More Horizon: A Commentary

By Adriana Petryna, University of Pennsylvania §

The U.S. leads the world in confirmed cases of and deaths from COVID-19. At the start of the pandemic, its trajectory was supposedly foretold by some European countries, South Korea, and Japan and thus, in theory, the devastating state of affairs we have now was avoidable. With overwhelmed hospitals and medical staff, Italy seemed like a worst-case scenario when its cases peaked. Looking at case counts and deaths elsewhere, the U.S. would start to see similar trends, initially in Seattle and then in the Northeast where, in many parts, for now, lockdown, mask-wearing, and social distancing have suppressed cases to a baseline level. A “first wave” would likely be followed by a “second wave” in the fall, so many universities moved up their calendars and planned to send students home by the end of November to minimize second wave exposures. The metaphors of curves and waves, used to describe the pandemic’s dynamics, brought some reassurance that outbreaks could be kept in a state of latent control (Silva 2020), to be treated like small brush fires that could be rapidly suppressed before they became out-of-control wildfires.[1] The period between wave 1 and wave 2 would provide time to learn about the virus, to institute testing and contact tracing, and, if needed, to refine plans for reopening businesses and schools. But whatever recalibrations could have happened in that crucial interim never happened.

What happened instead was, in fact, more like a great un-happening: lockdowns were enacted only to be undone too quickly, a lack of a national testing strategy exposed the limits of public health science (and of the political will to implement that science), and projected societal bounce-backs were replaced by the deadening force of COVID-19 denial. Now in the grip of a runaway pandemic, the U.S. is where no other country has been: epidemiological and economic projections have become an abstract presence, not enough to provide useful footholds for imagining what comes next.

In what has become a state-by-state and even county-by-county pandemic patchwork, seemingly mundane activities, like driving from one state to another, have become complicated repertoires of isolation. Until recently, if I intended to drive from New Jersey to Vermont, I would need to isolate myself for two weeks upon arrival; a health department official told me that I could maintain my isolation by driving through counties with less than 400 active cases of COVID-19 (I could not stop in counties with more than 400 active cases).[2] To isolate means to become an epidemiological cut-out, traveling in one’s own corridors and through a world divided “differently into facts and fields” (Root-Bernstein 2020). Yet the outcome of my cut (my isolation) may not tally with yours to yield suppression. That image may be a semblance too.

I am reminded of scenes from the aftermath of a nuclear crisis and the so-called Chernobyl zones, where a patchwork of state-designated safe versus unsafe (contaminated) areas belied the movement of radioactive fallout; exposed populations could be relocated once, then again, only to return to the place from which they were initially relocated.[3] Hastily configured safe zones would always contradict the fallout’s movement; there was nowhere to isolate (or hide). As radioactive fallout settled into lung tissues and plants, entered blood streams and waters, and landed on windows, door handles, and bags of fruit, institutional and political actors famously denied it. In other words, they had lost the ability to keep themselves from being imposed upon by gross contradictions. As the strange syndrome spread, the time in which crucial scientific footholds for realistic assessment and action could be established was squandered. There were fewer and fewer baselines from which to apprehend the damage; the only shared reality among survivors was that there was no end in sight, there was no horizon. “We don’t live, we exist” was a refrain I heard often in the clinics where I interviewed hundreds of internally displaced people and clean-up workers, who, as a runaway radioactive plume moved across the globe, were exposed and sacrificed. Having no horizon meant losing loved ones and a sense of time or, rather, a sense of where one was, or should be, in time with respect to the crisis that had been unleashed. No one could predict where the ecological pandemic would take them next, and no one could be held responsible for the medical and legal limbo that it became. In short, having no horizon meant being stripped of the capacity to meet conditions where they actually are.

The essays in this collection grapple with similar imposed contradictions and erasures that create further, immeasurable harms. In the aftermath of the 2019 Black Summer bushfires, Aaron Neiman writes how, with the Australian government denying the climate-related causes of that tragedy, it wasn’t enough “to pick through the mental fallout of increasingly unthinkable events.” A “governance of psychic retreat” that went hand-in-hand with government inaction was a “poor substitute for a comprehensive climate policy” that would deny the labor required to stop the fires. Randall Burson and Angela Ross-Perfetti show how epidemiological curves projecting trends and imminent containment erase the structural racism through which the coronavirus spreads. Néstor Silva writes how “evidence of latent control” polices perceived boundaries between knowable risk and normalized extractive vandalism across North Dakota’s Bakken region. A spurious management around environmental safety justifies pandemics of resource extraction that, Silva writes, are also “technologies of settler colonial control.”

