Coronavirus may be our best chance to save the planet.

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably approaching burn out on Coronavirus articles by now. Well, prepare yourself for more, from COVID-19’s impact on the economy to fluffy social media posts about how we are changing the way we work and live (Look how my hair has changed after two months of isolation! ). But there are two essential things that we should really be focusing on: how we got here and where we go from here. I strongly believe that this pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to change our ways so that we can mitigate a much bigger disaster that potentially lies ahead. And I’m not taking about future pandemics, although they are part of the equation.

How we got here

I did my PhD in a lab that partly focused on the problem of antibiotic resistance in bacteria and, when I graduated, gave my advisor a book that had just come out: The Coming Plague. It describes how social, political and ecological problems are at the root of our many disease outbreaks. Here’s my perspective on what got us to the point of this global pandemic and how they relate to ethical consumerism. Four factors come to mind:

  1. Mistreatment of animals

The exact source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s causing the current COVID-19 epidemic is not yet known. Like two other coronaviruses that caused outbreaks of respiratory illness, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV, the original origin is most likely a bat, but the virus evolved and was transmitted to us via another animal host (we can’t catch it directly from bats). Let’s take a brief look at a few examples of animal-related disease outbreaks, going back in time.

African swine fever killed 40% of the pig population in China from 2018-2019. You can read the sordid story here – it was caused mainly by a government-imposed plan to move the pig industry to the north of China, which entailed the long-distance transport of animals around the country to provide the population’s favorite meat.

Bird flu, or avian influenza, is also an ongoing worldwide problem with a few different varieties. It’s mainly spread from bird to bird but can also spread from farmed chickens to humans. A lot of people are very worried about H5N1 becoming transmissible from human to human because it has a 60% mortality rate in humans (compare that to a mortality rate somewhere around 2% for our current SARS-CoV-2) and Western nations are stockpiling vaccine. Between 2004 and 2005, over 100 million chickens were culled in Asia to contain H5N1, but scientists have warned that this practice actually selects for increased virulence.

SARS resulted in 774 human deaths from 2002-2003, but there also followed a mass slaughter of civets, the nocturnal cat-like animal that transmitted the disease – even against WHO warnings that this culling was not a good idea. The phrase “transmitted the disease” implies that we are victims of an attack from a wild animal and “culling” implies a necessary, scientifically-endorsed action. Neither is the case – we use this kind of language to sugarcoat the grim reality of our world – especially when it comes to our crimes against the animal kingdom (visit Sociolinguini for more on this topic).

The reality of the civet’s world is one of habitat destruction and confinement to small cages – and that’s how a viral threat to our precious human population comes about. And don’t think this is separate from whatever world you live in. Chanel made their famous Chanel No. 5 perfume using the musk glands from civets and although Chanel stopped using it, other perfumed products still contain it. The world’s most expensive coffee, kopi luwak, is made by feeding coffee beans to civets and then collecting the half-digested beans from their feces. Conditions on many of these farms are said to be deplorable, but hey it’s a great novelty to bring into the office and share with co-workers, right? Funnily enough it gets terrible ratings by professional coffee tasters – it’s basically a product for affluent people who don’t think about the consequences of their purchases. And after all of that, the civets have to endure a “culling” because of a virus that originated because of their incarceration by humans.

BSE still brings back disturbing images of cows struggling to stand up because of a neurodegerative disorder – it directly impacted more than 184,000 cattle in the UK. The cause: Feeding calves with meat and bone meal that contained the remains of other cattle or sheep. Just think about this for a moment – feeding young herbivorous animals, with ground up remains of their own species.

I could go on, but researching this is depressing and I’m sure you get the point by now.

A civet (the animal that transmitted the SARS virus to humans) looking out from a tree on the left. On the right is a pangolin (the animal originally thought to have transmitted the virus that causes COVID-19 to humans) being released from a cage into the wild.
The Asian palm civet (left) and a rescued pangolin, about to be released into the wild. Pangolins were initially thought to be the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s causing the current COVID-19 epidemic but that now seems to be probably not the case. A warning to anyone who thinks that the solution to COVID-19 is “culling” of pangolins. Even if pangolins were the source – culling animals is not the solution, as was learned after bird flu and SARS.
  1. Excess travel

I won’t harp on about this because it doesn’t take much explaining. Travel is a privilege and we should treat it as such, flying only when necessary and limiting our driving too. What’s interesting at the moment is the freak-out over the airline industry. It kind of hammers home the point that the industries that share a good deal of the blame for climate change were never going to change. Governments will bail them out over the next few months, using taxpayers’ money. Sure, there have been small improvements in efficiency in these industries, but it’s not fast enough. The key driver for changing industries that have no incentive to reduce their own business (airlines, oil, meat, etc.) is our personal choices and ethics. That’s the root of ethical consumerism.

