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Second Opinion

Toward a multi-species consciousness

/ 05:04 AM April 16, 2020

Our two dogs, Newton and Grizzly, are loving the attention I’ve heaped on them since the beginning of the “community quarantine.” For much of the day, while I work from home, they hover around me, and I have also embarked on the therapeutic habit of spending the late afternoons playing with the furry pair: a Labrador retriever and a Japanese Spitz.

We are told to practice physical distancing, but thankfully, nonhuman animals are exempted from this rule. Aside from the canines in the house, birds are coming to our neighborhood, from dusky munias and yellow-vented bulbuls that forage in my mother’s garden, to the pacific swallows that have built a nest under our roof. The two dogs are territorial, but cats sometimes manage to sneak past them.

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Growing up in Mt. Makiling, I’ve always loved animals (I once had a pet katydid and slept to the sound of the tukô), and my travels and hikes over the years have made me think more about our relationships with other species; I still cannot forget the Palawan striped-babbler that approached me in Mt. Victoria, seemingly unafraid of humans. I have also drawn inspiration from scholars like Eduardo Kohn, who has called for “an anthropology that is not just confined to the human but is concerned with the effects of our entanglements with other kinds of living selves.”

The pandemic is urgently forcing this thinking upon us. It has been conjectured that SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—came from bats, and reached humans via pangolins, but experts lay the blame on humans for creating the conditions for viruses to jump from species to species, not least of which are wildlife trade and habitat destruction. As the primatologist Jane Goodall averred, “It is our

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disregard for nature and our disrespect for animals that has caused this pandemic.”

Her words ring true on many levels. Beyond the virus proper, industrial farming and its heavy reliance on antibiotics have contributed to antimicrobial resistance, which in turn has made infections—such as the secondary bacterial infections among severe COVID-19 cases—more difficult to control. The climate crisis may not be directly linked to the pandemic, but its broader impacts on health and the environment, including biodiversity, have made us more vulnerable to it.

The relationships between humans and other animals have not always been noxious, not in an age when we welcome “good bacteria” in our bodies, and when some animals are increasingly recognized not as zoe but as bios. Referencing how humans have coevolved with other animals, my student Aaron Philip dela Cruz writes that he and his pet dog may pass diseases to each other, but they likewise “pass to one another our history… and our own significations of what it is to love and to be loved.”

By and large, however, the Anthropocene — that is, the current epoch indelibly marked by human activity — has been characterized by environmental cruelty and ecological impetuousness, with dire consequences for nonhuman and, as we now belatedly realize, human life. If the “new normal” is to be better than the one we have already left behind, then it must include a multi-species consciousness that considers how best we can coexist with the rest of the planet.

This will entail putting an end to the illegal wildlife trade, which has seen pangolins from Palawan hunted to near-extinction and sold in black markets in China and elsewhere. This will also involve rethinking agricultural practices, rebalancing the “local” with the “global,” and rescinding the shibboleths of our unsustainable lives. Protecting the planet has always entailed costly sacrifices, but the pandemic is forcing us to realize that inaction is even costlier.

A multi-species consciousness can also be good for individuals, if only to have a deeper mindfulness of the world around us. Admittedly, it is only the disruption in our modus vivendi that has driven me to be more appreciative of the nonhumans around me; to see the fullness of life in spaces that we might consider empty were we to regard our species alone. Might we also see this community of life in our policies and our politics?

If we are to thrive beyond — and not just survive — the pandemic, then our goal should be to make our planet a viable place for more-than-human togetherness.

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TAGS: coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus philippines, COVID-19, Gideon Lasco, multispecies thinking, Second Opinion
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