The Other Side

Kevin Berger at Nautilus writes

The marquee on my closed neighborhood movie theater reads, “See you on the other side.” I like reading it every day as I pass by on my walk. It causes me to envision life after the coronavirus pandemic. Which is awfully hard to envision now. But it’s out there.

Life after coronavirus. The other side. What will it look like? Will we have learned anything? Can we make our society and ourselves better? What would that mean? What would it look like? Will we just go back to the way we were before? Or will things continue to slide downward and get worse? There are so many lessons to learn from this crisis, lessons about our society, how we care for each other, how we take care of ourselves, and how we interact with nature. What will it take for the other side to be better?

Berger takes a minimalist approach. He assumes that we will continue to expand our footprint in nature. In fact, he tells us that in seeking to make the world over to suit ourselves, we are simply behaving as the animals we are.

 “Every species, if they had the upper hand, would transform the world into what it wants,” Naeem says. “Birds build nests, bees build hives, beavers build dams. It’s called niche construction. If domestic cats ruled the world, they would make the world in their image. It would be full of litter trays, lots of birds, lots of mice, and lots of fish.”

Our remaking of our environment has consequences though. Emergent infectious diseases, mostly making the jump from wildlife to human, have quadrupled since 1940. Berger sees it as inevitable that there will be other viruses making the jump, and that some of them would result in devastating pandemics. To reduce the harm, he envisions a future where world leaders…

…get smart. They could pool money for spillover research, which would identify the hundreds of thousands of potentially lethal viruses in animals. They could coordinate pandemic preparation with international health regulations. They could support animal conservation with barriers that developers can’t cross.

But is even this minimalist goal of harm reduction possible in our current economic and political environment? Does the pervasive and growing power of corporations, the devastating level of inequality, and the short term goals of continuously increasing GDP and stock valuations place us into a pathway of an oncoming ecological train wreck? Paul Hawkins warned us of the consequences in a 2002 speech to the Bioneer Conference

We cannot correct environmental problems if we don’t correct the assumptions that cause them. Most of the world’s economy and the behavior of the world’s governments are under the control of corporations, and they are striving to increase that control. At the same time, have you noticed that the world is getting out of control? There is a direct connection between the two.

Large multi-national corporations are privatizing a greater and greater portion of our commons, our food, our genes, our water, and our land. These same corporations increasingly control of our governments, our economies and our lives with one overriding goal, increasing value for their shareholders. This has led us to short term thinking and actions that result in environmental degradation, increasing poverty, and human suffering. Including the increase in new infectious disease, As Propublica reports.

There are three ways climate influences emerging diseases. Roughly 60% of new pathogens come from animals — including those pressured by diversity loss — and roughly one-third of those can be directly attributed to changes in human land use, meaning deforestation, the introduction of farming, development or resource extraction in otherwise natural settings. Vector-borne diseases — those carried by insects like mosquitoes and ticks and transferred in the blood of infected people — are also on the rise as warming weather and erratic precipitation vastly expand the geographic regions vulnerable to contagion. Climate is even bringing old viruses back from the dead, thawing zombie contagions like the anthrax released from a frozen reindeer in 2016, which can come down from the arctic and haunt us from the past.

The lack of diversity makes the entire system less resilient and more susceptible to shocks. Climate changes, deforestation, and human expansion have the biggest impacts on species that are higher on the food chain and require more area. Bats, rats, and other small mammals can thrive in these conditions, and these are exactly the species most likely to host viruses that can jump to humans.

It is these small animals, the ones that manage to find food in garbage cans or build nests in the eaves of buildings, that are proving most adaptable to human interference and also happen to spread disease. Rodents alone accounted for more than 60% of all the diseases transmitted from animals to people, the researchers found.

Warmer temperatures and higher rainfall associated with climate change — coupled with the loss of predators — are bound to make the rodent problem worse, with calamitous implications. In 1999, for example, parts of Panama saw three times as much rainfall as usual. The rat population exploded, researchers found. And so did the viruses rats carry, along with the chances those viruses would jump to people. That same year, a fatal lung disease transmitted through the saliva, feces and urine of rats and mice called hantavirus pulmonary syndrome emerged in Panama for the first time

Hawkins calls for a fundamental change to the environmental movement.

The way to save this Earth is to focus on its people, and particularly those people who pay the highest price – women, children, communities of color, and the localized poor. The sustainability movement, without forsaking its understanding of living systems, resources, and conservation biology, must move from a resource float model of saving the Earth to a model based on human rights, the right to food, the right to livelihood, the rights to culture, and to the rights of community, and the right to self-sufficiency.

Making this change is going to require a major shift in the thinking of each of us and all of us. To put the world on a positive path for the other side is going to require that we will need to recognize on a deep level that we are all connected. We are connected to each other and to the environment. And we need to turn this realization into action.

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