Let us not despair, but learn lessons

Andrew Pratt of Plymouth Green Party argues that following the coronavirus outbreak human society must progress in a way that respects the natural world to create resilience and mitigate the risk of future crises of the magnitude that we are currently living through.

Sun on the horizon
Sun on the horizon
Andrew Pratt

Let us not despair, but learn lessons. Nature has warned us again. We should not be surprised by the rapid and devastating spread of the new Covid-19 virus. There are now so many people on this planet, travelling around and exchanging goods at unprecedented rates, against the backdrop of the global environmental crises.

For multiple reasons, including for tackling climate change and protecting the fundamental earth system processes we rely upon, we must cease our collective assault on biodiversity and the systematic over-exploitation of the natural world.

In this case we have facilitated the zoonotic transfer of the Covid-19 virus into the human population, as the virus has almost certainly emerged from a live animal market – which included many wild animals – in China. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate in animals.

An excellent article by John Vidal in the Guardian describes some of key processes at work, quoting David Quammen (author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic) in the New York Times: “We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbour so many species of animals and plants – and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses…  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 Guardian cites Kate Jones (Chair of Ecology and Biodiversity at UCL) explaining how the disruption of pristine forests by logging, mining, road building and agriculture along with rapid urbanisation and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species we may never have been near before: “We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily... species in degraded habitats are likely to carry more viruses which can infect humans. Simpler systems get an amplification effect. Destroy landscapes, and the species you are left with are the ones humans get the diseases from.”

Around the world our increasingly urbanised settlements have created densely packed populations where we also live alongside rodents, birds, pets (which are now at record numbers in the UK) etc. That creates new and intense interactions. Apparently rodents (and even some bats) can thrive when we disrupt natural habitats, and they are often the animals most likely to promote transmissions of pathogens. 

“Whenever you have novel interactions with a range of species in one place, whether that is in a natural environment like a forest or a wet (live animal) market, you can have a spillover event,” says Disease Ecologist Thomas Gillespie, Associate Professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences. 

Of course, such animal exploitation is not restricted to Asia (where many wet markets are now being banned) or the live animal markets found in some lesser-developed countries. The systematic brutality of the modern intensive factory farming of animals leads to horrific lives for the animals and poor-quality food. The 2009 ‘swine flu’ pandemic that also infected people around the world appears to have originated in intensive pig farms in Mexico and the USA. And there is the ongoing significant overuse of antibiotics by intensive agricultural producers which is contributing to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.

The over-exploitation of natural ecosystems is endemic in a world economy based on ever-increasing industrialised ‘growth’ and the excessive resource consumption – i.e wealth – of the Global North in particular, where the rules appear to be set by the needs of globalised speculative finance, aka the sacred ‘markets’.

But surely now the fundamental unsustainability of our modern societies has been exposed for all to see? See how rapidly the just-in-time business models  and complex global supply chains are being severely disrupted – we can expect shortages of all manner

of previously commonplace goods for a long time to come. See how modern capitalism encourages a consumerist mindset and prioritises self-interests above the common good. Does perfect white even ‘quilted’ toilet paper (produced at great environmental expense, of course) provide the foundation of our wellbeing?

Towards an environmentally sustainable society

We must use the ruptures caused by the Covid-19 crisis to create environmentally sustainable and equitable societies. Governments are preparing to use vast amounts of public money to deal with the economic impacts of the pandemic and this investment must be used to support authentically sustainable ‘green’ businesses to build a new low-carbon economy.

I think of the many Green policies that can help create a more resilient world. For example, the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), replacing our traditional ‘benefits’ systems, would give every person far greater material security, particularly during a drastic moment like this.

Prioritising universally valued and available public services funded fairly by all and rejecting the austerity that has grievously weakened our society would make us better prepared for crises such as this.

In the longer term, the Green vision of prioritising more localised economies based on natural ‘bioregions’ would support more resilient communities better able to live in balance with natural ecosystems and to resist the worst effects of diseases such as Covid-19.

We have important opportunities to argue for positive sustainable changes to how we live, but we will have to work hard to be heard above the flood of data that seems to increasingly drown (and in many cases deceive) us. Many will share a concern for our individual and collective wellbeing at this present time, especially as we are forced into such widespread social

distancing. Excessive stress and fear can cause many problems and not least weaken our personal immune systems. Social interaction is so important for our health. It is clearly right that we should all be minimising our physical interactions with others, yet we must also be vigilant for any abuse of the state’s powers in these unprecedented times.

So let’s hope that the UK infection rates may start declining in the next few weeks and that we can be more confident that our services can cope with the nonetheless still inevitably high number of emergency situations. And, thinking of those in countries in the Northern Hemisphere, would it not be a blessing if these socio-economic restrictions can be reduced in time for people to get outside again and enjoy the summer season and essential interaction with friends and family and other people?

Covid-19 reminds us all of our duty to be concerned for the common good of our societies, and of the paramount importance of the welfare of our natural ecosystems.

Andrew Pratt is a member of Plymouth Green Party.