Simon Andrew MacArthur

Location: Brooklyn, New York, USA
Nationality: British
Biography: Born in Claverham, England—Simon Andrew MacArthur is a documentary photographer whose work is focused on visually interpreting the world through an environmental lens.  In 1984, Simon completed a BA in Documentary Photography from The... read on
Outside, Looking In
simon andrew macarthur
Sep 3, 2020

Outside, Looking In


As soon as lock-down was declared in New York back in March, I knew I had to bail for Costa Rica where I have friends. I’ve been here ever since, in an act of pure self-preservation. I don’t do well in any form of confinement; I knew I’d die there. So I threw all my stuff in storage, told everyone I loved them and got the next plane out. 

Now, I have to think over my return and whatever awaits me back in the US. I have friends I can’t do without, pandemic or no. I’ll have to do my time-honored reinvention, of course. My industry has taken corona on the chin. Entirely dependent on people gathering indoors, in numbers, the industry has been decimated. My funds are dwindling fast.

So, what comes next? There’s no sign that Lady Covid is taking any time off. In fact, if anything it’s getting worse. The latest US figures, almost 5.4 million infected, verging on 180,000 dead. The numbers just keep climbing and there is real anger abroad in the land. I’ve never had cause to be really scared by anything, except my deliberate tangles with the hereafter. This is genuinely frightening. 

The impetus, once again, is to get back to normal when it was precisely that ‘normal’ that got us where we are. Better the hell we knew, I guess. Any nostalgia for where we were will spell our end. It seems so many are desperate to forget the very lesson we’re supposed to be learning here in crisis. 

It’s become clear, the US is uniquely poorly equipped to deal with a pandemic. There’s a toxic brew of insane individualism, racism, nationalism and an addled madman bestride it all. It all but guarantees there will be no unification behind any state or federal guidelines, like mask wearing or social distancing. People that need testing and treatment can’t afford it unless they have a job but then, millions have been laid off whilst the virus runs rampant through the economy, taking their healthcare with it.

But yes, like a miracle, it will just disappear.

We just saw a gathering of around 250,000 bikers in Sturgis. Watch that blossom throughout the country. 

Part of me understands it though. I get the need to carry on as though everything will be just hunky dory. To submit to the will of the virus is to surrender yourself to something outside yourself over which you have zero control and who among us wants that? I know I don’t. 

Are we in the grip of a death cult though? It almost feels that way, half the country refusing any form of personal constraint like PPEs. Masks give you Covid. I saw it on Q Anon. It must be true. Many are already declaring that a national vaccination program will be tantamount to communism before it’s even been introduced. 

It feels like there’s palpable dread lurking behind everything, the unspoken realization that there never will be a return to the comfort we once had. We’ve lived through the best of what was possible and there’s nothing but worse ahead. 

Will we ever be able to embrace the ones we love again? Is that Sunday picnic in the park going to be my last? Where will the money come from to support ourselves? My industry has been eviscerated. What do I do now? How do I reinvent myself in the middle of this mayhem?

But then, the government just dumped trillions of dollars into the economy without breaking a sweat. Somehow, that much money materialized out of thin air when the thumbscrews were liberally applied. Someone foresaw the collapse of the world’s markets if something didn’t happen and happen fast, no questions asked.

The vast majority of the cash outflow has gone to big business...again. Once again, we’re being asked to believe in trickle down when we know, from experience, that it’s a con and always has been. The money only ever flows upward and stays there. John Stockman himself admitted to the fallacy and yet the GOP keeps flogging it in the hope we’ll believe it if it’s just repeated often enough. 

But where was all that money when we were talking about universal healthcare to begin with? It would cost about the same as what was just spent. There would only seem to be two possibilities; they’re either working with severely wonky math or they like things just the way things are. I’m left with the certainty that at least half of congress is really intent on keeping the vast majority of us in abject poverty. 

I can’t help but feel that a healthy portion of the government actually wishes a good portion of the populace would just drop dead. We know Jared Kushner does, as long as it’s only the blue portion.

