Pandemics, Predation, and Crip Worldings
This essay on crip worldings is the third piece in the Violent Environments series, which explores how violence is enacted through, for, and on environmental spaces, including land, water, and air. Series editors: Kristen Billings, Rebecca Laurent, and Rudy Molinek.
In 1817, the British East India Company consolidated its military control in most of South Asia, completing rail networks to facilitate rapid troop movements across the subcontinent. They dredged and logged mangrove forests in the delicate coastal ecosystem of the Sundarbans where cholera bacteria had long been endemic. That year, company soldiers would spread epidemic cholera outside the Ganges River Delta for the first time.
The 1918 influenza pandemic likewise tracked troop movements during World War I. A deliberate, collective forgetting marked its wake in western societies. This pandemic confounded western beliefs in individual self-determination and progress via scientific innovation, motivating widespread silence through much of the twentieth century around the death, grief, and collective failures it marked.
HIV, similarly, is associated with Belgium’s genocidal extraction projects in the Congo. As Belgians terrorized the Congolese into conscripted labor, people fled their villages for the forest and endured brutal camp conditions where they were forced to hunt to survive. Logging, plantations, and railway construction devastated ecosystems and catalyzed more genocidal terror alongside mass (often forced) movements of people into large cities. Collectively, this human and environmental violence assembled horrifically ideal conditions to kindle spillover and fan it into pandemic conflagration.
These historical outbreaks extended the racial and environmental violence of the imperial extraction projects and wars that produced them. As a disabled political ecologist and health geographer, histories like this haunt me in 2023 as I hear other settlers—family, friends, and colleagues—tell me that the COVID-19 pandemic is over and that they do not want to hear more about it. They are happily back to their normal lives while my crip (politically disabled) loved ones and I continue to wear N95s to the store and miss family gatherings, conferences, and happy hours at work. As a Ph.D. candidate, I also specialize in the politics and histories of emerging infectious disease response. I know these same people do not want to hear that another pandemic will almost definitely happen again, in our lifetimes, because of violence many of us are doing to the planet and other people.
When I scan the scientific literature or talk to scientists about what they understand as the current causes of emerging infectious disease, they describe similar things to these past examples: deforestation, mining, damming rivers, changing ecologies, physiological stress, wildlife trade, urbanization (many of these summarized by the moniker “land use change”), and yes, shifting climate. The site of struggle for preventing more zoonotic disease outbreaks is the same terrain in which these pathogens have emerged: the land itself and our relations to it and each other.
The Politics of Being Prey
I’ve been thinking lately on what could have been—what could be—if settler colonial societies had collectively treated encounters with emerging zoonotic viruses such as HIV and SARS-CoV-2 like the Australian settler and ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood once treated her experience of falling prey. Instead of clinging to comfortable narratives, collective amnesia, and environmental violence, what if we settlers had surrendered aspirations to colonial mastery and insisted on remembering that acute vulnerability? What if we had enacted the forms of care for land and each other that these pandemics of zoonotic origin have demanded—and western societies have repeatedly refused? What if we still could?
Nearly thirty years ago, Plumwood recounted her near-death experience of a crocodile attack:
In its final, frantic attempts to protect itself from the knowledge of vulnerability and impending death that threatens the normal, subject-centered framework, the mind can instantaneously fabricate terminal doubt of extravagant, Cartesian proportions: this is not really happening, this is a nightmare, from which I will soon awake. This desperate delusion split apart as I hit the water. In that flash, when my consciousness had to know the bitter certainty of its end, I glimpsed the world for the first time ‘from the outside,’ as no longer my world, as raw necessity, an unrecognizably bleak order which would go on without me, indifferent to my will and struggle, to my life as to my death.
After multiple “death rolls” where the large predator pulls her below water, Plumwood survives by managing to grip a sturdy overwater tree branch and pull herself up the muddy riverbank. A park ranger and rescue team later find her. She argues vehemently against her rescuers’ plans to go back and shoot the crocodile: “I was the intruder on crocodile territory, and no good purpose could be served by random revenge.” She elaborates on how experiencing predation forcibly displaced her colonial “vision of human mastery of the planet in which we are predators of others but can never ourselves be prey” with a vision of her own life as one small, relatively insignificant story in relation to myriad others in which she—like these others—is both eater and eaten.
Colonial Entitlement and Colonial Hubris are Colonial Violence
Plumwood’s attack forcefully reveals colonial entitlement to mastery—unseen, apart, and above the rest—as equal parts arrogant and violent. She recalls how settler hubris lulled her into ignoring the persistent, uneasy feeling of “being watched” that day, which intensified into the “shout of danger” she experienced passing an “especially striking rock formation, a single large rock balanced precariously upon a much smaller one.” The rock formation reminds her of her failure to consult the Indigenous Gaagudju people for advice before venturing onto their land, as well as her own precarity traversing the dangerous landscape by canoe.
Most Black and Indigenous people in the United States and Canada have never had the option to entertain the colonial delusion Plumwood describes. Writing to Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg artist and scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, the abolitionist organizer and writer Robyn Maynard notes that the massive environmental devastation of the Industrial Revolution was wrought not by “humanity” but by violently excluding most people from counting as fully human.
