrifying.

Leave a Reply