Imposed contradictions do not allow us to meet conditions where they are. For Indigenous communities living in settler ecologies, these impositions are an all-too-familiar “colonial contagion.”[4] COVID-19 cases are rising in North and South Dakota, where statewide stay-at-home orders were not issued. In a recent essay, historian and citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, Nick Estes (who documented the Standing Rock movement) describes actions that refuse the imposition of gross contradiction: “Men armed with assault rifles and donning military-grade body armor stormed state capitol buildings” in South Dakota, “demanding haircuts and the reopening of beaches and ice cream parlors,” as the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe “have set up health checkpoints. ‘We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death,’” in the words of the Cheyenne River chairman.[5] Techniques of isolation are wielded against settlers themselves as cutting off roads to their communities is the soundest application of public health authority today.[6]

Meeting conditions where they are is also crucial amid other seas. In the aftermath of a devastating flash flood, common today on a small island in the North of the Aegean Sea because of climate change, it seems that inhabitants come to live “in multiple places at once,” as Eleni Kotsira writes, unable to “process” the torrents other than in an apparent mode of mental withdrawal. Climate change is disrupting fundamental abilities to project how the environment will act over time based on patterns. The crossing of critical thresholds and points-of-no-return are as unsettling as material transformations of places and things once thought to be known, or familiar. In my current work, I probe how projections are faltering and colliding with the dangerous realities of emergency response, particularly to wildfires. With mountains on fire when they shouldn’t be during wet seasons and devastations in which nothing familiar returns, the gap between the expected and what must be confronted is sometimes too wide to bridge. Here, no amount of technological prowess can match the outcomes of what has been unleashed—not only with rising temperatures linked with fossil fuel burning, but with longstanding practices of fire suppression that are known to have worsened a problem that emergency responders are attempting to contain.[7] One wildfire researcher called this paradox a “circular non-solution space,” suggesting how projections have become an abstract presence: strange geometries (call them models) that no longer shield us from the realities of ecological pandemics and where they are taking us next. One can also sense a different, though related, articulation of the theme of isolation here: that experts themselves could be increasingly cut off from fully grasping the physics of these runaway states. Another researcher told me that “there isn’t a ton of horizon.” Gesturing toward something like “more horizon” was meant to resist what in fact could be a moment of epistemic freefall. Making more horizon meant expanding cognitive resources before such a moment would come to pass: changing how change is known and acted upon and, if possible, wresting actionable time from borrowed time.[8]

In my forthcoming book, Horizon Work, I turn the word “horizon” into a verb to elaborate on a mode of thinking that considers imminent, unnatural disasters against a horizon of expectation in which people can still act. Horizoning, in other words, involves ethical imperatives of making perceptual range, of maintaining responsive capacity relative to a shrinking object—the future—and of creating and sustaining spaces for coordinating action and responsibility. The question is not only about how far, close, or beyond we are with respect to an abstract tipping point, beyond which the world as we know it disappears, but what kind of knowledge is most relevant, how, and at what scale? What avenues of action are still available, or imaginable for delimiting a stable or knowable, and thus habitable, world?

While the outcomes and stakes of the climate crisis are undisputed, such questions cannot be asked without acknowledging that the conflagrations seen today are themselves settler colonial manifestations. The “exclusion” of fire (or fire suppression) has been part and parcel of the “eliminatory work of the settler state,”[9] which has meant the exclusion of Indigenous knowledge and myriad relations that make stability a shared objective. As Candis Callison writes, the “assurance of stability” is rooted in “continual assessment of the state of these relations”[10]—a practice in which peoples’ capacities “to experience themselves in the world as having responsibilities to other humans, nonhumans and the environment” is also assured.[11] The “nature” of fire is now haunted by injustices linked to the exclusion of these relations—pushed into a circular non-solution space that unleashes extinction yet does not know where it stands in relation to what it has unleashed. In this extinction ecology, firefighters become a reactive force, fighting fire in what a former, highly trained Incident Commander described to me as a “knife fight.” The fighting tool does not know the material it is fighting. The worrisome trend is how such disconnectedness also involves massive transfers of risk and mortality. Amid immeasurable losses and grief resulting from systemic racism in this country today, COVID-19 death rates among Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people are now roughly triple or more the death rates of white Americans.[12]

Putting an end to the crisis means ending these transfers and the structural racism that overdetermine who dies and who lives or recovers from COVID-19 and medical neglect; who will be protected and who will be sacrificed on the front lines of viral and environmental pandemics and climate change. Progress is less about change measured in abstract increments of mitigation or reform; it is about the necessity of reconfiguring regime shifts—of turning misplaced analogies, projections, violent histories, and cuts into wanted configurations of the world, however diverse those wants and their forms are. To quote Burson and Ross-Perfetti, “Horizons, not curves […] will guide us as we find new ways to come together, not as […] epidemiologically-determined apolitical aggregate[s], but as engaged collectives who arise out of seemingly insurmountable disconnection.”


[1] On the complexities of wave imagery, see Jones & Helmreich (2020). On COVID-19 spread as more like a wildfire spread, see Broadfoot (2020).

[2] This is per one million residents. In an era of a militarized anti-immigration regime and police forces that have unleashed state violence against Black Americans with impunity (see Munyikwa [2020]), one must consider for whom driving from one state to another is ever mundane and for whom interstate travel, done by bus, means exposure to the perils of ICE and/or police stops (see Rendell [2020]).

[3] In my book on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster aftermath, I showed how strategic productions of ignorance and nonknowledge also entailed life-and-death searches for livability within the frame of what I called ‘biological citizenship’ (Petryna 2013[2002]).

