The COVID-19 pandemic is the “covid-ary” in the coal mine. it is an acute distress signal from a world that has been exploited, pillaged, and brutalized, and one from which we now bear the diseased fruit of our poisoned planetary garden.
It is remarkable how something so diminutive, almost gentle and ethereal in nature, has upended our world. That something, of course, is SARS-nCoV-2, the novel virus that causes COVID-19. It has swept the globe and ensnared our civilization in a web of macabre destruction. What was once consigned to the realm of science fiction has become manifest in front of our very eyes: billions in lockdown, scrambling scientists, rippling fear, overflowing morgues. How did we get here? This is the question which consumes and confounds us. The punditry class points to missteps by China, the sclerotic WHO, the psychopathic apathy of a few world leaders. While these do have merit, our present dystopia is grounded in a much more fundamental issue: the destruction of nature.
The novel coronavirus likely originated at a wet market in Wuhan with an infamous wildlife section. Exotic animals were reportedly stacked on top of each other in squalid cages, making for a vertical petri dish of microbial exchange. A probable scenario, although yet to be fully proven, is that a bat transmitted the virus to a host, likely a pangolin, where it evolved and recombined, before an unwitting person, perhaps a sojourner with a penchant for unorthodox cuisine, caught the virus and spread it in a city with a direct connection to global hubs such as New York and Rome. And bang, here we are, siloed in our own homes, masked and apprehensive of the wayward breath or touch, familiarized with a previously esoteric lexicon of “asymptomatic” and “cytokine storm,” ever-more dependent on a digital, contactless life.
And yet, this virulent warning sign has fallen on deaf ears, as if we have awoken in a burning house and bemoan that the alarms have been falsely set off again.
While the exact chain of transmission is important to decode, the reason why we got into this mess is less difficult to figure out. Is it really a surprise, to anyone, that extracting wild animals from their natural habitat, caging them in putrid conditions with other feral creatures, and slaughtering them in a bustling urban market will have no discernible repercussions? Perhaps, to some, this might come as a great surprise. Treating our great Gaia and its myriad of inhabitants with moral dignity has become such a radical idea that it is either derided as hippy cosmology or ecological extremism. And this is precisely the problem. The COVID-19 pandemic is the “covid-ary” in the coal mine. It is an acute distress signal from a world that has been exploited, pillaged, and brutalized, and one from which we now bear the diseased fruit of our poisoned planetary garden. And yet, this virulent warning sign has fallen on deaf ears, as if we have awoken in a burning house and bemoan that the alarms have been falsely set off again.
To be sure, I do not intend to shame those convinced that humanity is separate from nature. Indeed, this artificial bifurcation is the West’s civilizational canon. Look no further than the Bible to unearth the genesis (no pun intended) of this pervasive dogma. Genesis 1:28 states “let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth… fill the earth and subdue it.” The Bible furnishes us with the belief that we are the divine custodians of God’s green earth and that we are to manipulate it to our pleasing. This credo is also well established in Enlightenment thinking. For example, Francis Bacon wrote in 1623 in De Augmentis Scientiarum “for you have but to follow and as is it were hound nature in her wanderings… neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into to these holes and corners.” Bacon, who Naomi Klein pithily dubs the “patron saint” of economic extractivism, promulgated a worldview that the earth is but an extraterrestrial specimen which we can bore, prod, and poke in the noble pursuit of treasure, both tangential and intellectual. It is interesting to note that both the Bible, quite obviously religious, and the Enlightenment, famously secular, espouse unabashed anthropocentrism. Since Enlightenment ideals and religious principles (albeit increasingly less so) form much of our Western civilizational basis, it is easy to understand why the insular nature narrative continues to have so much clout.
But, if COVID-19 is nothing less than a revolutionary wake-up call that purges our society of this reckless fantasy, then I seriously fear for our long-term prosperity. We must make urgent, system-wide changes to not only stifle future pandemics but to also stave off ecological collapse. This panacea requires the preservation of biodiversity and reduction in planetary warming, a colossal undertaking which we are not even close to attaining. In fact, science suggests that we are moving in the wrong direction.
Due to our growth obsession and overconsumption, we find ourselves in the midst of a 6th mass extinction, a “biological annihilation” poised to eradicate up to 1 million animal and plant species within decades. This ecological genocide is directly tied to increased rates of zoonosis, as our incursion into pristine habitats leads to more frequent human-wildlife interactions and concomitant exposure to animal pathogens. Nowhere is this dynamic more apparent than in the emergence of COVID-19. Horseshoe bats, the likely source of contagion, have co-evolved with hundreds of different coronaviruses over the course of many millennia, representing an ancient viral stew which up until now was confined to their deeply forested habitat. Yet it took just one wildlife trafficker to puncture an incisive hole, flushing contagion from the once sheltered foothills to the fertile ground of an interconnected global city. Only once we understand that environmental abuse is human abuse, can we hope to prevent future global outbreaks.
Instead, convinced by the folly that we are untethered from nature, we choose to play god, donning lab coats and brewing potions that underwrite the next global outbreak.
However, it’s not just the treatment of wild animals and their habitats which we have to ameliorate, but also our own agricultural systems. Mechanized farming, in particular, has been an unmitigated environmental disaster. Motivated by an ever-elusive bottom line, mega agricultural corporations have pioneered systems, that, while efficient in producing meat, obliterate biological boundaries. Animals are now genetically modified to satiate the needs of our carnivorous consumerism, crammed together in sprawling steel warehouses, pumped full of antibiotics, and sent to the slaughterhouse with utmost expediency. Not only has this cruel system precipitated untold animal suffering and bounties of planet-warming carbon, but it also a perfect breeding ground for zoonotic diseases. While we have become so accustomed to the cornucopia of meat at our gleaming supermarkets, we choose to ignore the great environmental toll embodied in a packet of poultry or slab of steak. Instead, convinced by the folly that we are untethered from nature, we choose to play god, donning lab coats and brewing potions that underwrite the next global outbreak.
Climate change, too, will fuel the emergence of future pandemics. Diseases sequestered in the Arctic cryosphere for millions of years are at risk of being released due to global temperature rise. Set free from a chilly purgatory, an ancient anthrax would spell obvious disaster for our inexperienced immune systems. Yet even more worrisome is the spread of pre-existing diseases. As the Earth warms, tropical scourges will happily relocate to previous terra incognita. For example, the tropics are expanding at a rate of 30 miles per decade, which means that not only palm trees but also diseases like yellow fever and malaria will proliferate. The atmosphere, it turns out, is not an anthropogenic dumping ground but a sensitive membrane in which the slightest modification in composition will unleash a panoply of vicious impacts, not least a prehistoric plague or tropical epidemic.
However, if we do not fix our broken relationship with nature, then COVID-19 will be nothing more than a viral Cassandra.
The great hope is that COVID-19 will finally expose our collective derangement and lead to a cascade of changes that forge ecological equilibrium. However, if we do not fix our broken relationship with nature, then COVID-19 will be nothing more than a viral Cassandra. We are accustomed to the idea that Mother Nature is just that, a doting parent that coddles us and sees to our every whim. Yet this nothing but delusional romanticism, for Mother Nature is bruised and beaten, and the coming retaliation will wash over us like a deluge of reality.
Art by Timo Marchant