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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Making Sense of Covid-19 Deaths

Herein a drama in three acts, playing out over the course of a week.  We begin with a singular editorial in the prestigious Economist magazine.  Then a response from Barnett, written soon after the editorial.  We end with pertinent quotations from various others that I noticed over the ensuing week.  Enjoy, if you can.


Act One, the Stimulus (Economist, 25 April 2020)

"Connectedness (between climate change and Covid-19), though, is no excuse for sloppy thinking. The two scourges are not usefully treated as the same problem—of excessive economic growth clogging the sky as it encroaches on the wildernesses where new pathogens lurk. There is no single rethinking or rejection of the way humans live today that will solve both…the pandemic is not, as some say, 'nature's reset'. Such thinking easily slips into the misanthropy that can lead environmentalists to see people themselves as the problem."


Act Two, the Response (Barnett)

The hundreds of thousands—and counting—deaths due to the Covid-19 pandemic teach us about how humans must live on this planet, if we know how to see it.  This latest disease leaped into human society from our incessant push into wild areas heretofore relatively untouched by humanity.


 Covid-19 is merely the latest (and certainly not the last) disease transmitted to humans from animals (zoonoses) this past century: 1918 Spanish flu (the first H1N1 virus pandemic, claiming 50 million victims); 1981 HIV/AIDS; 1993 Hantavirus; 2002 SARS coronavirus; 2009 swine flu (the second H1N1 pandemic); 2012 MERS coronavirus; and 2013 and 2017 Ebola virus (with a 50% mortality rate).  Virtually all these diseases were transmitted from wild animals into whose habitats humans had recently spread with greater frequency. Worldwide we see the relentless advance of chain saws and bulldozers transforming forests and savannas into small farms or, more likely, palm oil or avocado plantations, exposing us to pathogens for which we are unprepared. 


How many such zoonotic viruses might leap to humans in the coming months and years?  Evidence suggests Covid-19 came from a species of bats.  There are some 1,400 species of bats worldwide, mainly in the tropics, each with between one and five types of coronavirus in their populations.  (By comparison, humans have 7 varieties of coronavirus, counting the recent Covid-19.)  Accounting for probable overlap among the bat species, UC Davis researcher Tracy Goldstein and colleagues, in a 2017 study of bats in 20 African, South American, and Asian countries, calculated that more than 3,000 varieties of coronavirus are circulating in bats alone—and potentially able to leap into encroaching human populations. This number does not count coronavirus types in rodents and primates, also vectors of epidemic diseases into humans. And it does not look at other virus types, such as the distinctive Ebolavirus. The next pandemic, clearly, is only a question of when, not if.  And the wait will not likely be long.


Simultaneously, our ballooning human population and urban density provide the perfect breeding ground for new pathogens to flourish.  Just as a vast field packed with corn plants is the optimal condition for crop pathogens that can extract a living from that organism, so dense cities dotting the countryside provide irresistible conditions for diseases able to thrive and extract their own living from packed masses of Homo sapiens.  Yes, to viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites, humans are just wonderfully large bundles of food and energy, waiting to be harvested.  And we could hardly manage ourselves any better to entice and provide easy access of ourselves to these organisms with which we share the earth—like it or not.


But these are superficial lessons, as superficial as demonstrations against oil corporations or pleas to control human population size.  When we dig deeper, we see that the fundamental, root cause of these pandemics is the same as that producing climate change and plunging biodiversity of insects, whales, and other life forms.  Underlying all these phenomena that are about to bring the human endeavor to a screeching, horrifying halt on this planet is a single factor: the prevailing view that humans are central, that humans are superior to all other creatures, that humans can drill, mine, dig, dam, transform, burn, destroy, kill, and otherwise plunder the planet for profit without any consequences that we can't fix.  All this is OK because we alone are godlike and given the planet to exploit.  It says so in the Bible and the Koran; look it up.  And for most of human civilization for the past 4,500 years, this view integrally includes the conviction that our brief lives here on earth really don't matter much, certainly not as important as an eternal life we will have in heaven after our earthly deaths.  Whatever we do to the earth is likewise not very important, because it is our eternal afterlife in a transcendent, other world that really counts. 


