It is all connected: Climate Change, Deforestation, Economics, Ethics, Values and the Pandemic

  • Mother Nature bats last
  • Mother Nature is a real bitch
  • Mother Nature has a sick sense of humor
  • It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature

Is Mother Nature pissed off? Is Covid-19 revenge for humankind’s assault on nature? Writing in Foreign Policy, Alan Levinovitz tells us that this kind of thinking is driven by ideology, and gives us answers that are simple, and wrong. Leveinovitz looks at theories coming from the left and the right, finding that both sides believe

” that systems, whether biological or political, are naturally harmonious, and disorder is always the result of unnatural interference.

While the ideologically infected responses vary significantly, ranging from immigration, to eating meat, to conspiracy theories alleging that the virus was created in a Bill Gates founded lab, they have one thing in common

They all exploit the human desire for a simplistic binary that explains good and evil, traditionally articulated in terms of natural and unnatural systems. Obey the laws of those systems and flourish. Disobey and suffer.

The persuasiveness of the natural/unnatural binary is not confined to those who endorse conspiracy theories, natural medicine, and radical nationalism. In fact, it is underwritten by standard epidemiological discourse about the causes of COVID-19. In a typical turn of phrase, the disease ecologist Kevin Olival explained to National Geographic that “when you bring animals together in these unnatural situations, you have the risk of human diseases emerging.” Writing in the New York Times, David Quammen identifies unnatural human activity as the culprit for our current situation: “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

The implications are clear. Ecosystems in their natural state are balanced, harmonious, and safe. Problems arise when we meddle with those systems. And not just coronavirus: invasive species, climate change, habitat destruction, pandemics of any kind—these are all a function of our artificial hubris, our dense cities, our interconnected global community and the industries that support it.

Levinovitz wants us to stop using “natural” and “unnatural” as judgments.

Naturalness is an ambiguous metaphysics, an empty and powerful cipher which we can fill however we like. It’s entirely possible—indeed, it is essential—to condemn dangerous activities that might lead to COVID-19 without invoking a broader criteria of natural goodness.

The internet is filled with people who disagree with Levinovitz. Evaggelos Vallianatos calls Covid-19 “Nature’s revenge”

The corona virus pandemic is no accident. Like past global epidemics, it’s a warning that nature has had it with the ecocidal proclivities of man. These outrageous actions are changing climate and are warming and threatening planet Earth. Nature (the Earth) is fighting back. Climate change is sowing pandemic diseases.

I am always uncomfortable with people who anthropomorphize the environment. Ecosystems, nature, viruses, evolution don’t have intention or emotions the way humans do. Saying that “Nature is angry with us” or that “Nature is taking revenge” as though we could take nature out for a cup of coffee and calm it down is misleading and harmful.

Thinking that natural ecosystems are “balanced, harmonious, and safe” is an equally dangerous assumption. Natural ecosystems are consistently in turmoil with species from microscopic to gargantuan battling, competing, and cooperating to find their niche. Even so, ecosystems that are diverse tend to be more robust and healthier. As the diversity of an ecosystem is diminished, the entire ecosystem becomes more fragile and more susceptible to shocks.

And there is no doubt that human activity has resulted in shrunken, less diverse, and more fragile ecosystems throughout the world. Our interaction with these ecosystems exposes us to increased risks of many kinds, including pandemics

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