Many transitions in human cultures are marked by rites of passage, such as baptisms, weddings, even funerals. And, during those transitions there is a moment when those involved are neither what they were, nor what they will become. At a wedding, the couple is not yet married, nor are they single. A child going through an adulthood ritual is not yet an adult, but is no longer a child. Even in a funeral, the corpse is neither your friend, lover, or parent any longer, neither are they part of the Earth yet, but in transition. That stage is called liminality, and is almost always marked by rituals, trials, and even holds a threat of danger.
That anthropological term got me thinking about COVID-19 as a collective rite of passage, with this period of social distancing almost a textbook example of liminality. A perfect comparison for this moment is the adulthood rite of passage of the Xhosa Nation, a Bantu-ethnic people in Southern Africa. After being circumcised, the adolescent boys are isolated for four weeks in tiny huts, experiencing many hardships including boredom, fasting, and dietary restrictions, until they are released. Then, upon release, they rejoin the community as men. The parallels, here, are obvious (other than the circumcision part, thankfully). The majority of us are being asked to stay in our homes and isolated for weeks, while undergoing boredom and dietary restrictions (though, fortunately, those are pretty minor, shaped primarily by store shortages).
The other element of a rite of passage is that the outcome is not guaranteed. Not everyone successfully gets through it. In extreme cases, some die—whether from starvation or sickness, or in the case of the Xhosa, infection from traditional circumcision practices. Others simply fail: brides or grooms, for example, may get cold feet and call off the wedding. With failure comes shame and an awkward return to the phase before—a recognition that the participant is not ready to take on the responsibilities of a new stage in life. Our coronavirus rite of passage is also saturated with uncertainty and fear: that we may die, and, due to social distancing, die alone, lost in a sea of other deaths.
Xhosa walking through forest to their adulthood rite. They are neither boys nor men. (Photo by Dingeman)
But the biggest question is whether there will be a parallel after our rite of passage concludes. As with the Xhosa, when we emerge from our self-imposed exile, will we reenter the community as adults, with the expectations, responsibilities, and new-found wisdom that entails, or will we fail to understand the significance and continue to act like children?
This ritual—this pandemic—has been thrust upon us not by chance, nor by God (though many do think that) but because of the way we have developed our unsustainable civilization. Encroaching on wilderness areas, eating wild species, factory farming billions of animals, continuing to grow our human population, burning fossil fuels, encouraging people to consume ever more, including traveling around the globe: all this has been mixed up into a toxic witch’s brew that is poisoning us all.
Frankly, this pandemic is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. When climate change displaces millions, when far worse pandemics emerge, when famine draws millions of refugees to Europe and the US, all of this will be far more disastrous to human civilization—as sustainability scientists have been warning for decades. But those warnings have been easy to ignore so far, and easy to imagine as far into the future or just affecting someone else: like Hurricane Katrina or the wildfires in Australia. So as uncomfortable as this rite of passage is, it is an opportunity to reflect, and upon emerging, choose to become adults.
What Does Adulthood Entail?
But what does adulthood entail? The transition to adulthood means putting child-like behavior behind us. Children put the self first, they are less responsible, less focused on the collective good, and more focused on developing themselves and yes, on “growing.”
Adults, on the other hand, have finished their growth cycle, they understand their role in their group, and understand that their well-being depends on the well-being of the entire community. Of course, that may be truer in tribal communities than in our hyper-individualistic consumer culture—as marketers work very hard to keep us forever adolescent. But if we can emerge from this chrysalis and put the collective good first, we may still have time to avoid the horrifying pandemics, famines, and conflicts ahead—or at least face them together, like adults.
So how do we do that? There is a longer answer to that question, but here are three main ways:
First, we need to understand that our growth cycle is over. Sustainability researchers have been telling us for 50 years that we can’t keep pursuing growth forever—not on a finite planet. The end of growth should have happened long before we overshot Earth’s limits—in the early 1970s at the very latest. But now we’re using 1.75 planets worth of biocapacity, which of course means we’re depleting ecological capital and undermining the very systems of life that allow us to survive and thrive. We’ve been caught up in a growth economy—pulled along by profit-motive and pushed by debt servicing (if we don’t grow, we can’t pay back our ever growing debt load). This economic pause will make all this worse, one we’ll probably try to “solve” (or more correctly defer) by borrowing more from the future. But instead, we could collectively accept that this is the time for a new system—one that relocalizes essential economic services when possible; reduces consumption and shifts as much as possible to shared and public goods; and moves away from gross national product and consumption expenditures as indicators of a successful economy and instead tracks indicators of sustainable development: health, education, happiness, and how quickly we are restoring Earth’s systems to be life-giving again instead of dying.
Second, we need to put the needs of the collective over the needs of individuals. This is the moment for a massive transfer of wealth—from the richest individuals to the rest of society. That doesn’t require a revolution, just an update of tax code (both income and estate). But the money should go not to stimulate individual consumption but to strengthening social protections like healthcare, sick leave, and parental leave. And to redeveloping public goods—like public transit, bike lanes, and the mechanisms necessary to develop sustainable local economies—including and especially local agriculture (which in a post-growth economy will play an essential role in providing food and livelihoods). This is true not just within national borders, but across. If we do not aid sustainable development in developing countries, they will in all probability pursue the same failed growth path that western countries did. And if they do, it will cause the same perilous side effects. As we live on one Earth, we are all in this together. If we cannot understand this, then we are not yet adults.
Third, we need to recognize the necessity of sacrifice. All communities, especially tribal, understand that they must make sacrifices sometimes—to send one child to college, to send one community member to the doctor. We must also recognize that tremendous sacrifice is necessary. Many of us have made huge sacrifices right now: without resistance, and with a minimum of grumbling. Why? Because we’ve been asked to. Because we are scared. And because we know it is right. If we are asked to make major changes to our cultures because we need to, we will again—not as individuals, but collectively. Few want to be the one person who doesn’t get to do fun things, but will stop if everyone else does too. Hence, why social distancing is working so well.
Ultimately, considering our long period of childhood has led to the demise of countless species and of the vibrancy of the Earth, it would be wonderful if we could emerge from our liminal period with this understanding—that this transition will lead to a sustainability transition, as many hope. We have the capability to do so, but choosing to be adults isn’t easy—it comes with sacrifices, and it comes with responsibilities. But it also comes with being part of something larger and better than ourselves: a loving community, a continuing cultural tradition, a healthy planetary system. And besides, the alternative is far worse.