Are we listening to the virus?

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Humans are not the masters of nature, they are part of it, and must treat it with respect

A little virus has “locked down” our planet and our lives. It has stepped further down, to shut the global economy — having snuffed out the lives of thousands, and livelihoods of millions who share our planet. 

What is this coronavirus trying to tell us about ourselves — who make up the human species, our dominant economic and technological paradigms, and our Mother Earth?

First and foremost — our lockdown moment is reminding us that the Earth is for sharing, with all other species. And, when we step back and make streets car-free, air pollution is reduced. Elephants can come to the shores near Lake Victoria, and bathe in the river Zambezi. A leopard likes to roam freely in Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, India. 

The next lesson is that this pandemic is not a natural disaster — just as climate extremes are not natural disasters. Emergent disease epidemics are, like climate change, “anthropogenic” — caused by human activities.

Science keeps reminding us human beings, that as we invade forest eco-systems, destroy the homes of species and manipulate plants and animals for profits, we create conditions for new diseases. Over the past 50 years, 300 new pathogens have emerged. 

It is well-documented that around 70% of the human pathogens, including HIV, Ebola, influenza, MERS, and SARS, emerged only after forest eco-systems were invaded, thus allowing these deadly viruses to jump from animals to humans.

Again, when animals are cramped in factory farms for profit maximization, new diseases like swine flu and bird flu spread.

Human greed, with no respect for the rights of other species or even for our fellow human beings, is at the root of this pandemic and future pandemics. A global economy based on the illusion of limitless growth is destined to translate into a pit of limitless appetite for the Earth’s resources, which in turn shall translate into limitless violation of planetary boundaries, eco-system boundaries, and species boundaries. The possibilities are endless.

The third lesson is that the virus is making its best efforts to wake us up — to let us know that the health-survival emergency is connected to the emergency of extinction and disappearance of species. This is connected to the climate emergency. 

When we use toxic materials or poisons as insecticides and herbicides to kill insects and plants, the extinction crisis becomes an unavoidable reality. When we burn fossil carbon that the Earth fossilized over 600 million years ago, we also violate planetary boundaries. And then, climate change is the likely outcome.

Scientists have warned us that if we do not stop this anthropogenic war against the Earth and her species, in a hundred years we will have destroyed the very conditions that allowed humans to evolve and survive. 

Our extinction will follow that of the 200 other species that are being pushed to extinction every day. We will become one more of the one million species threatened with extinction because of human greed, arrogance, and irresponsibility.

All life-threatening emergencies of our times are rooted in a mechanistic, militaristic, anthropocentric worldview of humans as separate from nature — as masters of the Earth who can own, manipulate, and control other species as objects for profit. 

It is also rooted in an economic model that views ecological and ethical limits as obstructions that must be removed for increasing growth of corporate profits. We need to understand — this model has no place for the rights of Mother Earth, rights of other species, rights of human beings, and the rights of future generations.

And in the course of our ongoing crisis leading towards post-lockdown recovery, we also need to learn how to protect Mother Earth — including her climate systems, rights, and ecological spaces of diverse species, indigenous people, women, farmers, and workers.

Our leaders have to shift from the economics of greed and limitless growth, which has pushed us towards an existential crisis. We need to wake up to the fact that we are members of an Earth family, and the real economy goes forth to create the “economy of care” — for the planet and for each other.

Therefore, to avoid future pandemics, future famines, and a possible scenario of expendable, throw-away people, we must move beyond the globalized, industrialized economic system which is driving climate change, pushing species to extinction, and spreading life-threatening diseases. Localization leaves space for diverse species, diverse cultures, and diverse local living economies to thrive.

Then again, we have to consciously reduce our ecological footprint so we leave a just share of resources and ecological space for other species, all humans and future generations.

The health emergency and lockdown have revealed the need for a political will, to enable us to “deglobalize.” Let us make this deglobalization of the economy a permanent feature, and localize production in line with the demands of nature.

We have experienced how close our children wish to be with nature. Let us not deny them from doing so. They have taught us a major lesson of survival, for over three decades. Our collective efforts to promote local, biodiverse, organic food systems shall provide healthy food to all while regenerating soil, water, and biodiversity.

Biodiversity richness in our forests, our farms, our food, our gut microbiome, connects the planet, her diverse species, including humans, through health, instead of through disease.

A little virus can help us make a quantum leap to create a planetary, ecological civilization based on harmony with nature. Or, we can continue to live in the illusion of mastery over nature and move fast forward to the next pandemic. And finally — to extinction.

This Earth will continue to evolve, with or without us.

Nazarul Islam is an educator based in Chicago.