Dipesh Chakrabarty



By drawing on the phenomena of anthropogenic climate change and the pandemic as two examples of the geologists’ idea of the Anthropocene, this article seeks to explain how the Anthropocene leads to a plurality of overlapping but conflicting temporalities for humans. This problem of time makes it difficult to imagine any globally concerted effort to deal with the Anthropocene or climate change as such.


The Anthropocenebio-politicsCOVID-19the humanthe non-human

I Introduction

The pandemic and the climate crisis are connected phenomena. One could say that they both speak of Anthropocene times. The story of rapid global economic growth—the history of capitalism in all its different varieties, imperial, liberal and neoliberal—is common to narratives that underpin discussions on both crises. They both arise from what has been called the period of Great Acceleration in Global History when the human realm expanded over the 20th and the 21st centuries and especially from the 1950s. In an increasingly extractive relationship to the earth, this expansion claimed more and more of the products of the biosphere of the planet, from what Bruno Latour and others, following scientists like Timothy Lenton, have called ‘the critical zone’ of the earth, the part of this planet that immediately sustains life (Latour and Weibel 2020). The key to this expansion, as we all know now, was electricity that flowed from cheap and plentiful energy extracted from coal and then oil and gas, all of them different kinds of fossil fuel. More than 87 per cent of the total consumption of fossil fuel by humans and their institutions has taken place in the period from reconstruction of the industrialised economies after the Second World War to the present. This is why the Great Acceleration is dated by historians and Earth System scientists from 1950 (Zalasiewicz 2020: 16; see also, McNeill and Engelke 2015).

The 20th century became ‘a time of extraordinary change’ in human history. ‘The human population increased from 1.5 to 6 billion [nearly four times], the world’s economy increased fifteenfold, energy use increased from thirteenfold to fourteenfold, freshwater use increased ninefold, and the irrigated areas by fivefold’ (Goudie and Viles 2016: 28). To add some more dramatic figures, the world’s urban population increased in the same century by 12.8 times, industrial output by 35 times, energy use by 12.5 times, oil production by 300 times, water use by 9 times, fertiliser use by 342 times, fish catch by 65 times, organic chemical production by 1,000 times, car ownership by 7,750 times and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose by 30 per cent (Ponting 2007: 412). The very well-known ‘Great Acceleration’ graphs produced by Will Steffen and others show that for most of these figures, the growth became exponential from around 1950, rising even more steeply from the 1980s when China and India liberalised their economies and joined the race for industrialisation and modern consumption with greater efforts (Ripple et al. 2021Steffen et al. 2015).

There is, in addition, a telling recent (2017) survey from the Brookings Institution which reports that there has been an acceleration of the human consumption of resources as well. It was ‘only around 1985 that the [global] middle class reached 1 billion people, about 150 years after the start of the Industrial Revolution in Europe’, but it only took ‘21 years, until 2006, for the middle class to add a second billion’, much of this reflecting the extraordinary growth of China. ‘The third billion was added to the global middle class in nine years. Today we are on pace to add another billion in seven years and a fifth billion in six more years, by 2028’ (Bergthaller 2020: 78). No wonder that humans also emerged in this period as the biggest geomorphological agent on earth, shaping its landscape and the continental shelves in the oceans, and as a geological force changing the climate system of the whole planet, ushering in, as some scientists suggest, the new geological epoch of the Anthropocene.1

The German scholar Hannes Bergthaller (2020) in an essay on Asia and the Anthropocene writes the following:

The principal reason why all the curves of the ‘Great Acceleration’ are still pointing relentlessly upwards (with the notable exception of that for population…) is the spread of middle class consumption patterns around the world, if by middle class we understand people with a household income sufficient to purchase consumer durables (such as refrigerators, washing machines or motorcycles), to spend money on entertainment and on the occasional vacation. (ibid.: 78)

As recently as 2000, Bergthaller (ibid.) adds, ‘about 80% of this “global middle class” was living in Europe and North America…’. But by 2015, ‘their share had dropped to about 35%, due largely to the rapid expansion of the middle class in Asia’. Bergthaller reports that by 2030, ‘the Asian middle class’ is expected to be ‘at least three times larger than that of the old “West,” and will account ‘for two thirds of the world’s total…’ (ibid.).

The Anthropocene thus produces a peculiar sense of historical time, something I have referred to here as its ‘chronopolitics’. I owe this word to the use of it by three younger scholars—Tobias Becker, Christina Brauner and Fernando Esposito—who organised an online conference by this title on 16–18 September 2021 and glossed it to mean ‘[the] time of politics, politics of time, politicized time’.2 I, however, mean something slightly different. Because of the multiple ways in which the planetary environmental crisis we call the Anthropocene plays out on different scales of time and space, both human and non-human, the Anthropocene, it seems to me, fragments human futures in unprecedented ways. One could, for instance, tell the story of the Anthropocene as that of a crisis of neoliberal capitalism, a crisis of the industrial and consumption-oriented ways of human life, as a crisis of biodiversity leading to a sixth Great Extinction of species, or as a story of how humans fended off the next ice age by many, many thousands of years. These futures do not all happen on the same scales of time and space. The Anthropocene itself, being a geological epoch, may last much longer than humans—a point that raises a question about whether it could at all be used as periodising device for human history. But the Anthropocene also produces very short-term futures for humans—so short-term that one could think of them as ‘the present’. Our sense of the time of the pandemic contains particular and entwined figures of the historical present and the historical future. Much talk about post-pandemic futures is in nature nostalgic, expressing a desire to return to the ease and comfort of the pre-pandemic times; but the politics of and the demand for ‘equal access to vaccination’ convert this time into a present that we want to fully—and equally—inhabit (leaving aside those who voluntarily resist vaccination). What I explore in this article is the figure of the pandemic as a time of the present, one that makes the future hard to imagine.3

