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From Coronavirus to Compassion

12 March 2020

From Coronavirus to Compassion

Today, COVID-19 is ravaging our world. Some of us are suffering physically. All of us are suffering socially and economically.

I don’t know for sure what will happen tomorrow. But I know what must happen. You do too, I trust, intuitively if not consciously. So let’s acknowledge and do it.

When we imagine a beautiful future, we think of many different things. We’re different people. We have different desires. And we have different perspectives.

But no matter how different we may be, there’s one thing that we all share in common. It’s that pocket of space that we call “Earth.” At present, we can barely reach beyond it. Maybe someday that will change, but for now it’s pretty much all we’ve got.

Because Earth is all we’ve got, there’s nothing else that any of us can use. To pursue our beautiful futures, we must use Earth. No matter our perspective or desires, and no matter our differences, we must use Earth. Earth is our only means, and we all need it.

Because we all need Earth, there’s something else that we share in common. It’s a hard thing. It’s the persistent and inescapable choice between coercion and cooperation.

On the one hand, if your beautiful future doesn’t require me, and if you think yourself powerful enough, you’ll choose coercion, at least indirectly. Maybe you lie about this, perhaps even to yourself. But that’s just how it works. That’s how it’s always worked.

On the other hand, if your beautiful future does require me, or if you don’t think yourself powerful enough, you’ll choose cooperation. But because I can never know infallibly that your beautiful future requires me, and because you can never know infallibly that my beautiful future requires you, we both have incentive to ensure that one of us doesn’t think herself powerful enough to dispense with the other.

If ever one of us becomes persuaded that she’s powerful enough to dispense with the other, there will be a revelation – an apocalypse. That one will reveal whether she thinks the other is part of her beautiful future. But there’s no guarantee that the revelation will go the way the other hopes. And there’s no guarantee that the revelation won’t change over time.

So it’s wise, and at scale even existentially essential, that we work against the risks presented by our dynamic power disparities. And probably nothing more truthfully says “you are part of my beautiful future” than our willing relinquishment and sharing of power. Nothing cultivates trust more than cooperation, except perhaps greater degrees of cooperation. And cooperation, at its limits, is practically indistinguishable from compassion.

Cooperation must happen tomorrow. And that’s not new. Cooperation has always been the hurdle, the gating or critical factor, between us and our beautiful futures. We have the opportunity, today, to think about what we’ll choose tomorrow because we were at least sufficiently cooperative to survive yesterday.

Tens of thousands of years ago, we survived by working together to hunt and gather. Thousands of years ago, we survived by working together to farm and build. In recent centuries and decades, we survived by working together to control nuclear weapons and build the Internet. And by surviving and learning from each of these phases, we gained more power to share, and we confronted yet greater risks.

In some ways, COVID-19 is just the latest version of an ancient threat. But in other ways, it’s a harbinger of emerging risk. Our technology-enabled proximity to each other puts global humanity at greater risk from ancient threats. It’s harder than ever before to avoid each other.

And that’s not all. The Internet is teaching more of us more than ever before. And biotechnology is making our new knowledge more actionable than ever before. The next virus pandemic may be not only spread by humans, but also created by humans – or not even humans, plural, but even just one human in her basement with a chip on her shoulder.

How will we survive this new risk? Again, I don’t know for sure what will happen tomorrow. But I know what must happen. The silver lining of COVID-19 is that it’s an opportunity for us to learn and prepare for greater challenges ahead.

We must take another determined step together toward cooperation at its limits. That is, we must choose to be more compassionate tomorrow than we were yesterday. Our survival almost certainly depends on greater compassion and its cascading practical consequences.

Greater compassion will take many forms. Most immediately, it must take the form of washing hands more conscientiously. And perhaps counter-intuitively, for a while, it must take the form of extra physical separation: declining hugs and handshakes with a friendly smile, and quickly quarantining ourselves as we notice any symptoms of illness. Sometimes a willing choice to separate ourselves physically is the best way of expressing our love for each other.

Beyond those immediate forms, compassion must ultimately take all the forms necessary for us to survive each new challenge as it comes. It must take all the forms necessary for us to use Earth, the one thing that we all share in common, to empower each other. And that empowerment must not be over each other, but rather for each other, and with an ever-expanding sense of all that’s encompassed within our efforts toward mutual empowerment (ultimately including Earth itself and beyond). That’s the most trustworthy and only practical way forward for all of us.

Your beautiful future, mine, and all futures worthy of being described as “beautiful” depend fundamentally on incrementally greater cooperation that, at its limits, becomes practically indistinguishable from compassion. Put more simply, greater love must happen tomorrow. And I’m confident that it will.

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