Bat’s-Eye View

Last night, I dreamt about bats.

As a child, I had a certain fondness for them, or at least a fascination. Once, in fact, while I was in kindergarten, I was severely chided for attempting to “rescue” with my bare hands a bat I found clinging to the plaster wall of a building in the Married Student Housing complex where we were then living in Austin, Texas. My mother was in a graduate program for Library Science at UT; my parents hadn’t yet divorced; and I interested myself in soccer, amphibians, reptiles, and bugs, in that order. I got poison ivy a lot, predictably, but my parents were generally tolerant of my rough habits; on that Hill Country morning though – imagine the sounds of doves and cicadas and a bracing humidity already beginning to bath you in heat – my father’s voice corrected me sharply as I reached for the frightened animal on the wall. A tone I usually associated with oncoming cars, dangerous heights, electricity, it stopped me cold, and only later, at home – after we’d returned to where the stranded little mammal lingered in broad daylight with a large glass jar, holes punched in its metal lid, and my father had carefully captured the pliant animal, promising me he’d deliver it to our family friend, a biologist, who could, in turn, do I would never learn what with it – did my parents jointly caution me in hushed, firm tones with that dread word: “Rabies”

One wonders if Austinites will feel differently, after COVID-19, about their famed Congress Avenue “bat bridge“; before ever finding that potentially rabid Mexican free-tailed bat on that wall, I’d been to see the millions of bats taking to the sky at dusk from the human-made bat cave, but until that balmy morning, I’d never actually encountered a bat up close, and I’m sure readers will relate to the simultaneous strangeness and familiarity with which the bat’s face confronted me.

It is, of course, our kinship with bats and other animals that underlies our susceptibility to zoonoses (and their susceptibility to anthroponoses), and although my parents – in warning me against the horrors of rabies: the long needles, the foaming mouths, the grisly deaths – did not warn me (and who could blame them?) that bat viruses, in jumping species to humans, could also cause global pandemics, after SARS – which redirected my life, in a certain sense – I suppose we all should’ve been mindful of that fact.

Now, bats make me jumpy. They get a bad rap, of course. At least in the US, they’re not significantly more likely to carry rabies than certain other mammals not marked with the same stigma, and yet, it is no doubt their flightedness, and the Addams Family-esque prospect of bat-in-hair that makes them uniquely frightening. In many countries, one might be at more risk of contracting rabies from a feral dog, but with dogs, one generally feels a degree of control, or at least awareness, whereas in their nocturnal flittiness, bats present as, uniquely, vectors the threat from which is characterized by no malice at all, but a high degree of randomness. A dog’s snarl warns, as does a skunk’s scent or a raccoon’s hiss. Rare, indeed, is it to hear of someone bitten by a dog without realizing it, but with bats? One often doesn’t even become aware of their presence until winged mammal has already swooped dangerously close to human nose.

And yet, speaking of noses, the unfairness to bats goes further than how they’ve come to signify in human movies, for as the devastation wrought in bat populations across North America by white-nose syndrome has shown, bats are – as can today be said of almost all vertebrates on Earth – at much greater risk from us than we are from them. Given that Elizabeth Kolbert popularized the concept of “The Sixth Extinction,” and that it was in her book that I first read of the fungus that has killed so many North American bats, it is fitting that mass bat mortality should be the fulcrum by which we pivot back to the mass human mortality of the present.

We’ve all been obsessed with the pandemic lately. How could we not be? For weeks on end, I’ve found myself consumed – with trying to understand, make sense of, strategize around, respond to the pandemic at many different levels – in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever been so consumed with any one thing in my life. I’m at home more or less all day, every day, and yet, strangely, I feel busier than I’ve been in years. Compared to some busy-ness I’ve experienced in my life, though, this, at least, feels worthwhile, in the sense that it feels deeply meaningful. It is unclear to me what else I would be doing right now, other than what I’m doing, unless I had skills I don’t or had not privileges I do.