II The pandemic and the great acceleration of human history

We are now being told by infectious diseases specialists that we live in an ‘era of pandemics’. Pandemics and epidemics have accompanied humans ever since the invention of agriculture and the domestication of animals. Hunter-gatherer communities also suffered infectious diseases but, as some virologists put it, ‘like the sparse populations of our primate relatives, they suffered infectious diseases with characteristics permitting them to persist in small populations, unlike crowd epidemic diseases’ (Wolfe et al. 2007: 281). Agriculture with the concomitant domestication of animals played ‘multiple roles in the evolution of animal pathogens into human pathogens’ (ibid.). It took humans thousands of years to strike equilibrium with these zoonotic diseases. But the difference today is this. These crises of the past ‘were once separated by centuries, or at least many decades’, write the infectious diseases specialist David Morens and his co-authors in a recent paper (Morens et al. 2020a), but the emergence of these diseases is now becoming a more frequent phenomenon.

Starting to count from the year 2003, Morens and his colleagues tell of the outbreak in 17 years of at least five pandemics or potential pandemics in the world: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS, 2003), ‘a near pandemic’; an influenza pandemic (H1N1 pdm, 2009), a chikungunya pandemic (2014), a Zika pandemic (2015) and over 2014–15, a ‘pandemic-like extension of Ebola over five African countries’. They grant that ‘the meaning of the word “pandemic” has recently been reinterpreted according to differing agendas’, and yet conclude with a sentence that sums up the risks of our times: ‘It [isclear that we now live in an era of pandemics [emphasis added], newly emerging infectious diseases, and the return of old contagious foes’ (Morens et al. 2020a: 1). A more recent paper by David Morens and his colleague Anthony Fauci, Director of the Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United Sates, come to the same conclusion:

Newly emerging (and re-emerging) infectious diseases [emphasis removed] have been threatening humans since the [N]eolithic [R]evolution, 12,000 years ago, when human hunter-gatherers settled into villages to domesticate animals and cultivate crops…. Ancient…diseases with deadly consequences include smallpox, falciparum malaria, measles, and bubonic/pneumonic plague. … [But] the past decade has witnessed unprecedented pandemic explosions: H1N1 ‘swine’ influenza (2009), chikungunya (2014), and Zika (2015), as well as pandemic-like emergence of Ebola fever over large parts of Africa (2014 to the present…. One can conclude from this recent experience that we have entered a pandemic era [emphasis added] ….

(Morens and Fauci 2020: 1077)

All of the pandemics named here—and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) that entered into humans from dromedary camels in 2012 that is not named—are zoonotic in origin, that is, they are infections that have resulted from viruses and bacteria switching hosts from wild animals to humans, sometimes via other animals, in recent times. A 2005 inquiry found that ‘zoonotic bugs accounted for 58 percent’ of 1,407 ‘recognized species of human pathogen’ (Quammen 2012: 44). A 2012 review of the 6th International Conference on Emerging Zoonoses, held in Cancun, Mexico, on 24–27 February 2011 with 84 participants from 18 countries noted that ‘some 75 percent of emerging zoonoses worldwide’ were of ‘wildlife origins’. Global trade in wildlife and the continuous destruction of animal habitats contributed to the problem (Kahn et al. 2012: 7).

‘Human beings are the ultimate causes of pandemics’, assert Morens and his colleagues. They point out that it is ‘deforestation, agricultural intensification, urbanization, and ecosystem disruption’ that ‘bring people into contact with wildlife and their potentially zoonotic pathogens’ (Morens et al. 2020a: 4). ‘To put the matter in its starkest form’, says David Quammen (2012), the science-writer, ‘Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behavior are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly’ (Quammen 2012: 40). He mentions the critical factors at work here. Humans are

[causing] the disintegration…of natural ecosystems at a cataclysmic rate. Logging, road building, slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting and eating of wild animals,…clearing forest to create cattle pasture, mineral extraction, urban settlement, suburban sprawl, chemical pollution, nutrient runoff to the oceans, mining the oceans unsustainably for seafood, climate change,…and other ‘civilizing’ incursions upon natural landscape—by all such means, we are tearing ecosystems apart. (ibid.)

Second, ‘millions of unknown creatures’ that inhabit such ecosystems—including viruses, bacteria, fungi, protists constituting what virologists call ‘the “virosphere”,—are affected by these developments that increasingly unloose such microbes into the wider world’ (ibid.: 40–41). ‘Spillover’ is the term used by ‘disease ecologists…to denote the moment when a pathogen passes from members of one species, as host, into members of another’ (ibid.: 43).

