Viral Lessons

As a group facilitator, a very important skill is being able to summarise a complexity of narratives into something clear and useful. With lockdown here in Aotearoa New Zealand slowly easing off, I have been reflecting on what lessons I have learned so far from my Covid-19 experience. Here’s a summary of ten of them:

1/. Humans are not in control of nature, only of themselves.

A bit like the barnacles on the back of a whale thinking they control which way the whale turns next, our control of nature is a myth. We can respond to nature by controlling our own behaviour - but ultimately we don't control anything beyond that.

2/. Emergence is inevitable.

The evolution and emergence of novel systems of life is how all species on the planet today have survived, including humans. By its nature, we cannot predict emergence - we can only respond to it. Part of that is doing whatever we can to minimise the conditions for lethal threats to emerge when we are aware of them, like not destroying the wild ecosystems that keep new viruses from infecting human beings. Despite this, new threats will always emerge (see 1/. above).

3/. Human beings are capable of extra-ordinary things.

Clearly, entire nations of millions of people can be united to work together toward a common goal - in 24 hours. Equally, entire nations can disintegrate into conflict and confusion when presented with the exact same goal. The difference is down to culture, timeframes, quality of information and leadership.

4/. Authentic information is hard to find.

Most information has become meaningless. We must educate our children in the art of scrutiny and critical thinking as if there lives depend on it. Because they probably do.

5/. Nature doesn’t care who you are.

Humans are not special. We are not ‘more intelligent’ or ‘more advanced’ than other animals. We are intelligent in ways that are different to other animals - and other animals are intelligent in ways that are different from us. The acid-test is that we are the only species destroying our own habitat - how intelligent is that? We need to participate in nature with immense humility.

6/. How we respond to fear is the key to our future survival.

Fear can cause radically different behaviours. Research on survivors of events like plane crashes and ship wrecks, shows that those people who panic, try to maximise their own individual advantage or victimise others are the first to die. The group they are in also dies. Those that remain calm, act in the collective interest and show compassion are the most likely to survive - along with most of their group 1. This is a political manifesto for an uncertain future.

7/. A strong state is essential.

In the context of Covid-19, the evidence is that where the state has been able to influence society effectively, less people have died. This may be for a wide variety of complex reasons including a nation’s culture, history, demographics, geography, media and its political system. When dealing with crisis situations however, the evidence is that a trustworthy state with a mandate to act gives the best outcomes. This is not to say that the state shouldn’t be rigorously scrutinised - it should. But with Covid-19 this general principle holds true.

8/. Women make the best world leaders.

Just look at the data (with the obvious exception of Margaret Thatcher).

9/. Neoliberal politics are obsolete.

The neoliberal project of the small state doesn’t stack up against the scale, speed and power of Pandemics - or other natural disasters. Neoliberal fiscal policy of low taxation and government spending, with minimum state intervention in social and health services, infrastructure and investment only benefits a tiny proportion of society. But even they can get infected with Covid-19, or be burnt out of their houses by the impacts of global warming, or find their drinking water polluted with nitrates.

Precisely no-one benefits from neoliberal policies in the long-term, because they are based on individualism. Reality is ecological - everything is connected to everything else. Individualism is an idea, not a fact. This leaves right-wing governments politically bankrupt and without a viable economic policy in the current context.

10/. Culture predicates behaviour.

Ultimately, the radically different ways various countries have responded to Covid-19 is probably about their respective cultures. Countries with similar cultures have done similar things. In the future we may see national alliances based on cultural, rather than economic or political similarities.


Obviously, these are just my own reflections of lessons that I have learned over the last couple of months. But really, I already knew most of them - which perhaps means I have simply used Covid-19 to confirm my own political and social bias (see 4/. above)!  None-the-less, I do think there is some compelling data and it will be interesting to see the patterns that emerge over coming weeks (see 2/. above).

I'd love to hear what you've learned from the Pandemic so far? Which of your own biases has Covid-19 confirmed or challenged?

Fear, courage, Covid and civil engineering
  1. See for example, Learmonth, E., & Tabakoff, J. (2014). No mercy: True stories Of disaster, survival and brutality. Text Publishing: Melbourne.[]


  1. Katrina Kessler4th September 2020

    What I learned from the current pandemic is that Schopenhauer was right about humans way back in the 1800s when he said: “In the sphere of thought, absurdity and perversity remain the masters of the world, and their dominion is suspended only for brief periods.” I also realized that there have been far too many human bodies on this planet since the written word… that’s how long the planet has been overpopulated: for as long as there is any recorded history at all… by the time history was starting to be recorded, there were already far too many people destroying not just their home, the planet, but each other as well… it has only become intensified over time, due to the sheer number of those whom Schopenhauer takes note of in the above quotation.