A lot of people are asking how the country got this way. There’s genuine, unmistakable hatred for one another, lying in the open for all to see. Left vs right, rich vs poor, everyone vs black people. The government has never been so divided and it’s mirrored across the land. “Bipartisan” has such a quaint, wistful ring, doesn’t it? Has this always been there, just needing cultivation by a narcissistic authoritarian in the driving seat? 

The virus has conveniently shaped up as a black, brown and indigenous people’s pandemic as it takes the already compromised, the poor, those without healthcare, ‘essential’ workers who often can’t afford not to work. Prisons and homes for the aged are hotbeds of contagion. 

What a relief on the economy it would be to shrink those ranks, hmm? .

Some years ago, I stumbled into a Washington think tank website which had some alarming predictions for the US population around 2025, suggesting that just 75 million would remain. That’s some climb down from 320,000,000. At the time I dismissed it but, perhaps they had foreseen the likelihood of something akin to this pandemic and the inability of the fractured healthcare system in the US to deal with it. 

The healthcare system has so many inherent weaknesses it was bound to fail regardless. It’s supply lines are absurdly poorly sourced and managed. Like many of our essentials, much of it comes from China or India. It’s designed to run at capacity during normal times, with no headroom, in order to affect maximum profit. During a pandemic, it was hopelessly overrun in a matter of days. You can insert the broken math of not having universal healthcare in the time of a global emergency here; when there’s a pandemic, everybody pays anyway, one way or another. 

The CEO’s of the major healthcare providers were apoplectic not because their hospital staffs were dropping dead in alarming numbers but that their profits were shrinking so dramatically.

Upwards of 28 million people had no healthcare whatsoever in the US as of 2018, the last year for reliable figures. Only in America is your health, your well being, anchored to your job. If you don’t find that immoral in this, the wealthiest country on Earth, there’s something wrong...with you. 

I could go off on my rant about how the US is actually in the middle of an insane social engineering experiment, in which the government desperately seeks the nation’s snapping point using massive amounts of deprivation as a weapon. There’s actually plenty of historical precedent. The US has a sordid history of experimentation on its own people. 

We would seem to be right at that point. 

All my friends are losing work left, right and center. Many small businesses expect to go under before this ends, if it ends. That’s half the worry - where is the end of this nightmare? No-one can point to it, obviously. My friends tell me New York has become a hell hole, full of violence, distrust and wariness of each other that we were famous for not giving a fuck about before. In weeks to come, many millions of people may find themselves homeless as back rent becomes due. What then? It will become another huge vector within which the virus can run rampant. 

I see there's a raging debate as to whether New York can recover from this massive downturn. Restaurants and shops are shuttering for good. Almost half a million people have left since Mid-March, maybe for good.

Look on it as an alien invasion if you like. We are under the severest threat from a force we can’t speak to or reason with. No Twitter rant is going to stop this one, no amount of rage. 

Now is the perfect time to reformulate how we live.

This is nothing less than a total reshaping of society; we are irrevocably and forever changed because of this. If you don’t have a greater sense of our mortality, of society’s fragility and of how much we really need one another, you’re just not paying attention. This ought to be a wake up call for us all to stop hating one another, to come together in genuine brotherhood to solve the World’s ills. If there was ever a better time to bury our collective hatchets and find common ground, let me see it. It’s a huge opportunity if the disaster capitalists don’t ruin it. 

I’m not hopeful. We’re too invested in the road we’ve been on. Greed has its claws in us big time. 

Wetiko is abroad in the land.

What will the world look and feel like on the other side of this thing? It’s hard to contextualize it. So completely different, no doubt. The virus may well wind up upending the global power structure, the US no longer at the top of the heap. Trump abrogated the US’s position of moral authority almost as soon as he took office, the entire GOP and a rapidly dwindling percentage of the populace following like lemmings. 

America First...over the cliff.

We’re left with this certainty; we can all die at the hands of something totally outside of ourselves. Outside of hatred, outside of anger, outside of conquest for land or resources. But now we have a toxic stew of racism, nationalism, extreme partisanship, poverty, homelessness, and massive governmental indifference. As evolved as we like to believe we are, we can all be struck down almost at a whim.