The United Nation’s Environment Program’s Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission (UNEP and ILRI 2020) and The Loss of Nature and the Rise of Pandemics (Jeffries 2020) published by World Wide Fund for Nature support these conclusions. They see the following ‘major anthropogenic drivers of zoonotic disease emergence’: (1) increasing demand for animal protein particularly in Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa; (2) unsustainable agricultural intensification, in particular of domestic livestock farming that ‘results in large numbers of genetically similar animals’ that are more vulnerable to infection (swine flu being a case in point); (3) increased use and exploitation of wildlife; (4) unsustainable use of natural resources accelerated by urbanisation, land use change and extractive industries that include mining, oil and gas extraction, logging etc. encouraging ‘new or expanded interactions between people and wildlife’; (5) the increasing amount of human travel and trade; (6) changes in food supply chains driven by ‘increased demand for animal source food, new markets [including “wet” markets] for wildlife food, and poorly regulated agricultural intensification’; and (7) climate change as ‘many zoonoses are climate sensitive and a number of them will thrive in a warmer, wetter, and more disaster-prone world foreseen in future scenarios’ (UNEP and ILRI 2020: 15–17). The conclusions drawn in the World Wide Fund report are very similar:

Human activities are causing cataclysmic changes to our planet. The growing human population and rapid increases in consumption have led to profound changes in land cover, rivers and oceans, the climate system, biogeochemical cycles and the way ecosystems function—with major implications for our own health and well-being…. Land-use change, including deforestation and the modification of natural habitats, are responsible for nearly half of emerging zoonoses. (Jeffries 2020: 14)

That we did not have this tragic global pandemic a decade or so ago now appears to have been purely a matter of human luck. A team of scientists in Hong Kong warned the scientific community some 13 years ago, in 2007, that since Coronaviruses were ‘well known to undergo genetic recombination’ that could lead to the following:

[New] genotypes and outbreaks[, the] presence of a large reservoir of SARS-Co-V-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored. (Cheng et al. 2020: 683)

The above warning was not heeded (Morens et al. 2020b: 955). Quammen reports scientists as guessing since 2012 or thereabouts as to when a pandemic, the ‘Next Big One’ with ‘high infectivity preceding notable symptoms’, would come (Quammen 2012: 207–8). For, as Quammen puts it, ‘If you are a thriving population, living at high density but exposed to new bugs, it’s just a matter of time until the Next Big One arrives’ (ibid.: 290). But nobody was listening in either 2007 or in 2012.

III The pandemic as presentism

One could say that the pandemic produces for us a present in which all talk of moving beyond the pandemic to a ‘normal’ future sounds like a desire for a backward movement, to go back to what we had before. This is not the presentism, then, that François Hartog (2003) wrote about in his celebrated book, Regimes of Historicity, where he describes a post-war Europe experiencing the collapse of all futures into its war-weary present. In the pandemic, the future arrives as nostalgia. A present without a future that is also not at the same time about moving back to the past. A present that is ever present in that sense, not the vanishing present one usually reads about in modern discussions of the past, present and future. It is also a present that all humans can fully inhabit—cognitively and affectively—as their ‘now’. When we ask for a just distribution of vaccines through the world—or even when we resist vaccines on secular or religious grounds—we inhabit that present. We look at the past pandemic of 1918 to ask how long this one might last. That expected duration—a few years, four years the last time—defines this present.

But the pandemic has also registered a profound shift in the constitution of the ‘everyday normal’ for the late-modern and urban humans of the post-antibiotic period in medicine,—the ‘heirs of the industrial and imperial impetus’, as Pierre Charbonnier describes us (Charbonnier 2020: 77). The simultaneous acknowledgement and forgetting of deep, geobiological histories of life and of the planet, of the ocean of microbes that is both inside and outside our bodies, were often contained in the phatic aspect of our everyday exchanges. When we greeted each other with a remark on the weather, we acknowledged, as it were, the work of the sun, clouds, wind, trees, plants, light and shade—the planetary, in short. But only for a brief moment before transitioning on to what Roman Jakobson called ‘informative communication’ that was much more closely tied, in our practices, to the more important business of advancing our individual and collective human ends, considered in separation from what we usually seek to contain in the phatic.4 I say ‘the late-modern and urban’ human, for, clearly, for someone in a rural or indigenous context, a deficit of sunshine or rain would have more immediate and palpable consequences.5 The phatic utterance in the case of the late-modern, urban, post-antibiotic person was a measure of the cultural distance or indifference they ‘normally’ experienced from the deep-historical work of all that sustains life on the planet.

A ‘normal’ moment for us, then, is one that allows us to forget or ignore the life-supporting work that microbes do even when we are not in a position, intellectually, to deny their presence. I owe this insight to some fascinating observations that historian Arvind Elangovan kindly shared with me on reading my book The Climate of History in a Planetary Age published earlier this year (Chakrabarty 2021). He recalled how common it was, in his experience, for letters written by 20th-century Indians to carry news about the physical illness of the writer or the recipient even if that did not constitute the main point of the letter (Elangovan is a historian of the Indian constitution; see Elangovan 2019). ‘[I]n many of the writings that I have seen of nationalist leaders, such as Ambedkar’s papers or letters written by B N Rau or Shiva Rao even’, he wrote, ‘a frequent… [part] of the letters was… [where] they would note how sick they were or how they were recovering or… [asked after] the health of the recipient of their letters’. ‘Indeed, in Tamil’, he added, ‘the first sentence that my mother would always write in those (good old!) Inland letters to me or to my relatives was “Nalam, nalam ariya aaval”—literally translated as “Fine, yearning to hear that the same is true of yours”’.

