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When he was 28, Albert Camus began writing a novel about a plague. La Peste, or The Plague, tells the story of Oran, a strikingly ordinary town in French Algeria. In sober prose, Camus details the profoundly typical lives of the townsfolk as they go through their daily motions. Then the rats begin to die. Dr. Bernard Rieux, a dark-skinned man with close-cropped black hair, begins warning the authorities. He is the first to use the word “plague”, prompting the horror and disbelief of the higher-ups. However, they hesitate to sound the alarm because panic leads to economic disruptions and hurts chances for re-election. Eventually, Rieux’s frantic attempts to stave off the pestilence transform into futility, as he is left to inject serum and lance abscesses, waiting for the inevitable death of his patients.
Camus isn’t pointing towards stupidity or politicization as the cause of death of half of Oran’s population, as recent movies like “Don’t Look Up” seem to do. Instead, Camus touches on an aspect of human nature that is much more profound and at times unavoidable. Simply put, the citizens of Oran were “like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences.”
Most of us have never experienced death because, well, if we had, we’d be dead. We can never truly learn the lesson of the inevitability of our own death because we lack experience. Like the people of Oran, most of us have lived our lives under the pretense of immortality, protected from death by the illusory shield of probability.
Some of us, through a friend or loved one, have been shaken awake to the absurdity and inevitability of death, but for the most part, The Plague tells the story of a universal human condition. As Camus writes, “Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.”
Why did it take so long for Harvard to divest from fossil fuels? Aside from the many moral arguments, divestment was smart because it protected the environment in which we live. However, from the comfort of Cambridge, climate change is so detached from our realities that we refuse to recognize its truth. The people of Oran had rats dying in the streets, and they still refused to wake up from their stupor of comfort. Many of us haven’t watched our houses become flooded by rising sea levels, so we are left with numbers on a screen to serve as warnings.
Yet numbers aren’t enough. Most of us don’t believe in climate change. Sure, we accept the facts, recognize the scientific truth. However, until Harvard’s campus is flooded by rising tides, most of us will never really grasp its reality.
This isn’t an optimistic op-ed about how if we all sober up, we can band together to solve the climate crisis. This isn’t even a deceivingly cynical op-ed meant to be proven wrong by do-gooders. This is, instead, a simple exposition of my personal opinion: that Harvard’s inability to recognize the gravity of the situation at hand only confirms Camus’ view of humanity’s disbelief in death. It doesn’t matter how many multimillion-dollar eco-allegories are made, or how many hours people picket in front of the stoic statue of John Harvard. Humanity won’t believe in climate change until the evidence begins impacting our daily lives and we are jolted awake by the truth.
Climate change isn’t a unique situation. It isn’t a sort of punishment for humanity’s arrogant actions, nor is it meant to impose universal justice. Instead, it is an absurd and chance concentration in time of the inescapable underlying condition which afflicts us all: the reality that our lives hang on a string, and that at any time, that string may snap. If we manage to escape the climate crisis, a more deadly pandemic will be next, or some other sort of natural or human-made catastrophe. The truth is, we’re all going to die, and there’s not much we can do to change that.
This isn’t meant to discredit the efforts of the Divest movement or everyone else who is valiantly fighting against climate change. The answer to this game that we are bound to lose isn’t to flip the board over and walk away. Instead, it’s to continue playing, to work long hours lancing abscesses of patients that are inevitably going to die, as Dr. Rieux does. The solution is to be decent. As Camus writes, “There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of righting a plague is common decency.”
What is decency? Perhaps an answer can be found in the wisdom of Dr. Rieux: “I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.”
Manny A. Yepes ’24, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Cabot House.
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