It’s felt meaningful to be so fully obsessed with this virus, its global consequences, what it will mean for our friends and family in India, and most especially, what it is doing to our beloved New York. But as I’ve written elsewhere, my life’s work increasingly centers on confronting the climate crisis; “it feels like a lifetime ago,” as we’re all saying these days, but it was only in January that I sent an email to some close friends letting them know my intention to be focused “full-time” on climate work by the end of 2020, and that I planned to take the time between then and my birthday (in October) to figure out exactly what that would mean.

In the meantime, the pandemic has happened, but, in many respects, it feels clarifying. In spite of everything, it has felt good to be obsessively focused on what feels, to me, like it matters most at the moment, and although I’d like to breathe, and relax, and socialize, and lay in the grass a little more going forward – and to feel less sorrow, not out of numbness, but because there is less to grieve – I see nothing more compelling over the time horizon of this decade or this century than our increasingly desperate confrontation with global climate disruption.

I believe it was in this episode of Kate Aronoff and Daniel Aldana Cohen’s podcast that the idea of COVID-19 as a dress rehearsal for a century of crisis – something like that – was floated, and while I’ve written at length elsewhere about the connections between the crisis of the pandemic and the climate of the crisis, that struck me as an apt and ominous framing. So far, we’re not performing very well.

Cohen and Aronoff are two of the thinker-activists behind the Green Stimulus plan, and, along those lines, I agree with this piece from The Intercept that the “Coronavirus Has Given the Left A Historic Opportunity”; even the New York Times is getting in on the Green-New-everything buzz that is fermenting – impotently for now – left of fascist as Right-wing kleptocrats meanwhile scrap our country for parts. (The Times aside, this is nothing against Rhiana Gunn-Wright and her brilliant work, the likes of which I wish our paper of record would feature much more often.) We know that the same fascist and authoritarian forces currently plundering the US Treasury (and Federal Reserve) – and the neoliberal framework and complacent political establishment (including, in this country, the corporate Democrats) enabling these forces – are responsible for the disastrous deregulatory agenda that is at once driving us towards biodiversity collapse and climate regime shift, but also fueling further human encroachment of non-human animal habitat, thus setting the stage for further potentially catastrophic zoonoses.

We know that the same fossil fuel companies that sit at the heart of this global fascist project (with their private mercenary armies and parallel “state departments”) bear disproportionate responsibility for climate crisis, but also for the global crisis of air quality that endangers the health of billions of people – many of whom, their lungs already compromised, now find themselves more vulnerable to COVID-19.

We know that industrial agriculture – so many of the products of which are now being dumped, plowed under, or left to rot in the fields – is a key driver of both antibiotic resistance and zoonoses, while agribusiness corporations – like their counterparts in online commerce – care little for the working people whose labor is foundational to their outsized profits.

We know that visionless politicians will tell us that making even the most basic and necessary changes is not possible, while brazenly making changes both drastic and unnecessary.

In short, we know that – as US testing capacity actually declines, even as the number of COVID-19 cases in this country spikes; as the global number of confirmed cases passes 2 million, with nearly one-third of those in the United States; as the US death toll approaches 30,000 (no doubt, a drastic undercount), and New York acknowledges that – owing to the thousands of people who have died at home in recent weeks – its own death toll had been understated by ~50%; as New York still fails to account for significant unexplained mortality on top of the now-acknowledged at-home deaths, unexplained mortality which suggests that ~3,000 additional people probably died, unrecorded, from COVID-19 in the month since the first official death was registered (which would put NYC’s current COVID-19 death toll at ~15,000); but as our Governor – lauded as he is by the corporate media – maintains his strength through “Little sleep, ‘Tiger King’ and no booze” – in view of all this, and much more, either we seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to confront the looming once-in-a-civilization crisis, or we don’t, we fail, and the rest will be history, which doesn’t have to repeat itself, but sometimes does.

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