‘These moments’, Elangovan wrote,

[s]eem to me to register a cognition at the barest minimum…an acknowledgment of the microbial, bacterial, and/or the viral (but, of course without a conscious recognition of the same, mostly). But it was just that. Immediately, that polite enquiry was succeeded by the main intent of the letter. It is as though every letter began with a parenthetical acknowledgment of the species aspect of our lives, to be quickly swept away and transitioned to the human aspect of our lives! Unless, of course,…the person was seriously sick,…[when] the question immediately got translated in institutional terms—to questions such as ‘what did the Doctor say?’, or ‘what is the Hospital saying?’, etc.….6

We will not get involved here in debates on whether phatic speech—first commented on by the great anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in 1920—signifies ‘communion’ between humans (an overcoming of a threatening silence) or merely a matter of communication.7 We will simply register that the pandemic connotes a time when our recognition of the microbial world we live amid cannot any longer be contained within the phatic and thus forgotten as we go about our everyday lives. The question, ‘How are you?’ cannot today, in the present situation, be a simple, conversation-starting statement. We often indicate this by making the phatic part of our communication routinely register the strangeness of our times. Almost every new email I receive these days begins with an expression of concern about the ‘strange’ or ‘disturbing’ times we are passing through. In fact, today, it would be considered impolite to begin a new email message without an expression of this concern.

The fact that the offending virus today can no longer be contained in the structure of the phatic has some ironical implications both for the history and the theory of bio-politics as it was enunciated by Michel Foucault in the 1970s. Let me remind you of a particular day in 1978— 8 February. Foucault was already engaged in giving a series of public lectures at the College de France elaborating on his idea of bio-power and the governmentalisation of the state. Everything apparently was going well until this day arrived when Foucault felt unwell as he stood—at the lectern or pulpit (as the French say), I imagine—to begin the fifth lecture of the series. He had a touch of the flu. He began with an apology: ‘I must apologize, because I will be more muddled than usual today. I’ve got the flu and don’t feel very well’. Yet he wanted to proceed with the lecture as he had ‘some misgivings’ about first letting his audience gather and then telling them to leave ‘at the last minute’. So, he decided to talk ‘for as long as [he could]’ and asked in advance for forgiveness for both ‘the quantity as well as the quality’ of what he had to say (Foucault 2007: 115).

Think, then, of what is happening to Foucault’s categories today. Bio-politics was about securing the biological life of a ‘population’, an extension of Montesquieu’s anticipation that ‘politics [was] really about making life last a little longer’ (Latour and Weibel 2020: 75). Foucault was clear that the category ‘population’ brought the question of ‘nature’ into politics. He began his 1978 lectures at the College de France on 11 January with this following statement:

This year I would like to begin by studying something that I have called, somewhat vaguely, bio-power. By this I mean a number of phenomena that seem to me to be quite significant, namely, the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of political strategy, of a general strategy of power, or, in other words, how, starting from the eighteenth century, modern Western societies took on board the fundamental biological fact that human beings are a species.8 (Foucault 2007: 1)

Reading him today, I find his use of the word ‘species’ a little misleading, for he was not speaking of humanity constituting a biological species as such; nor was he writing a Darwinian version of evolutionary history of species in which something like natural selection would have been a determining factor (see the brief discussion in ibid.: 77–78). That deeply natural-historical dynamic was beyond what interested Foucault. He was thinking of humans individually carrying certain evolved needs and capacities—the need to eat, the propensity to sustain life, to procreate, to age, to suffer diseases—that they owed to the fact of their being members of a biological species. Yet it was through his observations on the political development of strategies for governing the health and lives of ‘populations’—managing demographics—that the deeply natural-cum-biological history of the human species entered Foucault’s meditations on power.

The growth of cities and problems of overcrowding leading to ‘more diseases’ and ‘more deaths’ were central to Foucault’s formulations. ‘It seems to me’, he wrote

[t]hat with this technical problem posed by the town…we see the sudden emergence of the problem of the “naturalness” of the human species within an artificial milieu. It seems to me that this sudden emergence within the artifice of a power relation is something fundamental… [to] what we would call biopolitics, bio-power. (ibid.: 22)

The concern with the governance of lives meant that states had to evolve strategies to deal with crop failures, climate, and the supply of grains for the management of epidemics, diseases, famines, and mortality, all of this making ‘population’ into a category that would never lose its ‘naturalness’ for Foucault. It would almost acquire an autonomous, ‘natural’, thing-like item in Foucault’s understanding of the state’s political calculus, something that had to be managed by a discursive-institutional regime stretching well beyond the issue of political sovereignty (ibid.: 36, 67–75, 96).

Foucault was very clear, though, that while the natural entered the political via the category ‘population’, his account of the bio-political was not a piece of natural history. After all, humans’ theories of nature, he argued (mistakenly, it seems, from today’s vantage point), did not affect nature: ‘It goes without saying that the fact that since a certain point of time we have known that the Earth is a planet has had no influence on the Earth’s position in the cosmos’ (ibid.: 276).9 But not so with ‘population’ as a ‘reflexive prism’ of the state. The ‘prism’ affects human-institutional practices and their object, ‘the population’. In that sense, ‘population’ is a category like ‘forests’, something to be managed by humans. Like ‘forests’, ‘population’ is a piece of nature refracted through strategies of power, it does not belong to the deep history of evolution. For Foucault, then, natural history remains, ultimately, separate from human history. As with the statement by Dr Elangovan’s mother in her letters, the virus that afflicted Foucault on the day of his fifth lecture comes to us only as a trace of something that registered its presence and yet remained unacknowledged in the phatic overtures of Foucault’s prose.