    Today, the natural balance has been upset in an undeniable way, as you pointed out, and this current pandemic is actually needed, and more will come in the future, for sure. Maybe humans will ‘wake up’ but history does not show this to happen except in very small pockets that get crushed out quickly by the hoardes of vampires who rule the world. Right now is the opportunity to change the course of history into a new way of being on this planet, but I’m afraid too few are interested in losing their conveniences in life, so it will only be after so much has been lost, in a way that is impossible to deny with mental tricks, so that reality finally presses onto people in a way that no fantasy world suffices anymore for escape… at that point people enter into the point of destitution and desolation on a grand scale, then finally they will be forced to build a new kind of relationship with themselves and everything else on the planet. This process could be sped up greatly by encouraging (or forcing? is that possible?) the world’s leaders to go into the wilderness alone, into desolation, for a significant period of time, long enough to become wise, and return to civilization ready to act on their new-found wisdom.

    1. David Key4th September 2020

      Ah the thorniest issue of them all – human population! I share your tendency to misanthropy when it comes to our ecology. I also agree with the slightly queasy Malthusian pragmatism of the current Pandemic – and others yet to come. I find it fascinating that C-19 only kills humans.

      But there are a lot of conflicting ideas about population and I’m not sure what I think at the moment. There’s some theory that human population is in fact levelling off and will ultimately decline, others (for example, the Permaculturist Bill Mollinson) argued that the Earth can support predicted peak population (10bn) but only if we radically change our agricultural practices. Then there’s the IPAT formula: Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. This places population as just one variable of a bigger equation. So… complicated.

      I haven’t read nearly enough Schopenhauer to respond properly to your point about him. But my first thought was to wonder what pyscho-social phenomena lie beneath absurdity and perversity? And does his assertion hold true cross-culturally?

      I don’t think humans will ‘wake-up’. I am a pessimist on that front and do not share the Panglossian optimism of the New Age “evolution of consciousness”. We are animals. When animals exceed the limits of their ecosystems they die. We have some choices about how brutal that process is but we cannot escape it. I am totally with you – necessity will be the mother of invention. That’s why fear is so important. We need to be afraid – very afraid – and then we need to respond, while accepting the inevitable loss that is unavoidable whatever we do.

      I was once asked who would be my ideal group for a Natural Change programme. My response (I was living in the UK at the time) was “The Cabinet of the UK Government”. But of course, the heads of the G8 would be better! Having said that, I think much work would need to be done in preparation, to get most of them beyond their cast-iron Narcissism. It did work for John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt back in 1903 though, so perhaps their is hope after-all!

  2. Natalie Hormann3rd September 2020

    Great reflections here. I especially agree with the points you made about the state and leadership. I’m concerned at the levels of distrust (deeply rooted in all sorts of things no doubt), some of which transferred via social media and not even necessarily local. One of my take aways is the stark reminder of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and the degree to which a lot of people put self-interest before the collective. We need to re-strengthen our social contracts if we want to get through the future.

    1. David Key3rd September 2020

      Thanks Natalie,

      I think in the long-term that self-interest can only be served through the collective. Individualism only looks possible because it’s a relatively new concept. It’s like falling through a cloud – in the short-term you might think you can fly and there’s no evidence to suggest you can’t.

      In the long-term, there is the ground.

      It’s ironic that the Tragedy of the Commons was written as a treatise for private land ownership, which ignores the immense possibilities of social contracting altogether!

  3. Rory MacPhee18th June 2020

    The Survivor Syndrome. My reading of research additionally suggests that those who think independently, who reject herd pressure, will survive. Do what you know is right, not what others appear to be doing. That’s leadership, and wilderness education (Natural Change Project) a surefire way of engendering in our people. Lessons from Covid? Learn to go deep and narrow rather than wide and shallow

    1. David Key19th June 2020

      Yes, indeed – deep and narrow!

      I love the way the conversation around hard-edged survival stuff reveals profound philosophical insights… perhaps, ultimately, it’s that simple?

  4. Matt31st May 2020

    Some good points in the above Dave. Glad to see/hear the grey matter is still firing your end!

    Best regards.


    1. David Key2nd June 2020

      Thanks Matt!

      Good to hear from you!


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