  1. Population growth

As I’ve covered in a previous post, population growth is absolutely linked to standard of living. Population growth has slowed down in many Western nations to levels at or below the 2 children per family that would maintain the current population. In Africa, it averages at 4.7 kids and the roots of this are poverty and exploitation by Western nations and multinational corporations. Having a child will increase your carbon footprint more than any other action that you can take, especially in the global North where carbon footprints are way higher than the global South. As any populations reaches a point where resources become limiting, things will happen to reduce that population (Malthusian limits). Right now we have the option to reduce the population voluntarily before nature kicks in and reduces it for us. You can choose to have no children, or fewer children, or to adopt and, just as importantly, support sustainable businesses that empower people rather than keeping them on the brink of poverty. If we don’t address population growth then the two main mechanisms that nature will use to do this for us are epidemics and starvation as a result of ecosystem degradation, climate change, and resulting food shortages.

Global fertility, by region, 2010-2015
Global fertility rates, from a 2015 United Nations report
  1. Economic inequality

Being poor is difficult at the best of times and during this pandemic we can really see how poverty can make it a lot tougher. People in the developing world often don’t have the luxury to shelter in place or maintain social distancing. They have to go out and work, risking infection to feed themselves and their families. You see it in the global North too – workers for Amazon, food delivery services, and other large, high-growth businesses are not happy. Yesterday, workers at a local McDonald’s were protesting because the company would not provide protective gear for them while working, telling them to bring their own. This is a lack of respect for both workers and customers, demonstrating how many multinational corporations have allegiance to neither.

Meanwhile, the largest corporations pay significantly less tax compared to smaller companies, so they are not even supporting government healthcare and relief programs in that way. This is a crucial time to ponder this question: Why do we support these companies?

Where do we go from here?

It’s highly likely that we will have to face bigger problems than COVID-19 in our lifetimes. If we keep mistreating animals the way we do we will face more epidemics – all it will take is a mutation in a virus like H5N1 to become more readily transmissible and we will be in way more peril. And I’m not just talking about mistreatment of animals via the wild animal trade – industrial agriculture and habitat loss are bigger contributors. These result from decisions that we make as consumers, such as supporting companies that sell unsustainable palm oil or factory-raised animals. Reducing animal products in our diet is also a key action that we can take to combat an absolutely real and imminent global threat: climate change. The same can be said for how we travel, of course, as meat and transportation are major contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions.

The other major changes that we need to take on are the interrelated problems of population growth and economic inequality. Now is the time to think about which corporations we want to support. Take the most basic item that we depend on right now for that endless hand-washing: Soap. Do we really want to continue buying that Dove soap, made with commodity market palm oil of dubious origin, or how about buying a product that supports a better standard of living and community development programs?

COVID-19 seems like more than we can handle right now, but try spending some time imagining what things might be like if we let climate change, population growth and economic inequality continue to grow, unchecked. Not just the natural disasters and rising sea levels that will come with climate change – think about the food shortages for a moment. Take a look at how we behaved all over the world, stockpiling toilet paper as if lives depended on it. Our lives really do depend on food, so it’s time we started taking all of this a bit more seriously.

The upside of COVID-19

We are already seeing signs of how much better life could be if we reduced our impact on the planet: air became much cleaner in China, canals ran clean in Venice, and traffic congestion disappeared in LA. Yesterday, New York governor Andrew Cuomo mentioned that the hospital ship designated for non-COVID-19 cases was seeing very few patients and attributed this in part to the lack of traffic accidents and crime. Even around my neighborhood skies are more beautiful and birds and squirrels seem to be in their element – and people too. Only a few days into sheltering in place, Bay Area residents started to really embrace taking walks, being out in nature and appreciating life. The whole planet is on an involuntary holiday – let’s make the most of this liminal space and embrace some new habits and attitudes that will give us a fighting chance to save the planet.

11 thoughts on “Coronavirus may be our best chance to save the planet.

  1. This is prove that we can do much better as people to protect the planet. Love the article, it does speak some harsh truth.

  2. I so enjoyed this. You’ve done a masterful job of breaking down so much of the science to make it accessible. I can feel the earth exhaling. May we all endeavor to make the choices to sustain our earthly home henceforth. Thank you for this enlightening post.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read it, Carrie! Much appreciated.
      Indeed – let’s hope we develop a deeper appreciation for our planet.

  3. Hi James.This is an informative and uncomfortable read- thank you! I have for a while been asking myself- all things considered can we Really be surprised that this is happening? And- are we aware that this enforced suspension on the run of our normal lives may be the least of our problems? Having read your article I think that applies even more so

    1. Thanks Amanda!
      I agree – this slowdown is likely just a practice run for what’s ahead.
      We’re lucky to have the opportunity to make some changes.

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