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21st Century Renaissance

In a previous life, before becoming a photographer, I spent nearly two decades in Africa helping to fund and design public health responses to prevent the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS. This wily and virulent retrovirus, constantly mutating, has killed an estimated 32 million people since 1981, the official start of the global AIDS epidemic. Although AIDS has faded from the headlines, HIV continues to infect millions each year (most recent statistics: 1.7 million new infections in 2018), and it remains the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age globally.

Those of us who lived through, and in many ways are still haunted by, the AIDS crisis are well aware that AIDS and COVID-19 are microbiologically, clinically and epidemiologically distinct. They are two very different pandemics – wisdom tells us that they should not be compared. Yet compare we do, groping in the dark for something, anything, to make sense of the current chaos.

So imagine my surprise when, after searching through my library for a small book that I hadn’t read since graduate school – William McNeill’s landmark Plagues and Peoples – I realized that the COVID-19 pandemic is more comparable to the Great Plague (the second bubonic plague – see footnote) than it is to AIDS, at least from a socio-historical perspective.

The similarities are uncanny! Even though COVID-19 and the bubonic plague are caused by two very different microorganisms – a coronavirus and a zoonotic bacterium, respectively – several writers have noted “strange and startling” parallels between the two pandemics. The following similarities were published independently by Rukmini Bhaya Nair in New Delhi and Vicente G. Olaya in Barcelona:

  1. Infection originated in China or nearby.
  2. The infectious agent followed trade routes and travel routes from China to Europe.
  3. Initial transmission was from animal to human.
  4. Human to human infection happens via respiratory droplets.
  5. The first major epicenter in Europe was Italy.
  6. Health services were overwhelmed; health care providers exhausted.
  7. Corpses piled up; officials resorted to mass graves.
  8. There were no funeral services for many victims.
  9. The economy grounded to a halt.
  10. Physical distancing was a key prevention strategy.
  11. Foreign people were blamed and regarded with hostility.
The Citizens of Tournai, Belgium, Burying the Dead During the Black Death of 1347-52. Detail of a miniature from The Chronicles of Gilles Li Muisis (1272-1352), abbot of the monastery of St. Martin of the Righteous, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, MS 13076-77, f. 24v.

The second bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, the Plague, the Great Plague, or the Pestilence, was the most fatal pandemic in human history. It was gruesome, lethal, apocalyptic.

The Black Death peaked between 1346-1353, but recurred in periodic waves over the next 300 years. It spread quickly and relentlessly across Eurasia and North Africa, resulting in an estimated 75-200 million deaths. This estimate includes nearly 60% of Europe’s entire population in the late Middle Ages. (By comparison, the deadly 1918 influenza pandemic, known as the Spanish Flu, “only” killed an estimated 20-40 million people over a two-year period at the end of WWI.)

Such massive loss of life fundamentally changed the course of history. But according to McNeill and several other historians, not all of these changes were for the worse. For some survivors, the plague proved to be “a good thing.” Among peasants and serfs, wages rose across Europe due to a severe labor shortage, marking the beginning of the end of centuries of oppressive feudal servile dues and restrictions for the poorest of the poor. Working-class women, especially teenage women, filled occupational gaps in the textile and agricultural sectors, while dowagers flourished among the gentry as women inherited their deceased husbands’ titles or property.

For entrepreneurial-minded and creative individuals, the death of huge numbers of merchants, officials and aristocrats was literally a boon: it provided unprecedented opportunities to test and embrace new ideas. Most importantly, the plague hastened the collapse of feudalism, which had calcified Europe for nearly 1,000 years following the fall of Rome. In this way, the Black Death accelerated the conditions that ultimately ushered in the Renaissance, a period of vibrant cultural, artistic, philosophical and economic transformation that brought medieval Europe out of the Dark Ages and pushed it towards modernity.

As Leonard Cohen would later remind us: “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

The Leonard Cohen Crescent Street Mural, a 10,000 square-foot tribute to the Montréal singer, songwriter and poet

This quote by Montréal’s favorite son is what inspired me to write this post. Five months into the COVID-19 pandemic – with many more months to come, possibly years of death and collective rage – I know that I am not alone in wondering what life might look like on the other side. I can’t help asking the question: If humans in the late Middle Ages, devastated by the Great Plague, were able to find the moxie to literally rise from the ashes and transform society into a vibrant Renaissance, why would we – third millennial humans – not be able to do the same?

