[COVID-19 Pandemic: Worlds Stories from the Margins] Caring for earth in times of COVID-19

…from my place in and beyond Extinction Rebellion Netherlands

by Fleur Zantvoort

The past months I’ve spent so much time, too much time, sitting inside, looking outside. What the pandemic is leaving me with is a sense of deep discrepancy. I just haven’t been able to match up the view from my window with what I know reality to be in my head. As if my eyes were deceiving me.

Discrepancy. Within my activist communities, I have heard many people speak to this discrepancy before we knew anything about COVID-19. About isolation too. Rooted in a deep sense of disintegration, collapse, crisis that lives inside our bodies, but that is not reflected back at us when we look outside ourselves. I can imagine it’s a feeling that for many people in this world has always been there. Sitting outside, looking inside: a train that just keeps accelerating towards a cliff edge, a world that just keeps on gobbling up beings and land in the name of progress, blind to just how violent that is and careless about the destruction it’s leaving in its wake. It’s a reckoning with the violence – racialised, gendered, ecological – that capitalism has worked so hard to erase, but that for many people around me COVID-19 seems to have brought so sharply into focus (at last).

I situate myself here primarily as an activist, who found her place in the Extinction Rebellion movement in The Netherlands in early 2019 and has since then expanded to stick onto other activist spaces. For over a year I have been primarily writing/thinking/practicing what Extinction Rebellion calls regenerative cultures, which is the movement’s way of enacting a relational world based on care, healing and adaptability to crises “within the shell of the old”. It is from this perspective that I reflect on caring for the earth in the middle of a pandemic, just one of many crises borne out of an exploitative relationship to ecology.

COVID-19 is everything you don’t want as activists: an interruption of community, isolation, increased state surveillance, a curtailing of rights to protest. It felt like rupture – suddenly I didn’t know how to take care of myself; isolated, locked-down, unable to partake in collective action. I realised that when I can’t take to the streets, I don’t know how to take care of the earth anymore. We hold each other in community – but when we can’t touch, can’t meet, can’t protest, how do we organise? As I was struggling to figure out what it means to live with the pain of climate and ecological collapse, collective resistance has been my way of enacting hope. Stuck inside, suddenly there was no place for my despair, grief and uncertainty to go. Being sheltered by whiteness, EU-citizenship and a fair amount of class privilege, I never had to feel crisis, and feeling crisis without community left me deeply distressed.

When we talk about responding to climate and ecological collapse, a lot of that is about building community, healing and transforming our relations. But here is a crisis (response) that drives a literal wedge between our relations.  COVID-19 has shown me the deep need for and complex hardship of building a community that is able to hold itself in crisis. I saw my own activist community largely disintegrate, people collapse and burn out. But also people retreating into their own systems of support, sheltered by privileges that allowed them to stay inside and stay safe. It was deeply humbling, pointing us to where it hurts: how hard it is to build authentic transformative relations; how we continue to reproduce power hierarchies and fail to be genuinely embedded in local communities; and how much we have yet to learn from those who are every day struggling against extinction, and those who came before us.

Unlearning domination and building caring and responsible relations with ourselves, each other and the earth are a matter of justice and they are a matter of survival. I think that survival and extinction have been inappropriately (ab)used by XR to echo apocalypse imaginaries that depart from a universal humanity that does not in fact exist. Like the concept of the ‘Anthropocene’, the very pronouncement of the words ‘extinction rebellion’ misnames what (and whom) is at play here and elides a sense of responsibility. Because what gives us the right to claim to rebel for life when extinction at the hands of colonial capitalist violence has been the reality of people across the world for hundreds of years? When our non-human relatives have been progressively killed off and extinguished at unthinkable rates? I’ve learned to worry less about the fact that we are a movement mostly moved by white and middle-class people, and more about the claims that are made under that name (in our specific location of Northern Europe, I cannot speak to XR globally). Because when it comes down to it, it is not our lives that are on the line.

The pandemic convinced me of the bankruptcy of the urgency-infused message of survival that infuses XR. And I am not the only one. Luckily the movement always had another narrative, one centred on care and healing. That care expands in crisis and is not a foreign concept. But in Extinction Rebellion Netherlands, I feel the pandemic connected a lot of dots. One of the first responses was to plaster posters all over the country to make our cities echo the words of Chilean activists: “we cannot go back to normal, because normal was the problem.” It exposed the injustices and inequalities of the current system, not always visible for those not immediately subjected to them. The pressure was off and suddenly there was space for reflection, for strategizing, for listening.

Collaborating with other movements and building alternatives became a key focus of movement strategy. There is a renewed sense of solidarity, an orientation towards social justice. I think Anna Tsing captures it well when she writes that we are “forced to be ever more aware of the process of finding allies and building collaborations when we realise we are not the crest of a wave to an imagined better future.” From the rupture emerged a new sense of purpose, an awareness of how much our relations really matter.

The resurgence of Black Lives Matter definitely played an important part in this. Black Lives Matter led the way in showing us how crisis gives rise to resistance and community. And it reminded me who can really lay claim to the language of urgency and survival. This is why I am convinced, more than ever, that there is only future for XR if care and justice become central in everything we do. But what does it mean to care for the earth?

Dominant environmental narratives in the Global North have been historically predicated on the protection of an externalised, ‘wild nature’ for the enjoyment of white male elites. Growing up in The Netherlands, I was imbued with a strikingly controlling and alienated attitude towards nature. Nature is ‘out there’, it’s not ‘here’; the canaries and horse chestnuts outside my window, the neatly planted forests I marvelled at as a child are pockmarked by human intervention, and therefore not ‘real nature’. I was raised with an environmentalism that speaks to those privileged enough to enjoy ‘nature out there’, but that remains silent on the ways in which our socio-ecological systems are co-produced and marked by human and ecological suffering.

It is perhaps no wonder then that I grew up believing that caring for earth is something you do ‘out there’, in the dirt, and involves a copious amount of plants in the garden and trips to the forest. Obviously, these perceptions are bound up with class-culture-gender-race in the sense that only certain bodies are seen as being capable and/or desirable of caring for earth in this way, and this reproduces certain boundaries around who can care for and protect the earth that mark the bodies and voices that enter into our movements for climate and ecological justice.

But earth care has nothing to do with being elbow-deep in dirt, not really. Care is relational and stretches across species. When we care for ourselves, we are also caring for the earth. In the same sense, the pandemic showed us how nurses, teachers, cleaners, mothers are caring for the earth, not just because their labour is typically low-carbon, but because these relations of care sustain the communities that are earth. To care for earth is to extend care to living, breathing things, and sometimes to very much dead and broken things too. Revaluing care labour is in itself an act of resistance to ecological destruction, re-drawing the boundaries of who(se labour) gets to belong in the struggle for climate justice.

Fleur Zantvoort is a researcher and organiser in the movement for climate justice. She wrote her MA research alongside Extinction Rebellion Netherlands on the topic of belonging and resisting/reinforcing dominant modes of knowing and being in Dutch environmentalism.