Claudia Towne Hirtenfelder: An uncomfortable future we want

Imaging a world past Covid-19… I think is impossible. Whatever future comes from here will be shaped by Covid-19. This pandemic is not something we can scrub from ourselves, hoping to be free of it. This virus, even once a treatment and vaccine for humans has been developed, will continue to shape our lives – or at the very least I hope it will!

We are in an interesting moment where we are doing a dance with time. A dance in which we look back with romantic glances to the way things used to be, worry about our present, and wait for a time when our future will be like our past. There is something dangerous in this dialectic, not quite sinister, but certainly not entirely wholesome. It is generally those in power who look at the past as some sort of vector in which they lived happier, less complicated lives. Keeping that in mind, I am reminded then that there is value in staying with the present discomfort (staying with the trouble) and not longing for a past that is gone, especially when the present provides us with a moment in which the practices of the past and our ignorance to their ugliness is laid bare – difficult to refute or deny.

While I certainly do not wish for the pandemic to linger longer, there is one thing about which I am certain: There will be another. As we continue to treat animals with disregard – whether through our capture and transportation of wildlife or our intensified animal agriculture  – zoonoses propagate. This means that a post-pandemic world will likely also be a world that is imminently pre-pandemic too as another virus, novel in its own way seeps into our spaces, bodies and psyches.

I am not trying to be deterministic – collapsing the world into a future dystopia. What I hope the world will look like when it is post-covid19 but pre-new-pandemic is one where humans are more critical and reflexive of how we are tied to other beings and how our treatment of them is essential to their well-being and ours.  I imagine societies in which people will stop at a counter and instead of mindlessly buying the food in front of them, they will pick up the package and flip it over, they will look at the fine print and consider what is involved. I imagine societies and a people that are more conversant and more knowing of their supply chains, with better understanding of how their food and commodities travel thousands of kilometers and that we too play a role, as individuals, families and communities in shaping how this future world looks. In a nut-shell, I imagine a future in which we are perhaps a bit more cognizant of our responsibility – not in a way that constrains us and urges us to throw our arms up crying defeat and slinking back into our soft sofas but ones that enable us to see the power of the everyday, to see the power of the decisions we make and to slowly make the lines between the consumer, those who process the ‘product’ and the animals whose bodies somehow – often through violent means – make their way into our products. I imagine a world in which the butterfly effect destabilizes the human and destabilizes how some humans view themselves as superior – a world in which we learn to respect not only the mammals, birds, insects and fish we share this planet with but perhaps to also respect that we are not the only life form that seeks to dominate and control. I hope we remember what it feels like to be on the back foot, while a virus dictates our movements, and possibly ponder how the lives of many animals have been there because of us (some forced to stay in a house and others in cages for their whole lives).

While the pandemic has raged and our attention has been divided several laws and policies have passed that deepen, instead of loosening, humans’ grip on animals and the harmful ways we treat them. In Canada, for instance, the province of Ontario passed Bill 156, an ag-gag law, that will prevent activists and journalists alike from exposing harms committed in factory farms – whether to humans or animals. This is particularly egregious when one notes the high proportion of Covid-19 cases found at meat-packing facilities. We need to be wary and mindful of the policies and laws that are being defined now and how they will continue to obfuscate our relations with human and animal others in future. Therefore, while I am hopeful and I imagine a world in which we (as individuals and societies) are more aware of and take responsibility for the products we buy, I think that we need to start building that future in the present.

As we think about our pandemic world, let us dwell a bit in this discomfort and instead of longing for a past that will never be again, and one in which we committed far too many mistakes, let us rather consider how we can subvert the behavior, both individually and collectively, that brought us to this point. It is perhaps time to spend more time with the dogs, cats, birds and fish already in our lives taking their loneliness more seriously; time to stop buying both wild and domestic meats which contribute, substantially, to the spread of viruses; time to learn more and educate ourselves about where our products come from (could you image products that had supply chains printed on the labels instead of superfluous imagery?); time to realise that we as humans are not above and outside of nature but deeply intertwined with it and it with us – we are nature and if we want a nature that is not perpetually, immanently pre-pandemic it is time we make changes for nature, not for profit or taste.


Claudia Hirtenfelder is a PhD Candidate in the Geography and Planning Department at Queen’s University. Her research is grappling with cows’ urban historical and geographical relationships with cities. Claudia is a fellow in Animals in Philosophy, Politics, Law and Ethics (A.P.P.L.E), Global Economies and Everyday Lives (GEELS), and the Sonic Arts of Place Laboratory (SAPLap). She is also the host of the podcast The Animal Turn in which she speaks to scholars about concepts in Animal Studies. You can connect with her on Twitter (@ClaudiaFTowne).

Artwork: Heather Fraser

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