Though we may not consciously be aware of this underlying human-centered worldview, it is a given, a way of interpreting our world, a widespread agreement that has underlain and permeated human society and all our lives for thousands upon thousands of years.  Like fish immersed in water, we unconsciously take it for granted and don't dream of questioning it. It gives rise to the ravenous consumer society that today engulfs the world.  It blinds us to the inherent contradiction and impossibility of an economic system that assumes—that is predicated upon—perpetual, infinite economic growth on a planet that is clearly finite in its resources.  Capitalism is transparently a Ponzi scheme, that can only survive by continuous and increasing destruction of the earth.  So long as humans were a relatively minor component on the planet, we could persist in these contradictory, destructive views and the myriad practices emerging from them. 


No longer.  Now we are seven billion, on schedule to be 9 billion by mid-century, and 12 billion by the advent of the next century.  We have destroyed 95% of the rainforests from which we originally emerged onto the savannas.  A 2018 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that of the incredible, swarming hordes of wild mammals on the planet's land and sea when the human mammal began its vaunted "civilization," 83% of the land mammals have since been lost, and 80% of the marine mammals.  Today, by biomass, humans comprise 36% of the world's mammals, our livestock another 60%.  A mere 4% of mammal biomass today are wild mammals; many of these (including tigers and African elephants) are destined for the final insult from humans—extinction—within the next half century.  Our fellow mammals no longer share the planet with us; we dominate it, and they have been decisively shoved aside and soon virtually all will be gone. 


Modern science is a relatively recent phenomenon.  In just the past two centuries it has utilized its impartial, fact-based, experimental mode of investigation to establish that this entire human-centered, transcendent worldview is nonsense.  A multitude of scientific findings tell us—if we have eyes to see and ears to hear—that in fact humans are not central.  That humans are merely one part of an integral whole, all dependent on vast biogeochemical cycles with critical input from bacteria, the water cycles linking fresh water with the oceans, and plants converting sunshine into the nutrients upon which all life is based.  Without our fellow creatures and the planetary cycles linking us to them, we could not have evolved and cannot continue to live.  Life—ours included—is not human-centered; it is, in fact, earth-centered (or Gaiacentric, using the ancient Greek word for the earth). 


Though these facts are crystal clear, the overwhelming mass of humanity refuses to see.  None are so blind as those who will not see, as the prophet Jeremiah and the satirist Jonathon Swift remind us.  Yet some recent observers have broken free of the constraints of the human-centered worldview to notice how the world really works.  Pope Francis: "Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature…We do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way."  And journalist Naomi Klein:  "The task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis."


Just so. But this realization on the part of a few has not been matched by any serious, consequential steps to challenge the transcendent, human-centered worldview, and instead promote the acceptance of a worldview based on reality.  Pope Francis correctly saw that education would be key, but nothing has in actuality been done, by him, by mainline environmental organizations, by world governments, or the curriculum of our great universities.  Nothing.  This disconnect between the perception of the underlying problem, and action to remedy it with the articulation and adoption of a new worldview that reflects the reality of human life on the planet, accounts for our current predicament.  No number of demonstrations or boycotts or pleas for divestment will be sufficiently consequential to effect real change so long as the underlying worldview permeating our view of reality is unchanged and, incredibly, unchallenged.  Like fish we are doomed to swim immersed in the water of our old, nonsensical worldview, and nothing important changes—or can change, so long as the old worldview reigns.  Victories will be small and the lumbering inertia of the old worldview will continue to steal the earth from our children.


What would it take to change the transcendent, human-centered worldview?  A vast educational campaign that would articulate the old worldview, mercilessly point out its fallacies and its contradiction of reality, and proceed to forcefully articulate a new earth-centered worldview, its extensive proof provided by science (and by our current catastrophes), and the absolute necessity to adopt the new worldview post-haste and model our actions upon it. 


