The “coronavirus”/COVID-19 is gripping the world’s attention and while many people are asking how we got into this situation, ecologists shake their heads, because they have been predicting and warning the world for decades of potential global pandemics resulting, in part, from diminishing biodiversity—or numbers of different species of plants and animals. The COVID-19 virus isn’t the first pandemic, and it likely won’t be the last. The question is, how do we look down the road to protect ourselves from future pandemics?
Background: linking biodiversity and pandemics
With abundant biodiversity, there are complex relationships between plants, animals, viruses, bacteria, fungus, and molds. In remote ecosystems, pathogens can sort of “duke it out” with each other and humans are likely unaware that these interactions are even taking place because we don’t interact with these ecosystems. However, when we lose biodiversity and viruses can’t find their regular hosts, they’ll pick their next victim (The Guardian, March 18, 2020). This helps explain how viruses can change hosts and hop from a non-human to a human.
While scientists are still pinpointing the origin of the COVID-19, they have determined that it is not made by humans in a lab. It is derived from the natural world from a non-human or animal host and then jumped to humans, just like the Ebola virus did. According to the Scripps Research Institute, it is difficult at this point to determine whether it entered humans as a pathogen or became a pathogen after it entered humans.
Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction that we are in the midst of, but few people seem to be talking about. To gain a little perspective, over the last half billion years, there have been five mass extinctions and the sixth one, commonly referred to as the Holocene or Anthropocene extinction, is currently underway. Predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, we are losing up to 200 plant and animal and arthropod species per day, according to Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. The extinctions span numerous families of plants and animals, including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and arthropods. Whereas it is typical to have species extinction continually occur, the current rate of extinction is estimated to be 100 to 1,000 times higher than natural “background” rates. (Note: the reason for the wide range, is that there are still so many species that haven’t been documented and it is not uncommon to lose species as we discover them.)
What is causing this mass extinction? We are. The term “Anthropocene” refers to the fact that this mass extinction is caused by humans, since humans are encroaching on all virtually all habitats on Earth from biodiverse coral reefs and rainforests to wetlands, prairies and temperate forests. However, since most us humans on the planet live in urban areas, we might not see the encroachment on natural spaces up close and personally. The goods that we conveniently order online might be derived from limited metals mined on the other side of the planet where deforestation had to occur to create the mine. The warehouses where the good is stored cleared some more land and used concrete and metal to build that warehouse, and so on. Basically, the extinctions are a result of “death by one thousand cuts”—or, actually, 7.6 billion people’s daily cuts in consuming resources needed for regular life activities. Every single resource we consume is derived from the Earth and we all are consumers. In other words, we’ve all got blood on our hands.
The sobering facts
- The COVID-19 virus can live outside the body for up to five days, as opposed to typical flu viruses that live for up to a few hours. Nature is rearing its ugly head and showing people that nature is still boss.
- We need to start respecting nature by recognizing that the exponential growth of the human population coupled with our consumptive lifestyles are the putting tremendous pressures on our natural world.
So, if you want to drop this article and run away screaming, that’s good. You are recognizing the peril we are facing and the need for urgent action. But instead of running, now is the time for clear-headed calmness, compassion and action. Since we are all consumers, there should be no more finger pointing or name calling. We need to evolve together into less consumptive lifestyles and support each other along the way. We need to give ourselves, our neighbors, and our kids grace as we work together to continue the learning process, stay connected, engaged, and focused to overcome the biggest threat humanity has ever faced—protecting the planet to save ourselves. Now is the perfect time to act since so many things are changing anyhow, how about implementing really thoughtful changes that have long-term positive impacts?
Are we destined to just sit and meditate all day and try not to eat or drink? This is clearly not acceptable to most of us. But the important thing to remember is that no one can do everything, but every individual can do something. Your job is to figure out where your talents are and do what you can do. Because if we all chip in a little, our combined efforts can result in massive and much needed shifts. The heart of the environmental crisis comes down to population pressures and excess consumption. We need to be laser-focused on stabilizing population growth and reducing consumption of all resources.
- Stabilize population growth. This is a tough topic to approach because absolutely no one wants to be told how to govern their own bodies. However, it has been shown that giving women (especially in developing countries) educational opportunities is directly related to prosperity and having fewer children. Can you support educating women locally or internationally?
- Reduce purchases. What can you borrow, rent, buy second hand? Ask yourself how much is enough? Does your home really need to reflect the latest trends and styles and need to resemble a Pottery Barn catalog?
- Reduce packaging. Do you really need single-serve packaged grocery items? Eat fresh food that comes in nature’s packaging whenever possible. Look for innovative products that don’t require plastic packaging such as tablet toothpaste, bar soap/shampoo, powder laundry detergent in reusable containers. Demand retailers to do better with packaging. Why can’t more grocery stores offer bulk alternatives? Why do we need a new plastic bottle each time we buy shampoo?
- Reuse. If you are done with an item, find a new home for it via OfferUp, Facebook, Craigslist or many other online tools.
- Recycle. Hopefully, since you’ve already reduced and reused so you have little to recycle. Although recycling is better than throwing away, it still is energy intensive and consumes resources.
- Compost. All organic materials, such as vegetable peels and yard waste, contain valuable nutrients that should not be squandered.
- Don’t waste food. A lot of energy was made to grow, process, ship, store, and cook your food. Don’t let all that energy and water go to waste!
- Eat a plant-based diet/lower on the food chain. As Wendell Berry famously said, “Eating is an agricultural act. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world—and what is to become of it.” To make sense of this statement, consider that 60% of the world’s mammals are livestock (largely to feed humans), 36% of the world’s mammals are humans, which leaves only 4% of the world’s mammals to be wild mammals. (The Guardian, May 2018) These numbers reflect our land use and that much of the Earth has been cleared for urban people spaces or grazing areas for livestock to feed people. Wild spaces are diminishing rapidly.
- Grow (some of) your own food or buy from local farmers’ markets where the food hasn’t traveled more than 75 miles or so. If you’re not a gardener, plant apple trees, raspberry, and blueberry bushes instead of traditional landscape plants. If you don’t have a yard, support those markets and/or grow some greens in your windowsill.
- Plant native flowers. The flowers will support the bees that will pollinate your fruits and vegetable gardens.
- Continue meeting or working remotely. How many of those meetings really need to be face-to-face? If you have a desk job, work with your employer to continue working from home even after this COVID-19 issue dies down.
- Get outside and enjoy the nature around you! The beauty around us still abounds. Look for it. Notice it. Teach your kids to connect with it. Walk. Ride your bike. Turn your community into a walkable “livable” community. We are fortunate to have natural resources to enjoy and protect. Let’s keep it that way.
In the wake of this strange time when people are “flattening the curve” of infected individuals by staying home, we can also flatten the curves in numerous environmental problems and seize this opportunity to make sweeping changes on how we interact with the natural world. Calculate your lifestyle’s impact on biodiversity with numerous online calculators such as https://yieldorganic.com/biodiversity-calculator/. If your share exceeds the average, are there changes you can make to your lifestyle? No judgement. Remember, we are all consumers and we’re all in it together.