Since re-reading Plagues and Peoples, I’ve started thinking about the COVID-19 pandemic in a whole new light: a once-in-a-generation opportunity to learn from the past in order to transform our “calcified” fossil fuel-dependent economy into a more resilient 21st century renaissance. This post-COVID-19 renaissance should be built upon a regenerative, cradle-to-cradle circular economy powered by renewable energy, with climate justice and resilience at its heart.

Even Fatih Birol, executive director of the typically conservative International Energy Agency (IEA) believes we are facing a historic opportunity to usher in a new era for global climate action by scaling up the technologies needed to turbocharge the energy transition. Birol predicts “the energy industry that emerges from this crisis will be significantly different from the one that came before.”

Among politicians, city mayors representing more than 750 million people – from Bogotá to Milan to Seoul – have issued a Statement of Principles that warns that there can be no return to “business as usual” following the COVID-19 pandemic if humanity is to escape catastrophic climate breakdown. In a series of articles, The Guardian quotes Mark Watts, chief executive of the C40 group of cities: “There is now a hell of a lot of collaboration among very powerful politicians who do think a green economic recovery is absolutely essential.” As just one example, New York City’s mayor Bill de Blasio said: “Half-measures that maintain the status quo won’t move the needle or protect us from the next crisis. We need a new deal for these times – a massive transformation that rebuilds lives, promotes equality and prevents the next economic, health or climate crisis.” A rebirth.

To help us get there, Bina Venkataraman, author of The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age, dares us to rethink what we measure, change what we reward, and be brave enough to imagine what lies ahead. Professor at MIT and Editorial Page Editor of the Boston Globe, Venkataraman passionately argues in her 2019 TED Talk that modern societies spend far too much time focusing on the immediate and ephemeral (stock prices, election cycles, happiness, social media) compared to “imagining all the possibilities the future holds.” According to Venkataraman, our culture, workplaces and institutions are designed in ways that impair foresight, making it difficult to think ahead and avoid an epidemic of recklessness. To exercise foresight, we need tools for “looking across time to the future.”

I was so moved by Venkataraman’s TED Talk closing statement that I am taking the liberty of transcribing it here in its entirety. Using an old family heirloom as a metaphor for foresight, Venkataraman explains:

My great-grandfather protected this hand-made instrument by giving it to the next generation, my grandmother, who gave it to me. This instrument is in my home today, but it doesn’t belong to me. It’s my role to shepherd it in time. This instrument positions me as both a descendant and an ancestor. It makes me feel part of a story bigger than my own. And this, I believe, is the single most powerful way we can reclaim foresight: by seeing ourselves as the good ancestors we long to be. Ancestors not just to our own children, but to all humanity. Whatever your heirloom is, however big or small, protect it. And know that its music can resonate for generations.

Thank you, Bina.

Collectively and individually, we are standing at a crossroads. We can choose to go “back to normal” – in which we fail to heed the warning signs of future consequences until it is too late (as per Jared Diamond). Or, we can choose to keep the memory of the past alive to help us imagine and navigate a more resilient and vibrant future.

Artist Olafur Eliasson expresses this far more eloquently than I in a recent Instagram post:

Memory and imagination are the twins of future-thinking; without memory, there is no fantasy, no story of what was and what could be. Anticipation of the future based on how we remember the past greases the wheels for the mental time travel that generates our possible futures.

Thank you, Olafur.

Footnote: The first bubonic plague, known as the Plague of Justinian, swept through what was then the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire, and lasted 200 years from 542-750, killing 25-50 million people. Eight hundred years later, in the mid-14th century, the second bubonic plague erupted, caused by a different strain of the same bacterium. A third bubonic plague pandemic, originating in China in 1866, eventually spread to India and resulted in 2.2 million deaths. The WHO considered this pandemic active until 1960, when worldwide casualties dropped to 200 per year. Today, plague is considered to be endemic in 26 countries; the three most endemic countries are Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Peru.

(Top image by Joan Sullivan.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group and solo shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. She is currently working on a long-term, self-assigned photo project about Canada’s energy transition. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. You can find Joan on TwitterVisura and Ello.

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