Dehumanization has long operated in tandem with the genocidal and ecocidal extraction projects that have produced most of the settler and colonial wealth accumulated across multiple continents. This is an ongoing, racialized project of (white, abled) capacitation through mass debilitation. Settler colonial governments in the United States and Canada weaponize dehumanization through “risk-based” management of both environmental toxins and infectious disease. This “risk-based” management materializes as a racialized gradient of care for human life, securing zones of relative safety for predominantly white and more affluent people at the expense of those consigned to “sacrifice zones” and “essential work” who bear the brunt of living and working in the presence of deadly, disabling chemical toxins and infectious disease.
Separate, above, unseen. Predator, but never prey.
Colonial hubris also inflects the insistence in some circles—championed by the likes of Steve Bannon and some of the same voices who helped sell lies about Iraqi bioweapons to the American public in 2002—that SARS-CoV-2, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, must have emerged from a laboratory. That this level of violence could never be wrought on us—we settlers and colonizers who are separate from and above the whims of natural, zoonotic spillover and pathogens agnostic to our existence—by the ordinary forms of (capitalist, colonial) extraction and (dis)connection that structure our lives. That there must be a villain: “The Chinese!” “Dr. Fauci, the scientists, the WHO!” From this hubris come more calls to mastery by violence, against Asian people in the streets and virologists online. If entitlement to land, to resources, and an ever-expanding economy intensifies viral spillover, then we humans are all a little bit complicit (even if some are far more so than others) in making this ongoing disaster, and under the logic of this colonial hubris, that cannot be true.
At the end of her essay, Plumwood calls for closer attention to our shared vulnerabilities and understanding colonizers’ “view of ourselves as rational masters of a tamed and malleable nature” as the violent, dangerous distortion it is. Hers is a very crip vision for collective care, interdependence, and survival. Although Plumwood does not name disability, her insistence on embracing interconnected, bodily vulnerability and rejecting the false security of eradication—of the crocodile, but also the specter of her own future injury, illness, and mortality—is an embrace of disability and the fact of death that echoes visions articulated by many disabled scholars and activists. Disability justice organizers, specifically, extend Plumwood’s insights by linking resistance to ableism, racism, colonialism, and environmental violence.
For example, writing to abled people about their failed solidarities during the COVID-19 pandemic, disabled activist Mia Mingus names abled people’s fear of disabled people as fear of their own inevitable disability and death. As violence by climate, disease, and pollution intensify globally, more of us will share in this collectively crip future. Discomfort over this reality and the refusal to face it motivate intolerance for disabled people in public spaces and entitlement to our death. When disabled people are out of sight, our guilt-inducing existence and also our words can remain comfortably out of mind. Abled life in settler colonial society can return to normal, without interruption.
Mingus thus names the dominant abled response when forcibly confronted with disability or death during the COVID-19 pandemic as social violence, fear, and forgetting—or, to echo Plumwood: “This is not really happening, this is a nightmare, from which I will soon awake.” Crip scholars and activists have called instead for leaning into forms of interdependence rooted in abundance that honor “difference, collective care and collective access.” These crip ways of worlding can exuberantly, brilliantly, and messily disrupt universalizing and colonial visions of the human. They can also help nurture solidarities with other people and relations with the land, which we need in order to survive and end intersecting forms of environmental violence globally.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and emerging disease outbreaks leading up to it could have, collectively, been moments when leadership in North America heeded calls from a multitude of activists to confront deadly and disabling pathogens, just as Val Plumwood confronted the experience of being prey—moments to release mastery and insist on new ways of living.
Release prisoners. Share essential technologies like antivirals and vaccines. Cut down emissions. Halt extraction. Protect and support labor. Defund cops and up funding for domestic violence shelters, disabled people’s living stipends, and care work by and for Black and Indigenous communities. Confront death or disablement by a pathogen for which few treatments exist, that evolves and spreads through species and landscapes indifferent to your particular will or struggles. Accept that there never was (and never could be) true security in aspirations to mastery over other people and land—aspirations that, in the end, serve no good purpose.
When I consider pandemics as racialized, ableist environmental violence and what could have been—what could still be—if settlers understood them this way, I think of Val Plumwood staring down death that day on occupied Gaagudju land. We could understand and respond accordingly to emerging infectious disease as something that happens because of violence that people do to others and the land, the result of centuries of ongoing colonial violence and extraction.
We could also understand them as a call to find newly crip connections to the land and each other, to belong to something that offers a truer refuge than aspirations to mastery and its (false) assurances that you, at least, will probably be okay if, and only if, we condone a little more violence. (Shoot the crocodile. Forget the moment of terror and what you witnessed there of your life. Only old people, disabled people, people of color, poor people, the unvaccinated—whoever it is, other people—die of this virus, it whispers.)
Like the standing rock formation that warned Plumwood, we could have understood the bubbling, accelerating signs of pandemic danger over the last two hundred years as a warning and collectively heeded these shouts of danger over stolen land. May we attend these warnings and the wisdom of our connected struggles so that we might, one day, tell a different story of survival.
Featured image: Looking into a crocodile’s eye. Photo by Steve Slater, 2009.
Mollie Holmberg is a Ph.D. candidate in geography at the University of British Columbia. She is writing a dissertation on interactions between science, governance, and care in the context of responses to emerging infectious diseases. Previously, she worked as a data scientist at IHME in Seattle. Website. Twitter. Contact.