Is COVID-19 a Collective Rite of Passage?

Could COVID-19 be a collective rite of passage? Our current process of social distancing certainly feels like a classic “liminal period,” where we are in-between the previous stage and whatever comes next. In fact, this moment in time seems eerily similar to the adulthood ritual of the Xhosa Nation, where adolescent boys are isolated from their communities, placed in tiny huts, and kept there for four weeks. When they return—if they survive, for some die of infection or exposure—they return as adults. (More on this ritual in this week’s full reflection here.)

All rites of passage hold some trials and threats—including our current one—as the growing coronavirus death toll reveals. But the most important question is whether there will be a parallel after our rite of passage concludes. As with the Xhosa, when we emerge from our isolation, 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, but by 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. And frankly, that’s not the worst to come. Our continuing abuses of the Earth will bring far worse—famine, conflict, loss of entire cities. So as uncomfortable and frightening as our current rite of passage is, it is an opportunity to reflect, and upon emerging, choose to become adults.

But what does adulthood entail? The transition to adulthood means putting child-like behavior behind us. Children put the self first, are less focused on the collective good, and are more focused on growing and developing as individuals. Adults, on the other hand, have finished their growth cycle and understand that their well-being depends on the well-being of the entire community. (At least until marketers and other culture forces encouraged us to remain forever adolescent.) So how do we become adults?

First, we need to understand that our growth cycle is over. Sustainability researchers have told us for 50 years that infinite growth on a finite planet just isn’t possible. The end of growth should have happened before we overshot Earth’s limits—in the 1970s at the latest. But now we’re using 1.75 planets worth of biocapacity, which means we’re 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, which 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 like agriculture and basic manufacturing when possible; reduces private consumption and shifts it as much as possible to shared and public goods; and moves away from gross national product as indicator of a successful economy and instead tracks measures of well-being: health, education, and how quickly we are restoring Earth’s systems.

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. 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 infrastructure necessary to develop sustainable local economies. 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—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 stops too. Hence, why social distancing is working so well.

Ultimately, considering that 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.