What we have with the pandemic, however, is the fact that the phatic cannot contain the 2019 novel coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2 anymore. As I have noted, we cannot at present ask anyone how they are with complete indifference to the virus. The intensification of bio-power or bio-politics—the unbridled, accelerated, and extractive mobilisation of the planet’s biosphere for use by a rapidly growing number of humans for their pleasure and profit alone—has now resulted in a crisis in the governance of human lives, a crisis of bio-power itself. More importantly, it has brought into view the connections or rather the entanglements that exist between our lives and the deep, evolutionary history of microbes.

The pandemic is thus not an event in our global history alone. It is not merely an example of the great acceleration of human flourishing. It is also an event that shows, in the form of the unfolding of a drama often tragic for humans, how our increasingly global existence reveals to us the deep-historical (or planetary) aspects of our lives. The novel coronavirus is evolving. What we hear about the Delta-variant or other variants of the virus is about its biological evolution. Everything we throw in the path of the virus to disrupt its journey has the potential to become an evolutionary pathway for the virus. The human body itself is now one such pathway.

Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan reminded their readers of the following some decades ago:

[Our] species [are] not…lords but…partners: we are in mute, incontrovertible partnership with photosynthetic organisms that feed us, the [microbial] gas producers that provide oxygen, and the heterotrophic bacteria and fungi that remove oxygen and convert our waste. No political will or technological advance can dissolve that partnership’. (Marglis and Sagan 1997: 16)

Researchers on infectious diseases have for long been aware of this aspect of the deep and always-present history of humans. David Morens, Gregory Folkers and Anthony Fauci opened a 2004 article examining the challenge of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases by remembering the warning that Richard M. Krause, the Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases from 1975 to 1984, issued in his 1981 book, The Restless Tide, that ‘microbial diversity and evolutionary vigour were still dynamic forces threatening mankind’ (Morens et al. 2004: 242).10 They ended their article by referring to the role that the evolution of microbes played in the history of infectious diseases. ‘Underlying disease emergence are evolutionary conflicts between rapidly evolving and adapting infectious agents and their slowly evolving hosts’, they wrote. ‘These are fought out’, they added, ‘in the context of accelerating environmental and human behavioral alterations that provide new ecological niches into which evolving microbes can readily fit’. This is an ongoing, unending battle in which humans are forced constantly to improve and upgrade their medicines and technology while the microbes evolve and manage, often in situations precipitated by human actions, to switch hosts. In concluding their essay, Morens et al. observed the following:

The challenge presented by the ongoing conflict between pathogenic microorganisms and man has been well summarized by a noted champion of the war on EIs [emerging infections], [the Nobel laureate] Joshua Lederberg: ‘The future of microbes and mankind will probably unfold as episodes of a suspense thriller that could be entitled Our Wits Versus Their Genes’. (ibid.: 248)

Morens and Fauci returned to this theme in their recent reflections on the current pandemic in an article published in Cell in September 2020. ‘In the ancient ongoing struggle between microbes and man’, they write, ‘genetically adapted microbes have the upper hand in consistently surprising us and often catching us unprepared’ (Morens and Fauci 2020: 1078). Even the technologies we invent to fight microbes generally end up creating new pathways of infection and evolution. Invented in the 1930s, antibiotics did give rise to the feeling in the 1960s that, as Richard Krauss put it:

[there] seemed little left to do in the battle against infections other than begin a mopping-up operation. It appeared that only a few stubborn serious infections resisted the two-pronged attack of antibiotics and vaccines. No one anticipated the microbe guerilla actions that were to break out from enclaves in the rear. (Krause 1981: 11)

And there lies the story of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. ‘For example’, wrote Krause in early 1980s, ‘it takes 40 times as much penicillin to treat some infections today as it did to treat those same infections when penicillin was introduced during World War II’. ‘What of the future’, he asked wearily, ‘if bacteria can elude our best efforts in this fashion?’ (ibid.: 12).

Medical strategies for fighting microbes end up as stories of their evolution. ‘The emergence of novel pathogens’, write the virologist Nathan Wolfe and his colleagues, ‘is now being facilitated by modern developments exposing more potential human victims and/or making transmission between humans more efficient than before’. They mention how methods of blood transfusion have acted as avenues for the spread hepatitis C, the commercial bushmeat trade leading to the circulation of retroviruses, industrial food production to bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE), international travel spreading cholera, intravenous drug spreading HIV, vaccine production leading to outbreaks of Simian virus 40,—all these and other similar developments creating ‘susceptible pools of elderly, antibiotic-treated, immunosuppressed patients’ (Wolfe et al. 2007: 282).

A particular evolutionary advantage that coronaviruses have over humans is the ‘genetic instability of microorganisms allowing rapid microbial evolution to adapt to ever-changing ecologic niches’ (Morens and Fauci 2020: 1080, emphasis removed). This, Morens and Fauci say,

[is] particularly true of RNA viruses such as the influenza virus, flaviviruses, enteroviruses, and coronaviruses, which have an inherently deficient or absent polymerase error-correction mechanisms [no proof-reading capacity, in other words, as they reproduce themselves] and are transmitted as quasi-species or swarms of many, often hundreds or thousands of, genetic variants’ [a fact that makes it difficult for humans to fight them]. (ibid.)