I fear particularly for the Gen Xers and Gen Ys; they have enough on their plates. Look at the  mess we Boomers have left them in screwing up the environment. They have every right to be boiling mad. The coming years are going to be tremendously difficult as sea levels rise and the weather gets ever hotter. I see, in the midst of this pandemic, the Generation Z activists are calling Covid, the Boomer Remover. 

I have a thing for gallows humor.

I’m a life-long environmentalist and a firm believer in the Gaia principle, that the entire planet is one, giant living organism. From that standpoint, it’s hard to look on the human race as anything other than a virulent parasite, doing immense damage to its host. If we’re unable to mend our ways I believe she’ll find a way to shrug us off...for good. 

In my mind, the pandemic is Mother Earth screaming at us, 

‘Hear my rage. You’ve messed with me long enough, now feel my anger. And I’m just getting started. You don’t want to see what else I’ve got.’

I’m quite certain no-one would miss us. Everyone else on the planet would unquestionably benefit from our absence. In this, the Anthropocene, up to 80% of all other species may vanish before the end of the century. That’s our doing. No other species on the planet is so damaging to it’s own habitat. We are literally destroying the only habitable planet we know of, our own nest. What sane species does that? Just how ‘evolved’ does that make us?

Contagious disease specialists have been saying for years that we’re overdue for a major correction. We’ve been teetering on the edge of disaster and now it’s here. Mankind has been encroaching on way too many wild spaces, squeezing animals out of their natural habitats and the viruses they carry along with them. Now we’re paying the price. 

I was in East Asia for three months at the end of 2018. I had an extraordinary time in an area of the world I hadn’t previously been to. I was frequently moved by the people showing such huge resolve while coping with very little government support. Much of the infrastructure we take for granted in the West simply doesn’t exist there. And that shows up in ways obvious and not.

In Chiang Mai, I remember ordering a take-out chicken curry meal and being handed five small plastic bags containing the curry, rice, condiments, sauce and salad. I despair.

My brain really fried when I was in a city called Cam Tho, in the Mekong Delta It’s known primarily for its floating market. It felt like Blade Runner on water. I was on a bicycle riding into the city proper when a woman, carrying a large bucket full of plastic waste, walked across the street in front of me and calmly upended the entire thing into the Mekong. 

The stunning realization that this self-same scenario must be re-enacted millions of times a day throughout Asia hit me like a ton of bricks. Recycling only happens at all in the areas where tourism is most important and unsightly piles of human waste detract from that pristine cultural experience, places like Hoi An and Halong Bay. 

Much of East Asia is astonishingly beautiful. Just don’t lift the carpet.

I fell into a deep, dark funk for days with the vision of that woman replaying in my head, as if on a loop. I can see her face still. The lack of comprehension at the irreparable harm she was about to do. This is how we end up with gyres of plastic the size of Texas in every ocean on Earth. I’m told some cities in Indonesia employ pushers to move the surface layer of plastic downstream, toward the sea. 

Microplastics now blanket every square inch of the planet. In Antarctica. On Everest. Every desert. On the bottom of the deepest sea trenches.

But, even then, we in the west are largely to blame; much of our waste is put on container ships and sent off to the global south for them to pick through and recycle...or not. You deal with it.

I try to insert myself into the minds of these people who, in their innocence, expect Mother Earth to just absorb all the grievous damage they throw her way and somehow have it not matter. 

I strive mightily (and fail) to find sympathy with ivy league educated industrialists with maybe even a grounding in science, who yet somehow manage to navigate around the knowledge that their companies are destroying the environment with poisonous effluents. How do you absolve yourself when you know how those poisons affect the people living within spitting distance of your factory? It’s all very well to tell yourself that somebody has to do it. It might as well be you that profits from it.

The pandemic may have produced an unprecedented downturn in humanity’s carbon output but it’s too late to have any marked effect. As the climatologist, John Englander’s research has shown, the momentum of global warming will carry us crashing on through any mitigating lines in the sand we may draw. We need a Plan B and fast.

I ask myself if there is some unhappy, unwritten law of nature and, coincidentally, why we don’t see or hear of any other species in the galaxy, that any civilization, any planet, lasts precisely as long as it takes the dominant species to consume it. 

Is this as far as we get?

These are the things that keep me awake at night.

By Simon Andrew MacArthur —


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