Let’s keep this Community Sustainability column going with contributions from more local writers and activists! Contact bianca@mountshastaecology.org to do so.

What can we learn from the coronavirus pandemic? From a systems thinking perspective, we are getting feedback that lets us know our systems are not working. We “Western” humans have been getting similar feedback in recent years about the climate crisis in the form of catastrophic wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, and floods, but have been able to mostly ignore that feedback because these events are localized in impact. The COVID-19 virus is global in its reach – forcing us to pay attention.

In living systems, feedback comes in two forms: negative and positive. These two words mean something quite different than normal usage. Negative feedback keeps us going within certain limits; if we go beyond those limits, we may suffer harm or die. Negative feedback regulates our body temperature, heartbeat, and respiration, and signals us when our social behavior deviates too far from social norms in our culture. It’s called “negative” because it reduces deviation from norms that help us survive. Positive feedback, on the other hand, informs us when our habitual behaviors and responses are no longer adequate to meet changing conditions. We have to learn, change, adapt – and ultimately establish new norms to accommodate the new conditions through negative feedback.

Positive feedback actually amplifies deviation from norms, because the system’s normal responses don’t work. The COVID-19 virus is acting as positive feedback on many levels. Because it is a “novel” virus apparently originating in an animal, humans have no built-up immunity to it – although the majority of the population are able to survive its incursion with immune systems strong enough to rise to the challenge. The pandemic is in a “runaway positive feedback loop” in which the more people get sick, the more people are infected—and the virus spreads exponentially.

This is the danger in positive feedback: deviation leads to more deviation, unless the system can find a response that stops or reduces the deviation (negative feedback). History has many stories of this kind of runaway feedback loops – e.g. the Black Plague, or the introduction of small pox from Europe into the New World that decimated indigenous populations who had no immunity to it.

We are quickly developing systemic responses on a social level: hand-washing, “social distancing,” face masks, etc. However, social distancing is severely impacting other human systems: familial, educational, medical, economic, financial, transportation, and governmental. These systems are frantically trying to adapt to this new perturbation, with varying degrees of success. Meanwhile, people are suffering from the attempts by social systems to adapt, if not from the viral illness itself.

The impact of the virus demonstrates clearly that we are truly interconnected as humans all over the planet, and that if one part (subsystem) is weakened or sickened, the whole is also weakened. Although not everyone infected by the virus will die, we are all impacted by the death of loved ones, coworkers, and people who have been providing essential services. And because we are interconnected, our empathy is aroused by the suffering of those around us – and our capacity for empathy actually helps us to survive.

Living systems survive and thrive through cooperation, by guarding and nurturing the health of their subsystems and the larger systems to which they belong. If we continue to think of ourselves as separate from other individuals, communities, nations, or other living beings – and even competitive with them – humanity will sicken and die. When we poison the atmosphere with excessive carbon from burning fossil fuels, we endanger the whole living system of the planet – and this affects all life, human and non-human. Our children suffer from respiratory diseases while glaciers and ice caps melt. It’s insanity to continue on this path, yet profit for a few and denial on the part of many rule the day while the common good languishes. We are prisoners of our established “norms” – and of our human capacity to ignore and block feedback. It takes a global pandemic to wake us up.

May this global experience unite humans to seek the “common good” beyond cultural and national differences. Our human systems can self-organize around new norms that support the health of all living beings and ecosystems of Earth. May we cease fighting one another, oppressing one another, and competing for food, water, energy, money, and other resources. Only by functioning cooperatively as a healthy living system can humanity hope to survive the challenges of our time: pandemics, climate disruption, racism, oppression, and rampant greed – and the spiritual impoverishment that subsumes it all.

Let’s keep this Community Sustainability column going with contributions from more local writers and activists! Contact bianca@mountshastaecology.org to do so.