16 May 2020
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Part 2 of 2: The Natural World and Civid-19
As the global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt lives - and ‘business as usual’ - many are looking for explanations. In part, this is because this is the fourth time this century that humans have been hit by a zoonotic pandemic or epidemic: in 2002, and again in 2004, there was SARS; in 2012, there was MERS; and, from 2013-16, there was the Ebola epidemic.
One aspect that all four infections have in common is that they were all viruses - zoonotic pathogens - that crossed over from wildlife species to humans. The first two - SARS and MERS - like Covid-19, were both coronaviruses; Ebola was a filovirus.
A second feature of these recent infections is that they can all be linked to the climate and ecological crises which have all got worse since the start of this century. Jem Bendell is one researcher and writer who has made the point that climate change has made humans more vulnerable to such viruses. For instance, he explains how declining food sources force wild species - such as bats - to range into new areas:
In addition, lack of sufficient food sources renders such species weaker and therefore more susceptible to infections.
Another factor he highlights is how climate change is increasing our risk of catching diseases like Covid19 by its impact in destroying and degrading natural habitats, and by the resultant biodiversity loss. As he explains: “The reduction of the total number of wild animals like birds and bats has implications for our exposure to disease. Why? Because these are ‘reservoir host populations’ for pathogens, and the fewer birds and bats there are, then pathogen concentration and mixing tends to be higher (for reasons of lowered genetic diversity and easier spread). This increases ‘spillover risk’ for zoonotic infections to humans.”
The New Age of Epidemics
Another to have warned recently about the likelihood of this increased risk of new infections and pandemics because of the growing convergence of ecological crises is Ian Angus:
“Global warming…Species extinction…Deforestation…New diseases and plagues. The list goes on. We face a planetary emergency,…”
However, it is not just global warming and climate change that is causing the loss of natural habitats and biodiversity. As has been seen, one of the biggest drivers of the destruction of natural habitats - and of the resulting ‘Sixth Mass Extinction’ of species - is the global
capitalist agricultural system. This is especially true of the industrialised meat and dairy industries, which, firstly, destroy ever-larger sections of the natural world; and, secondly, also create unhealthy conditions for factory-farmed animals, which make it much easier for animal viruses to cross-over to humans. In addition, there is the use and abuse of wild animals - such as the capturing, breeding and eating of various species.
Even during this pandemic, Bolsonaro has stepped up the destruction of the tropical rainforest in Brazil - from August 2019 to March 2020, satellite photographs show that an area the size of Germany has been cleared. Yet scientists and researchers have known for some time that disturbance and destruction of such natural habitats is one of the principal drivers of the transfer of animal-borne infectious diseases from wild animals to humans. Kate Jones, Chair of Ecology and Biodiversity at University College London, has said that such developments are resulting in an “increasing and very significant threat to global health, security and economies.”
In 2008, she was part of a research team that determined that at least 60% of the 335 new diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004 originated with non-human animals.
To deal with the wider ecological dimensions of this pandemic, as Alan Thornett explains in a very timely article:
will involve “…a revolution in the infrastructure, [in] how we live; the size of cities, how we travel, and what we eat. The task is gigantic but there is no alternative if we are to forge a sustainable future for the planet which resolves the contradiction between ourselves as modern humans and [the] myriad of other non-human species we live alongside.”
In a way, pathogens like Covid-19 could be seen as Nature’s equivalent of Walt Kowalski in the film Gran Torino (2008), taking its revenge on humans for the damage we are doing to it:
“ Ever noticed how you come across somebody once in a while that you shouldn’t have f**ked with? That’s me.”
One very radical way to overcome these problems is proposed by world-renowned biologist Edward Wilson, who has argued for what has been described as “a visionary blueprint for saving the planet”. This blueprint calls for half of the surface of the Earth to be dedicated to nature. He sees such a scheme as essential if we are to stave off the mass extinction of species - including of humans. Essentially, he sees the current situation as too large to be solved by piecemeal measures, because: “For the first time in history, a conviction has developed among those who can actually think more than a decade ahead that we are facing a global endgame. Humanity’s grasp on the planet is not strong. It is growing weaker.”
E. O. Wilson’s Half-Earth project
He goes on to argue that anything less than half would not be enough to deal with the threats currently being faced by the natural world: “Unless humanity learns a great deal more about global diversity and moves quickly to protect it, we will soon lose most of the species composing life on Earth. The Half-Earth proposal offers a first, emergency solution commensurate with the magnitude of the problem: I am convinced that only by setting aside half the planet in reserve, or more, can we save the living part of the environment and achieve the stabilization required for our own survival.”
As has already been seen, one aspect of human activity which has already destroyed large amounts of natural habitats and biodiversity is the ever-expanding meat and dairy components of capitalist agriculture. This ‘conventional’ agricultural system needs to be changed in order to save what remains of biodiversity - and one of the quickest ways to do so would be, at very least, to drastically reduce meat and dairy consumption. This would allow some already-existing agricultural land to be used, instead, to provide humans with plant-based sources of proteins and other nutrients. In addition, other areas of land could be returned to the natural world. Such a move would also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions - and thus contribute to the slowing of global
warming which is another factor destroying so much of the natural habitat required by so many species.
In addition, a shift to a more plant-based diet for humans would play a big part in reducing humanity’s overall ecological footprint, which is necessary to allow the development of a genuinely-sustainable economic system. This doesn’t mean less food for humans - on the contrary, it actually means more food; and food which is not full of the antibiotics and hormones that are often present in meat and dairy products. Such a shift would also form an essential element in creating a world where wealth would be based on quality of life rather than on the quantity of material goods.