This is fundamentally an evolutionary struggle. It reminds us that humans, the species called Homo sapiens, for all their mastery of technology, are not outside of the Darwinian history of life and evolution that unfolds on this planet. Infectious diseases in humans are about microbial survival ‘by [their] co-opting certain of our genetic, cellular, and immune mechanisms to ensure their continuing transmission’ (ibid.: 1078). Morens and Fauci refer to Richard Dawkins on this point: ‘evolution occurs on the level of gene competition and we, phenotypic humans, are merely genetic “survival machines” in the competition between microbes and humans’ (ibid.). Human flourishing leads to the degradation of the environment. This creates opportunities for coronaviruses of various strains to switch hosts by moving from their reservoir hosts to various mammalian species, whereby they get pre-adapted to human cells by working inside other mammalian bodies. ‘…viruses have deep evolutionary roots in the cellular world’, Morens and Fauci write (ibid.: 1980). ‘Evidence suggests’, they add, ‘that there are many bat coronaviruses pre-adapted to emerge, and possibly to emerge pandemically’ (ibid.: 1981).

Infectious diseases are about the deep evolutionary connections that exist between our bodies and other bodily forms of life (one reason why we can develop vaccines by testing them first on other animals). Zoonotic pathogens, responsible for 60 per cent of human infections, are ‘those that presently and repeatedly pass between humans and other animals’. The other 40 per cent, including smallpox, measles, and polio, ‘are caused by pathogens descended from forms that must have made the leap to human ancestors sometime in the past’ (Quammen 2012: 137). David Quammen, from whose book Spillover I have cited these words, makes a telling point about the dotted-line relationships that connect human bodies to other mammalian bodies through which these microbes travel: ‘It might be going too far to say that all our diseases are ultimately zoonotic, but zoonoses do stand as evidence of the infernal, aboriginal connectedness between us and other kinds of host’ (ibid.).

Richard Krause’s rhetoric of a permanent war between humans and microbes seem outdated and wrong. But his other question, ‘What is the nature of this microbial sea, constantly lapping at the shores of man’s dominion?’ still resonates (Krause 1981: 17). ‘It may be a matter of perspective [as to] who is in the evolutionary driver’s seat’, remark Morens and Fauci,—microbes or humans. Microbial forms of life have persisted on this planet for 3.8 billion years. Homo sapiens have been around for 300,000 years. ‘This perspective’, say Morens and Fauci, ‘has implications for how we think about and react to emerging infectious disease threats’ (Morens and Fauci 2020: 1078).

IV Provincialising the political

Something of an unstated assumption in the constitution of the urban and global modern—to borrow the language of Bruno Latour—has broken down when we cannot any longer acknowledge and at the same time contain the microbial world in the domain of the phatic (Latour 1991).11 Our sense of the temporal quality of the everyday has changed. Microbes are the oldest and the most important inhabitants of the planet and they play a far more critical role in the maintenance of life on it than humans have ever done or ever will. (If anything, we have created the prospect of another great extinction of life.) ‘The overwhelming majority of life on Earth is microbial!’, writes Paul Falkowski in his book, Life’s Engine: How Microbes Made Earth Inhabitable. ‘In fact, there are far more species of microbes than there are of plants and animals combined’ (Falkowski 2015: 39). In her introductory book on viruses, Dorothy Crawford writes the following:

Microbes are by far the most abundant life form on Earth. Globally, there are about 5 × 1030 bacteria, and viruses are at least ten times more common—thus making viruses the most numerous microbes on Earth…. The oceans cover 65% of the globe’s surface and, as there are up to 10 billion viruses per litre of sea water, the whole ocean contains around 4 × 1030– enough, when laid side by side, to span 10 million light years. (Crawford 2011: 17–18)

In addition, they play a vital role in ‘maintaining life on earth’ (ibid.: 18). The oceans’ floating population of plankton is made up of viruses, bacteria, archaea and eukarya. One group of planktons, the phytoplankton (plants), consist of ‘organisms that use solar energy and carbon dioxide to generate energy by photosynthesis’. They produce almost half of the world’s oxygen (ibid.), the oxygen without which we struggle to survive when infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus or its variants.

This gives us a glimpse into the ironical nature of the crisis of the bio-political that we are living through. Bio-power, as Foucault formulated it, was about securitising human life. Health, food and housing are part of it. But a frenzied expansion of bio-power over the last several decades—the great acceleration of human history—has undone that security. The story of antibiotics encapsulates this irony. Indiscriminate overuse of these drugs has allowed antibiotic-resistant bacteria to evolve. As Ed Yong puts it in his book on the human microbiome: ‘Much of modern medicine is built upon the foundations that antibiotics provide, and those foundations are now crumbling’ (Yong 2016: 128). We may have entered an era of pandemics that we will have to match with newer and newer vaccines. Yet we debate only bio-power and sovereignty—as if the virus could still be contained within the phatic—when we debate the politics of pandemic management internal to and between nations. Did Donald Trump or Narendra Modi or Scott Morrison mismanage the pandemic? Is Biden better then Trump? Should those resisting vaccination on grounds of religious considerations be treated leniently? These questions are questions of bio-politics. From this perspective, the crisis is a failure of bio-power, and questions of income, racial, gender, sexual, nutritional, digital and other inequalities come up as legitimate issues. We also discuss questions of sovereignty (distinct analytically, as Foucault said, from bio-power) when issues of global versus national management of pandemics are raised and, by implication, the very question of global governance itself receives some attention.12

But a larger question from the history of life stares us in the face through this pandemic. Homo sapiens are a minority form of life while they, the microbes, comprise the majority forms of life. They have also been the architects of life on this planet and are central to its maintenance. Their presence inside our bodies makes us what we individually are. They and humans—and there is no ‘human’ without a functioning microbiome—constitute together a ‘whole living being’ that Lynn Margulis, combining three Greek words (hólos for ‘whole’, bíos for ‘life’ and óntos for ‘being’), referred to as a holobiont (Reitschuster 2020: 353; Yong 2016: 157).

