by TEMAS – Technology, Environment, and Society research group
Translated by Guilherme Souza Reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling
Originally published in Portuguese March 27, 2020 link
If it is not new that, in the news, science, economics and politics editorials get mixed up – when discussing the exploration of oil fields or the release of transgenic seeds, for example – during a pandemic the way our life in society depends and is intertwined to non-human elements becomes even clearer. However, how has social theory understood the role of such a powerful agent, like COVID-19, in the production and alteration of our modern forms of societies? And what is its contribution to thinking and acting in the contemporary world?
There are some possible interpretative paths for these responses. In the research group TEMAS (Technology, Environment, and Society) at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), we have dedicated ourselves to producing research, master’s dissertations and doctoral theses, which investigate the formation of the social constitutively crossed by scientific practices, technologies and by all that we usually see as external to society – however, if we look closely, we will see how slippery this separation is – which is nature. Major development projects (such as the construction of hydroelectric plants and highways), sociotechnical disasters (such as the disruption of mining dams in Minas Gerais), modernization of agriculture, environmental and food regulation policies, and the social effects of climate change have been our research loci. However, in the face of the pandemic, while it imposes a compulsory stop in the ways of work and daily life around the world, it also mobilizes us to reflect on the ways we live, here we outline some of the analysis offered by the fields of Social Studies in Science and Technology and Sociology of Environmental Conflicts with which we have been working. An emergency like this exposes the arenas of negotiation, power, and diverse resources that are being mobilized to face a pandemic. Science, as fiction and specialized literature, warned us a long time ago, is not disconnected from the societies that produce it.
A first aspect that draws attention is the fact that with the interruption of activities due to the social isolation demanded as a measure to contain the advance of the virus, the daily emission of tons of gases harmful to the ozone layer was also interrupted. The sanitary measures indicated by health professionals and guaranteed by heads of state point us to a drastic change in the foundations under which modernity has been established. The reduction in the circulation of people, goods, and services in cities – that is, a slowdown in the daily economic rhythm of large urban centers – has made clear the effects of the way we live on other beings and nature. What other possibilities for arrangements between living systems arise when we are forced to transform?
A second aspect to be considered concerns the connection between the dimensions of environmental injustice and medical recommendations that encourage us to change our routines. Structural inequalities further aggravate the difficulties in dealing with the coronavirus transmission and are still not sufficiently considered and problematized in medical recommendations. A sociological look leads us to question which conceptions of “person” and “everyday habits” are implicit in medical recommendations that we find on TV, newspapers, and social networks, and who is made invisible by such definitions. Who can work in the home office mode and avoid agglomerations, for example? In a country where piped water is not a universally consolidated right, public health recommendations seen as simple – for example, washing your hands for about twenty seconds with soap and water at all times, use alcohol gel – are restrictive or even not viable for part of the population. Moreover, we can speak about environmental racism when in a disease spread by the circulation of people, newspaper covers show popular houses, warning about the danger of agglomerations, diverting the responsibility for the spread of the virus to the lower classes. In fact, with the worsening of the epidemiological crisis, what we have seen is the further intensification and legitimization of the abysmal Brazilian social inequality. This occurs when, for example, the economy is faced with the quarantine recommendations and their effects, or when measures are proposed to cut workers’ wages, justified by an allegedly necessary sacrifice by “all”.
The third aspect is that the increasing contours of biopolitics will be felt in the forms of unequal management of populations, as well as in other living beings and cultures. We have increased the use of surveillance and control technologies (e.g. tracking people in quarantine), in addition to the creation of new ones, aimed at facing the epidemic. Under the justification that we live in a moment of exception, this suggests that we will have an even greater increase in surveillance and control as a new “normal”. One of the horizons of analysis that this opens is what governments, organizations, and corporations will do with these possibilities – especially those with authoritarian and prejudiced worldviews. In this line of argument, the scientific community must be observant of the direction these processes take.
Finally, it is also important to highlight that the pandemic we face sheds light on the way we produce trust in science. Or, in other words, it shows the exhaustion of producing confidence from the defense of its “neutrality”. When an important group of society minimizes the virus prevention recommendations or affirms that the virus is “created in the laboratory”, an attempt is made to delegitimize scientific institutions, based on the argument that science, being involved in “economic and political interests” is “impure” and, therefore, should not “be taken seriously”.
Science, as we have already mentioned, is inseparable from the society in which it is produced. This implies that there is no place of intellectual purity – outside of society – from which knowledge can be produced. On a globalized planet, the choice of the best answers on how to face the advance of the virus travel across continents and mobilize different subjects and worldviews. To recognize the character of science is to track the practices that created such responses so that we can pay attention to their locality and partiality.
Paying attention to the place of non-human entities, scientific practices, environmental inequalities, and policies on life amid the pandemic is to provide clues about which ways of living in society are privileged – and, simultaneously, which are “forgotten” – in this new intended order. It is, ultimately, to reflect on science and democracy, in a world in which, with social isolation or not, we need to be connected to produce coexistence networks.
The research group Technology, Environment and Society – TEMAS is linked to the Postgraduate Program in Sociology (PPGS) and the Postgraduate Program in Rural Development (PGDR), both from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS ). It includes professors, researchers, master’s and doctoral students interested in the phenomena that are in the nexus between environment, science and society, from a sociological perspective.