Easy to say.  Evidently, difficult to do.  But there is no other approach fundamental enough to evade the tsunami of death and worldwide destruction bearing down upon human civilization today.  No one cognizant of science and the way the real world operates can pretend that Covid-19 will not be succeeded by another pandemic—and that not so very far in the future.  The current and impending catastrophes of climate change have been well-catalogued. So long as the human-centered, transcendent worldview is unchallenged and unchanged, all our well-meaning demonstrations, speeches, goals, lofty resolutions, and plans for the future are utterly meaningless.  No—worse than meaningless, because they fool us into thinking that we can handle climate change and pandemics and plummeting biodiversity without fundamentally changing how we perceive reality—our worldview. 


Three decades have passed since climate crisis was announced in a 1988 congressional hearing by Goddard Institute director James Hansen, and spelled out the next year in The End of Nature by Bill McKibben.  Mr McKibben evidently hoped that simply penning a clear explanation of the problem would inspire people to action to solve it.  Thirty one years later, Mr. McKibben is still organizing demonstrations and getting arrested, and has galvanized the entire climate change movement. Alas, viewed starkly, the movement has made remarkably little serious, concrete headway on the national or international level—due in large part to a mute acceptance of the old, prevailing worldview.


I assayed a first articulation of a comprehensive, earth-centered worldview (the "Immanent worldview") in my 2016 book on John Muir (Earth Wisdom: John Muir, Accidental Taoist, Charts Humanity's Only Future on a Changing Planet).  There I also showed that certain facets of the Chinese religion/philosophy of Taoism contained virtually the same worldview as Muir indicated in his journals.  (And accounted for the surprising similarity; both Muir and the mountain-dwelling Taoists came to it by the same method, as described in the ancient Tao Te Ching:  "How do I know the world is like this? By looking!").  Now I am finishing a book on Mesolithic and Neolithic human cultures in Europe and China (The Gardeners of Gaia), which argues (persuasively, I think) that the same earth-centered, immanent worldview ruled there for ten thousand years prior to the advent of the Bronze and Iron Ages. 


Two books by an obscure California scientist clearly isn't nearly enough to do the job, though.  I freely admit that I plug away more in the spirit of the Roman Catholic confessional phrase (used also by Marx in 1875) Dixi et salvavi animam meam, "I have spoken and saved my soul," literally, though in my case, more like "I've said my piece, and assuaged my spirit."  But perhaps, just perhaps between these efforts and those of the very many good people (foremost among them the above-mentioned Bill McKibben, for whom I have enormous admiration) struggling to save humanity from its rush to destruction, maybe we'll be able to save a remnant to rebuild human culture along more sustainable lines.  That is my prayer, for my kids and grandkids. 


Act Three, Input from others the ensuing week

Thomas Lovejoy, George Mason University, acknowledged "Father of Biodiversity": "This pandemic is the consequence of our persistent and excessive intrusion in nature and the vast illegal wildlife trade…this is not nature's revenge; we did it to ourselves."


Leading biodiversity experts Josef Settele, Sandra Diaz, Eduardo Brondizio, and Peter Daszak, members of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES): 

"There is a single species responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic—us. Recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity, particularly our global financial and economic systems that prize economic growth at any cost.


"Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a 'perfect storm' for the spillover of diseases…These activities cause pandemics by bringing more people into contact and conflict with animals, from which 70% of emerging human diseases originate," they say. Combined with urbanization and the explosive growth of global air travel, this enabled a harmless virus in Asian bats to bring "untold human suffering and halt economics and societies around the world. This is the human hand in pandemic emergence. Yet (Covid-19) may be only the beginning.


"Future pandemics are likely to happen more frequently, spread more rapidly, have greater economic impact and kill more people if we are not extremely careful about the possible impacts of the choices we make today…It may be politically expedient to relax environmental standards and to prop up industries such as intensive agriculture, airlines, and fossil-fuel-dependent sectors, but doing so without requiring urgent and fundamental change essentially subsidizes the emergence of future pandemics.


"Business as usual will not work. Business as usual right now for pandemics is waiting for them to emerge and hoping for a vaccine. That's not a good strategy. We need to deal with the underlying drivers…We can emerge from the current crisis stronger and more resilient than ever, by choosing actions that protect nature, so that nature can help to protect us."


Inger Andersen, UN environment chief:  ""Nature is sending us a message…Failing to take care of the planet means not taking care of ourselves."


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