Wallace’s move from studying the genetic sequencing of viruses to analyzing their origins is a matter not just of conviction but of necessity. Once a deadly virus emerges, “the horse has left the barn,” he is fond of saying. This is where the “infamous Wuhan “wet market” enters the picture, which Wallace emphasizes must be understood as part of a web of economic, political, and ecological relations. When China’s farms industrialized, many small farmers sought to become purveyors of wild food. As big farms took up more and more land, the small farmers were forced to raise or hunt animals closer to or within the forests where the most exotic pathogens might reside. Say, in a bat cave.
Wallace’s personal theory is that Covid-19 “emerged along the increasingly industrialized wild animal commodity chain from hinterlands and border towns as far south and west as Yunnan. On the last leg of its domestic tour, the virus made its way to Wuhan by truck or plane and then the world,” he wrote in May. And while southern China has been ground zero for several outbreaks, because of the country’s unique path to development in the late 20th century, and the Chinese government is not without blame, Wallace notes that the same thing could—and often does—happen elsewhere. Pandemics are just one symptom of a broader ecological sickness: a “rift” in the planet’s social metabolism that occurs when economic abstractions are treated as more real than ecological limits, to borrow the Marxist framework pioneered by ecosocialist theorists like Foster and expanded by Wallace.
This rift between ecology and the economy runs parallel with the growing political divide between urban and rural, Wallace said. Early in the pandemic, his organization, the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps, launched an international collective called Pandemic Research for the People, focusing on “the needs of everyday people most immediately affected” by Covid-19. Many of America’s farmers, for example, have been in decades-long exploitative contractual relationships with agribusiness corporations. In Minnesota, they’re in such dire straits that it has led to an epidemic of suicides.
“We’re trying to bridge gaps and signal that their plight matters,” Wallace said. “It requires a respect for people who don’t have degrees at the end of their names but have a profound understanding of the systems you’re looking at.” It’s difficult to argue with the notion that any movement or coalition capable of loosening the grip of agribusiness corporations would have to address this fracture between the city and the hinterland. Such a movement, he continued, would seek to deliver on the slogan from Charles Booker’s 2020 Democratic primary campaign for the Kentucky Senate: “From the hood to the holler.” Or, to widen the scope, “From the South Side of Chicago to South America,” as Wallace wrote in a recent Patreon dispatch, once again reminding us that the pandemic is “over” only for a tiny minority of people on the planet.
The alternative is agroecology, which is simultaneously a science, an agricultural practice, and a radical anti-capitalist movement with roots in Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement and the international peasant alliance La Via Campesina. Wallace defines an agroecological system as one that is “tied to the state of the surrounding landscape from which resources are continually drawn (and returned).” The way out, then, is not so much to create a new world, or to escape into space like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk seem to be planning, but “more along the lines of coming back to earth.”
Wallace is now at work on a book of essays called Revolution Space: Adventures Outside Capitalist Science, which will extend beyond the natural and social sciences to incorporate the humanities, most notably ancient mythology. Toward the end of our conversation, he took off his glasses and leaned over the table to show me the inscription—“Epimethean Vision”—printed in white letters on the inside of his lens. It’s become something of a life mantra for Wallace: You have to look back to see what’s coming. “Foresight is important, but you need hindsight—not to go back to some prelapsarian fantasy, but to draw the lessons that happened previously so you don’t do it again,” he explained. “We’re getting right back on track to what brought us here, except next time it could be a pathogen that emerges to kill a billion people.”
While he acknowledges that cynicism is an “occupational hazard,” Wallace’s work on Covid-19 has brought him more acolytes than detractors. “I’ve found when systems are in crisis, there is room for weirdos like me,” he said. Like the archetypal outsider scientist at the beginning of a disaster movie, Wallace has struggled to be heard. But by the third act, what once seemed like doomsday prophecy could become the basis for recovery. “If I’ve arisen in this historical moment, it’s because I was thrown aside in such a way that I landed in a realm that forced me to become a different scientist,” Wallace said. “I went through the hellfire of ostracization and marginalization. It’s true, I don’t want to go there ever again. But I also understand that one can say what’s necessary to say and still survive another day.”