The Powerful Impact of Unlearning

 A person sitting on a chair outside on a dirt road, eyes closed, with an open book on the end with pages flying around

I’ve always felt that one of the roles of a teacher is to reveal things that are hidden. My most memorable and influential teachers were those that gave me insight into things that I never saw, never saw about myself or about the world around me. 

It seems to me that COVID-19 is acting as a very powerful teacher, revealing much to those of us fortunate enough to not fall ill with it if we are open to being taught. 

First of all, the novel coronavirus reveals to us that we are creatures subject to the same laws of nature that slime molds, slugs and all other living things are subject to; we can all be infected by novel diseases that can weaken or kill us. As living, vulnerable creatures, we do not have total control over the world, and this has been an important revelation for many. 

The virus has revealed some very important aspects of how our society operates. Who amongst us can now be unaware of the folks, low paid and often in Canada as temporary workers, who actually provide us with food. We all know about the rancher who owns herds of cattle, but now we can’t know about the slaughterhouse workers risking COVID-19 so we can have the meats we expect to see in our stores. We all now know about the migrant farm workers, many coming long distances to work in our fields, without whom our vegetables and fruits wouldn’t be grown or harvested. We have seen the folks putting our groceries into bags as heroes, as we see caregivers, caring for seniors or very young children. Much of this was hidden from us before; now, we see. 

The virus has revealed nature to us. We’ve seen the herds of goats moving into rural Welsh villages when early in the pandemic, cars were off the roads.  We were able to hear more bird songs then and, with fewer cars and trucks on the road resulting in improved air quality around the world, many could see stars in the night sky for the first time. The virus revealed nearby-nature to many, who began to notice the birds and mammals in their neighbourhoods.  The pandemic shows that we can improve local environments for both people and nature. 

The virus revealed the weaknesses of our economic system. We can’t honestly say ‘we’re all in this together’, when we have a system of unequal wealth distribution that creates groups that are truly not with the rest of us. The virus has revealed how fragile globalization is, and the risks we face through easily-broken supply chains or just-in-time provisioning. Indeed, we’ve also witnessed the fragility of our political institutions as we watch demagogues dismantle democracies around the world. 

Learning something new can also compel us to unlearn things that are old and no longer useful. Many things that we are learning about the world, things that may have been relatively invisible to us before early March 2020, are now unmistakably visible and inasmuch as we see them, we can’t allow ourselves to forget them.  

We have to unlearn that humans are exceptional and not subject to the laws of nature. We have to unlearn that our food just appears in the supermarket and we don’t have to consider those that bring it to us, or not see the services nature provides through pollination, provision of water and more. We have to unlearn that the drive for big profits is an admirable thing and that it is OK to have the 100 highest-paid Canadian CEOs making more than 209 times the average Canadian worker. We have to unlearn that our democratic institutions are invulnerable. We have to unlearn that environmental degradation is something that we just have to accept it. 

The virus reveals that many of the things we took as givens are not givens at all, and that many things we thought could never change can, and indeed must, change. We can choose to continue to do the right and important things that have been learned once the virus risk is reduced. If we can learn the lessons of the pandemic and unlearn those things that have brought us to this point, the pain and suffering of those millions of victims of this terrible pandemic will not have been in vain. 

Richard Kool is a Professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability at Royal Roads University