The Dreaded Virus of our Time

The Living Red Centre of Australia from the air, once called Australia’s dead heart by the British colonists! (Photo by Arjuna Ben-Zion Weiss)
The Living Red Centre of Australia from the air, 
once called Australia’s dead heart by the British colonists!
(Photo by Arjuna Ben-Zion Weiss)

Renowned conservationist and activist Dr Jane Goodall is hoping the coronavirus pandemic will be a wake-up call, warning the crisis is a result of human disregard for nature and animals. [1]

“We can blame the object – the virus, the cultural practice – but causality extends out into the relationships between people and ecology,” says evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace of the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps in St Paul, Minnesota. [2]

…a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19, the viral disease that emerged in China in December 2019, to arise – with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. [3]

Ecology and culture are rarely considered to be related in the Western Cultural Narrative. The President of the USA, Donald Trump, blames China for creating the pandemic. A convenient racist ploy to distract from the bigger picture – the link between climate disruption leading to the compromising of our planetary well-being. As David Quammen wrote recently in the New York Times: “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.” 3

This link between ecology and culture was an emergent theory that grew out of my doctoral research into anti-racism through drama education in what was then the School of Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney.[4] While working as a teacher and youth worker with indigenous and migrant youth, I came to realise that for indigenous cultures there is no separation from the ecology, in which that culture lives. For Aboriginal people the Land is their Mother – the rocks, the rivers, the mountains, the trees, the plants, the animals, the birds – the whole natural world is inseparable from their cultural world – thus living their ecology of culture.  

Migrant cultures, on the other hand, have embedded in them other ecologies and proceed to try to reproduce those ecologies in their new place of living. The British, when they colonised Terra Australis, this Great South Land, attempted to reproduce the buildings, the gardens, the roads, the churches, the gaols, the fortresses, the whole lifestyle of their native Great Britain. Above all it was the agricultural systems they introduced to this very arid land that proved seriously problematic. The British Isles are on the whole wet, green and lush, while much of Australia is a desert. The cloven-hoofed animals of Western Europe and the massive clearing of the trees to create European style farms, was largely inappropriate for a land with limited topsoil and rainfall. The recent bushfires are a devastating reminder of this lack of understanding of the Australian ecology by most Australians: a land of extremes – prone to droughts, bushfires and floods.

In the process of colonisation, the British ecology of culture almost turned Australia into a desert twice. Due to their racist views they didn’t consider it worthy to communicate with the indigenous people of this land who had not just survived, but thrived here, for tens of thousands of years. Only in recent times have the indigenous people been consulted on their methods of fire stick farming, through which they had created what the author Bill Gammage calls the Biggest Estate on Earth.[5] Similarly the work of Bruce Pascoe in his book Dark Emu [6], shows that Aboriginal people had developed a very ecological form of agricultural practice that clearly worked for them for thousands of years before it was disrupted by British agricultural practices.  The evidence is their very survival! 

When I wrote about this theory of an ecology of culture in my thesis, Ian Mills, an Australian philosopher, who had been a former member of the school, and offered to be my mentor at the time, suggested I read the work of Jean Gebser. In his The Ever-Present Origins,[7] Gebser presents his theory that we humans have passed through a series of structures of consciousness, since our emergence as humans. The earliest structure he called the archaic consciousness, which was followed by the magical, the mythic, and with the European Renaissance came the mental consciousness. Furthermore, each structure began as an efficient cause, a term he drew from Aristotle’s philosophy, however in time it became a deficient cause and then a new structure was needed to replace it. Gebser did not use the term evolution, I suspect because at the time the Nazis had appropriated that term to imply, they were the most evolved people on the planet, so Gebser preferred mutation as the way the new structure came into being. 

Other philosophers, like Sri Aurobindo, who greatly influenced Gebser did consider that there was an evolution of consciousness, as did the late Barbara Marx Hubbard who proposed that we are now part of a co-creative evolutionary consciousness. In a related way Jesuit palaeontologist, Teilhard De Chardin, along with the biogeochemist Vladimir Vernadsky theorised that the Earth has a noosphere [8], as well as the atmosphere for air, the biosphere for life, and the barysphere for rocks. They derived the word ‘Noos’ from the Greek word for ‘Mind’ and proposed that this Earth Mind is potentially awakening at this time through our human evolution. 

Whichever word we use for the next structure of consciousness, what is clear is that from the time of the industrial revolution some 200 years ago, the mental structure has become more and more deficient. With the reliance on so called raw materials gained through invasion and colonisation, the need for slave labour, the exploitation of women and children in the horrid Victorian working conditions, which are still being practiced in many economically developing countries to this day, and above all because of the massive pollution of the air, the water and the earth by industrial waste. Along with the so-called growth economy on an Earth of limited ‘resources’, there’s clearly a need for a change. To this Gebser proposed that we now need an integral structure of consciousness

When I read Gebser’s work, I said YES! As a former chemical engineer, I am all too aware of the destructive nature of the chemical industry and this led me to seek more ecological and more sustainable ways of living and working, which ultimately led me to the world of film, theatre, language, philosophy, education and ultimately to social ecology. Given this journey, I resonate with the views expressed in the three quotes at the beginning of this article, that the virus itself is directly linked to our disconnection and subsequent destruction of the natural world, of which we are an integral part. As such this virus is then the dis-ease of our time, with our ever-growing population of humans, at the expense of the animals, trees, forests and the ecosystems that sustains us. To paraphrase Gregory Bateson [9], a founding thinker of social ecology, who so insightfully, observed this as the double bind of our time: ‘our current lifestyle is destroying the living system, on which we depend for our very survival, and yet we are reluctant to change our lifestyle, because it’s the one we know.’ 

Thus, the virus offers us a way out of this double bind. It is challenging us to wake up to the fact that we are not in control of nature, and that we need to acknowledge our connection to the natural world, which we are in the process of destroying. The answer then is not really the social isolation, which we need in the short term to prevent the rampant spread of the dis-ease, but the need for a reconnection to the natural world that sustains us. Nature is our teacher and the integral consciousness is a way to reconnect, because it includes all the previous structures of consciousness.  From the archaic consciousness, when we were inseparable from the natural world – to the mental consciousness, when we developed the illusion that we were separate from the natural world as objective observers, and therefore could control the natural world through developing our science and technology. 

To heal this planetary dis-ease, we need to reconnect to our breath, our heartbeat, our feelings, our sensations, our intuitions as well as our thoughts and to our living world that sustains us, through the sun, air, water, food, trees, rivers, oceans, mountains, forests and all the diversity of natural phenomena, which the indigenous people of the Earth acknowledge as their Mother. For ultimately, we are all indigenous people of Mother Earth, and it’s time to treat her with the love, respect and care that a mother deserves from her children.


 Arjuna Ben-Zion Weiss PhD

15 – 4 – 2020




[4] Challenging Understandings of Racism through Drama Education, steps to an ecology of culture:






One thought on “The Dreaded Virus of our Time

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusion Arjuna Ben, “We are all indigenous people of Mother Earth, and it’s time to treat her with the love, respect and care that a mother deserves from her children.”
    Thank you for your writing on this.

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