This is a view expressed by the UK’s Royal Society, in their 2012 Report, People and the Planet - which was subsequently endorsed by a global network of scientists and ecologists. In particular, it referred to the need for “systematically decoupling economic activity from environmental impact” and pointed out the urgent need to reduce “…deforestation, and land use…” Instead, the Report saw greater valuing of “natural capital” as the way to improve human welfare so that people can flourish rather than just survive;
Currently, it can be argued that the destruction of so many ecosystems - and the Sixth Mass Extinction of species such destruction is causing - is a threat as big as that posed by the worsening Climate Crisis. As Covid-19 is currently showing, both of these linked and deadly Anthropocene developments are linked to the increased frequency of pandemics.
The Half-Earth proposal also makes sense as an insurance policy: because, in addition to global warming and the destruction of so much of the natural world, there will always be natural disasters to contend with. Our Anthropocene epoch has seen many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that have impacted on human life - and earlier epochs have also experienced significant climate damage as a result of asteroid strikes. By ensuring sufficient biodiversity remains on Earth, the chances of coping with such additional natural crises are significantly increased.
What is to be done?
An important point to grasp as regards the destruction of the natural world is that it’s not, per se, a problem of ‘excessive consumption’ by humans, all of which thus needs to be limited. Rather, it is a problem of the types of consumption - of many products, including food - associated with capitalism. In a more rational society, as Ernest Mandel commented, instead of: “The continual accumulation of more and more goods (with declining ‘marginal utility’)…” other priorities, such as “…the protection of health and life” would “become major motivations once basic material needs have been satisfied.”
Ultimately, infinite economic growth is incompatible with the increasingly fragile ecosystems on what is a finite planet. Thus a more ecologically-sustainable society, more in tune with the natural environment, would make decisions to repair, as quickly as possible, the enormous environmental damage already inflicted on the natural world by global capitalism. For instance, in order to preserve the Earth’s ecological equilibrium, certain branches of production - such as the meat and dairy industries, industrial-scale fishing, and the destructive logging of tropical rainforests - should be discontinued or, at the least, drastically reduced.
Additionally, such a society would reduce or even abolish certain products, whilst subsidising and expanding those that could be produced in harmony with ecosystems and the non-human species living on this planet. It would also seek to move to greater local production for local consumption - something that the global pandemic lock-downs is currently enforcing - in order to enhance food security and further reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The creation of sustainable agro-ecosystems would go a long way to help achieve this.
Veganism, animals and the planet
As regards food production, there is a pressing need to eliminate the polluting industrial meat and dairy agri-businesses. Fortunately, there is already a rapidly-growing trend - especially, but not exclusively, amongst young people - to adopt vegan or vegetarian diets. Whilst separate ‘life-style’ actions taken by individuals will not, on their own, bring about the rapid significant changes needed to protect the natural world, such moves should nonetheless be warmly welcomed - and encouraged. This is a development which shows the emergence of a more humane and respectful approach to nature. As Gandhi is reputed to have said: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Or, to put it another way: “Nothing changes if nobody changes.”
In the end, though, as Ian Angus says, the only way to avoid “a catastrophic convergence of multiple Earth System failures” (of which
global capitalist agriculture is one crucial element) is to use “…methods that are anathema to capitalism. Profit must be removed from consideration; all changes must be made as part of a democratically created and legally binding global plan that governs both the conversion to renewables and the rapid elimination of industries and activities, such as…factory farming, that only produce what John Ruskin called ‘illth’, the opposite of wealth.”
However, whilst any prospects of a ‘green’ capitalism are rapidly evaporating, it is nonetheless important to push for some immediate reforms. In part, this is because we desperately need to win time and mitigate the harms currently being done by the ‘system’. In addition: “The struggle for ecosocial reforms can be the vehicle for dynamic change, a ‘transition’ between minimal demands and the maximal program, provided one rejects the pressure and arguments of the ruling interests for ‘competitiveness and ‘modernization’ in the name of the ‘rules of the market’.”
Another useful action will be to get behind campaigns that chip away at the ability of corporations to continue their attacks on the natural world - for instance, the various fossil-fuel divestment campaigns waged by groups like 350.org. In addition, as well as winning some immediate reforms, it will also be necessary to block any policies or actions by corporations or the government that will make the situation even worse. Hence the need to oppose any attempts to re-start fracking, once the lock-down has ended. With time so short, we need to slow or reverse capitalism’s ecologically-suicidal activities.
Ultimately, however, there will be no radical transformations - of the kind now desperately needed - without a radical ecosocialist programme being embraced by a sufficient mass of people.
As Naomi Klein (This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate) has said: “…only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed…[the only hope is that] some countervailing power will emerge to block the road, and simultaneously clear some alternate pathways to destinations that are safer. If that happens, well, it changes everything.” The rise of ‘Corbynism’ has shown the potential for inspiring huge enthusiasm for radical change. Extinction Rebellion, too, has shown what can be achieved in a very short time - XR wasn’t even launched until October 2018 - to build a new mass social movement.
However, to create a really powerful and effective movement, that will promote what E. P. Thompson called the “human ecological imperative”, it will be necessary to draw in a large proportion of the working classes. This could be done by XR becoming more ‘political’ about the ‘System Change’ it so rightly calls for: an explicit endorsement of a radical ecosocialist programme of reforms would be a really big positive step towards this. We now have very little time left in which to halt capitalism’s increasingly destructive course.
Although things look bad right now, it is important to try to follow Antonio Gramsci’s advice: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Essentially, if we don’t fight, we - and the Earth - will lose. Perhaps, to get some serious momentum behind such developments - and to give us the vision we so badly need of a better and more sustainable world - we should ask Ken Loach to make a 2020 version of his brilliantly-effective documentary film, The Spirit of ’45 (2013).
Allan Todd is a member of Left Unity, an environmental and anti-fascist activist, and author of Revolutions 1789-1917