[4] This term is drawn from the title of a recent essay by Nick Estes (2020).

[5] This quote is from a text by Cheyenne River chairman Harold Frazier to South Dakota’s governor, quoted in Estes (2020).

[6] See interview with Dean Seneca in Talahongva (2020).

[7] See Petryna (2018).

[8] See Petryna (2015).

[9] On futurity practices as “way-finding tools” despite “the eliminatory work of the settler state,” see the work of Mvskoke geographer Laura Harjo (2019).

[10] Callison (2020:135). On the meaning of stability of place for plant and animal resources, see The Salish-Kootenai Fire History Project (2006).

[11] Whyte (2016:158). Also see Norgaard (2019) on the broader meaning of fire “exclusion.”

[12] This is an age-adjusted figure. See


Many thanks to Colin Hoag for this invitation and his insightful editorial engagement. I am also grateful to Caroline Hodge and Sara Rendell for their careful reading and feedback.

Works Cited

APM Research Lab Staff. 2020. “The Color of Coronavirus: COVID-19 Deaths by Race and Ethnicity in the U.S.” August 18, 2020.

Broadfoot, Marla. 2020. “Misplaced Analogies: COVID-19 Is More Like a Wildfire Than a Wave.” Scientific American. June 29, 2020.

Burson, Randall and Angela Ross-Perfetti. 2020. “Horizons, Not Curves: Creating Space for Radical Care in a Pandemic.” The Event, the Horizon, Thematic Series. Engagement.

Callison, Candis. 2020. “The Twelve-Year Warning.” ISIS 111 (1):129-137.

Estes, Nick. 2020. “The Empire of All Maladies: Colonial Contagions and Indigenous Resistance.” The Baffler, July 2020.

Harjo, Laura. 2019. Spiral to the Stars: Mvskoke Tools of Futurity. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Jones, David S. and Stefan Helmreich. 2020. “The Shape of Epidemics.” Boston Review. June 24, 2020.

Kotsira, Eleni. 2020. “The Vanishing Land: In Search of a Myth for Samothraki.” The Event, the Horizon, Thematic Series. Engagement.

Munyikwa, Michelle. 2020. “What Could Be, but Never Has Been: Horizons of Human Rights & Racial Justice.” Unpublished manuscript for COVID Horizon project, MD-PhD Program in Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania.

Neiman, Aaron. 2020. “Have Some Mental Health: The Black Summer Bushfires, COVID-19, and the Governance of Psychic Retreat.” The Event, the Horizon, Thematic Series. Engagement.

Norgaard, Kari Marie. 2019. Salmon and Acorns Feed our People: Colonialism, Nature, and Social Action. Newark, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Petryna, Adriana. 2013[2002]. Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. New Edition with New Introduction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Petryna, Adriana. 2015. “What Is a Horizon? Navigating Thresholds in Climate Change Uncertainty.” In Modes of Uncertainty: Anthropological Cases. P. Rabinow and L. Samimian-Darash, eds. Pp. 147-164. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.

Petryna, Adriana. 2018. “Wildfires at the Edges of Science: Horizoning Work amid Runaway Change,” Cultural Anthropology 33 (4):570-595.

Petryna, Adriana. N.d. Horizoning: Human Futures Amid Runaway Natures. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Forthcoming 2021.

Rendell, Sara. 2020. “Social Distance Forever? Or, What Is a Horizon for ‘Being Near, Together with Others’?” Unpublished manuscript for COVID Horizon project, MD-PhD Program in Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania.

Root-Bernstein, Meredith. 2020. “The Epistemology of Cutting and the Metaphysics of Continuities.” The Event, the Horizon, Thematic Series. Engagement.

The Salish-Kootenai Fire History Project. 2006. “Beaver Steals Fire/Fire on the Land: A 2-DVD Educational Set.” Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Silva, Néstor L. 2020. “Cattle, Fracking, and the Problem of Latent Control in American Settler Ecology.” The Event, the Horizon, Thematic Series. Engagement.

Talahongva, Patty. 2020. “Dean Seneca: ‘Optimistic’ Tribes Are Stepping Up to the Plate During Pandemic.” Indian Country Today. Aug 12, 2020.

Whyte, Kyle Powys. 2016. “Indigenous Experience, Environmental Justice and Settler Colonialism.” In Nature and Experience: Phenomenology and the Environment. B. Bannon, ed. Pp. 157-175. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Adriana Petryna is a professor of anthropology and directs the MD-PhD Program in Anthropology which trains physician-anthropologists in clinical medicine and social science at the University of Pennsylvania. Her books include Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl (Princeton), When Experiments Travel: Clinical Trials and the Global Search for Human Subjects (Princeton), and Horizon Work: At the Edges of Knowledge in an Age of Runaway Climate Change (Princeton). She also co-edited Global Pharmaceuticals: Ethics, Markets, Practices (Duke) and When People Come First: Critical Studies in Global Health (Princeton). Petryna was a Faculty Fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values and is a recent Guggenheim Fellow.

This post is part of our thematic series: The Event, the Horizon.