To think of individual humans and their microbiome as constituting a ‘whole living being’ is to think about the limits of the received traditions of modern political thought. For that thought has defined the human as a political subject by bracketing—putting in the container of the phatic—the work of deep history, of the geo-biology of the planet including the work that microbes do. Our crisis leaves us exposed to a fact that biologists and infectious disease specialists have known for a long time: that we are a minority form of life that has behaved over the last hundred or so years as though the planet was created so that only humans would thrive. If all forms of life were human-like—and we sometimes do use our human imagination to think our way into the experiential-moral worlds of animals and birds (think of the imaginative, philosophical work of Vinciane Despret [2016])—then humans would be like the Whites in South Africa during the apartheid regime, a racist minority dominating the majority with utterly selfish ruthlessness and imperilling everybody in the end. We would wonder if it were possible for humanity as a whole to look on themselves as a ‘minor’ form of life and work towards minoritarian forms of political thought, of the kind that Arendt or Deleuze on Kafka have educated us in, thoughts that would want to avoid ‘majoritarian’—ironical, in the case of a minority—dreams of domination. If viruses and bacteria were human or human-like, our knowledge of them would look like ‘colonial knowledge’, knowledge of the other that we acquire with a view to—and in the process of—dominating them. Even Ed Yong’s otherwise informed and judicious discussion of the human microbiome ends with an all-too-human, a parochially and provincially human dream of ‘controlling’ them ‘for our benefit’:

We see how ubiquitous and vital microbes are…. They sculpt our organs, protect us from poisons and food, break down our food,…and bombard our genomes with their genes…. We see how we might start to control these multitudes for our benefit, transplanting entire communities from one individual to another, forging and breaking symbioses at will, or even engineering new kinds of microbes. (Yong 2016: 264)

Yong wrote these words before the pandemic broke. If there is anything the current moment of the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it is that such a Promethean understanding of what it means to be human is seriously misplaced. The pandemic speaks not only to the global history of capitalism and its destructive impact on human life, it also represents a moment in the history of biological life on this planet when humans are acting as the amplifiers of a virus whose host reservoir may have been some bats in China for millions of years. Bats are an old species, they have been around for about 50 million years; viruses for much, much longer. In the Darwinian history of life, all forms of life seek to increase their chances of survival. The novel coronavirus has, thanks precisely to the intensification of bio-power of the humans, jumped species. It has now found a very effective agent in humans that allows it spread worldwide. And that is because humans, very social creatures, now exist in very large numbers in big urban concentrations on a planet that is crowded with them, and most of them are extremely mobile in pursuit of their life-opportunities.

Our history in recent decades has been that of the Great Acceleration and the expansion of the global economy in the emancipatory hope that this will pull millions of humans out of poverty. Or at least that has been the moral justification behind the rapid economic growth in certain nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. From the point of view of the virus, however, the environmental disturbance this has caused, and the fact of human global mobility have been welcome developments. This is no doubt an episode in the Darwinian history of life. And the changes it causes will be momentous both in our global history and in the planetary history of biological life.

The pandemic thus speaks of our being embedded in deep history and of our entanglement with both animal and microbial lives. The virus mediates the latter two. There is, however, a tension between our human concerns with bio-political forms of power—concerns that are amenable to human politics—and our knowledge of our connections with microbiome, connections that unfortunately cannot create (at least not yet) an extra- or post- human collective political subject that would be both human and nonhuman at the same time. Yet if the argument that both planetary climate change and the pandemic are problems that arise out of unprecedented expansion of the human realm in the period of the Great Acceleration is accepted, then the question of ‘what is to be done?’ by humans to mitigate ‘the era of pandemics’ is one that naturally arises for us.

This is where it may be useful to recall a point that Latour has made in many places and in different versions, one of the most recent being a passage in his lectures titled Facing Gaia. Human pursuit of wealth and prosperity in the period of the Great Acceleration has amounted to an undeclared war—but on what? Latour writes with his tremendous gifts of imagination: ‘With the Anthropocene, the Humans are now at war not with Nature but with…in fact, with whom? I have had a lot of trouble settling on a name for them’. He finally decided, putting it ‘in the style of a geo-historical fiction’, that ‘the Humans living in the epoch of the Holocene are in conflict with the Earthbound of the Anthropocene’ (Latour 2015: 247, 248). ‘Humans’ refers to humans as they saw themselves in the Holocene as separate from Nature while ‘Earthbound’ are the entanglements of the human, the nonhuman, and the planetary that the Anthropocene revealed and of which the former ‘humans’ are an inextricable part. The war, however, cannot be won, for while the Earthbound and the Earth are powers that will not dominate, they cannot be dominated either (ibid.: 281). We, particularly the human subjects who still pursue modernisation and act as though we were still in the Holocene need, then, to practise what Latour has called diplomacy. Since humans and the Earthbound cannot meet as negotiating subjects, I suggest that what modernising and global humans need to practise is one-sided diplomacy—somewhat akin, in my memory, to the Chinese unilateral withdrawal in their war with India in 1962—by imagining and then implementing a process of scaling back the realm of the human-modern.

Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer whose family was destroyed in the Holocaust, coined the word, ‘genocide’ (Lemkin 2012). Humans are on the verge of committing what sociologist and writer Danielle Celermajer calls ‘omnicide’, the killing of everything. (The word was first coined during the anti-nuclear movement of the last century.) You may legitimately ask, which humans? Why not specify those responsible? Oftentimes, it is possible to do so. You can point to politicians, financial institutions, businesses, governmental failures, with reason. There are indeed times when it is easy to identify those who kill, destroy, and maim others intentionally. But, as Celemajer points out, responsibility or culpability is not always easy to assign. Five hundred million wild animals died just in the first month of the Australian firestorms of 2020. Nobody actively schemed it. Most people did not even desire it. But it happened because of the changes that follow from what we call ‘anthropogenic climate change’.13

Celemajer tells a story to explain the situation: ‘When I was growing up, my parents used to play a Bob Dylan song called “Who Killed Davey Moore?” [modeled on the children’s rhyme, “Who Killed Cock Robin?”]’. Davey Moore was a boxer who died in the ring when he was 30 years old. If you remember the song, you will know that the coach, the crowd, the manager, the gambling man, they all said, ‘Not I’. And then they explained, as Calermajer puts it, that ‘[they were] just doing what it is that [they] do’.14

We, the privileged humans of today, do what we do to keep the human realm expanding, behaving as though we believed—even if we did not—that the earth was created so that only humans would thrive. We all partake of the changes that the Great Acceleration induced in the human condition. Anthropogenic climate change and the pandemic are connected to that acceleration. It is up to us humans to find ways to scale the human realm back without losing sight of questions that speak either to issues of intra-human injustice or to those of the inextricable entanglement of the human with the nonhuman captured in Latour’s figure of the Earthbound.


An earlier version of this article was presented as the inaugural lecture of a series of annual lectures sponsored by SAGE Publications and the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi. I am grateful to the editors of the Contributions for the original invitation to give this lecture. I also acknowledge with pleasure and gratitude the comments made on the lecture by Professors Rita Brara and Awadhendra Saran and by members of the audience. This article draws on my short piece ‘An Era of Pandemics? What is Global and What is Planetary About COVID-19’, posted on the Critical Inquiry blog on 16 October 2020.15

Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.

The author received no financial support for the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.


1.For more on this, see ‘Introduction’, in Chakrabarty (2021).

2.For more on this conference (online), see https://zzf-potsdam.de/en/veranstaltungen/chronopolitics-time-politics-politics-time-politicized-time (accessed on 16 November 2021).

3.My thoughts here owe a recognisable intellectual debt to François Hartog’s discussion of presentism (Hartog 20032020).

4.See Jakobson (1960: 5). That Jakobson may not have read much Malinowski and may have taken the idea of the phatic function of language from the Egyptologist Alan Gardiner is discussed in Rebane (2021). The original Malinowski essay is titled ‘The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages’ (Malinowski 1923).

5.In recent email communication (8 October 2021), sociologist Amita Baviskar made the following illuminating comments to me (I am grateful to Professor Baviskar for permission to cite her email.):

I thought you might like to read this Facebook post that I wrote in early May [2021], when we were in the thick of the second wave here in Delhi: ‘वाच रया? Staying alive?’ In the early 1990s, living in the Narmada valley, I found that when Bhil and Bhilala adivasis met acquaintances at the weekly haat [market] or elsewhere, they greeted each other with the enquiry: वाच रया? It was a shortened form of ‘पुरिया वाच रया?’ Literally translated into Hindi, the phrase means ‘बच्चे बच रहे हैं? Are the kids alive?’ Not ‘How are you?’ But this much more basic concern: ‘Are your kids staying alive?’ Among people who lived with hunger and malnutrition, where health care was hardly there, where every mother I knew had watched her infants die, and everything from diarrhoea to snakebite added to the tiny graves dotting a hillside in each village, ‘वाच रया?’ was the right thing to ask. ‘Are they staying alive?’ Because untimely death sat at one’s shoulder, a constant companion to life. Little did I think that, 30 years later, I’d be asking this question in my circle of the urban elite. वाच रया?

6.Email from Arvind Elangovan, 24 May 2021. Thanks to Professor Elangovan for permission to cite his email.

7.See the discussion in Senft (2009).

8.The editors of this volume point out that Foucault (2007: 24, n.1) had used the expression ‘bio-power’ in his 1975–76 lectures on ‘society must be defended’.

9.But then it is true, as Latour remarks, that ‘when our idea of the position of the Earth in the cosmos is modified, a revolution in the social order may ensue. Remember Galileo: when astronomers declared that the Earth moves around the Sun, it felt as though the whole fabric of society was under attack’ (Latour and Weibel 2020: 13).

10.For biographical details on Richard Krause (1925–2015), see Morens (2016).

11.Bruno Latour famously speaks of ‘the constitution of the modern’ in his book We Have Never Been Modern (1991).

12.On these issues of sovereignty, see the discussion in Wolfe (2011: 212–15, and chapter 12). Wolfe writes on the assumption that while more viral storms may indeed be coming, the constitution and assemblage of the powerful institutions of the world will remain the same.

13.Celemajer, Danielle. 2020. ‘Omnicide: Who is responsible for the greatest of all crimes?’. ABC (Australia) Religion and Ethics blog, 3 January. Available at https://www.abc.net.au/religion/danielle-celermajer-omnicide-gravest-of-all-crimes/11838534 (accessed on 16 November 2021).

14.Ibid. Emphasis removed.

15.Available at https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/10/16/an-era-of-pandemics-what-is-global-and-what-is-planetary-about-covid-19/ (accessed on 16 November 2021).


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