Most plagues in human history were followed by remarkable cultural, economic and social renaissances. The post-Covid-19 era might follow a similar pattern, but only if we are ready and willing to grasp the root causes of the ongoing crisis and act on them.
Let’s start by pointing out that US President Donald Trump – whose administration is responsible for the rollback of 95 environmental rules – has had no qualms about calling Covid-19 the “Chinese Virus”. This is not only a racist concept and a recipe for xenophobic violence, but also an utterly misleading expression.
The authorities in China, where the virus most likely emerged in the first half of November 2019, initially suppressed information about its discovery. As a result, China bears precise responsibilities for what Italy, Spain and other countries are currently facing. Yet, it would be an illusion to search for the seeds and the essence of Covid-19 in the mistakes made by Beijing in its handling of the crisis.
Instead, the roots of the pandemic are to be found mainly in the impoverishment of biodiversity. Forests and many now-endangered species served for centuries as natural barriers against epidemics. Historically, the presence of many animal species have forced viruses to face the so-called “dilution effect”, that is the association between wide species diversity and a reduced risk of disease.
Both forests and species – including wild animals, whose consumption and farming are widespread in a number of countries, China and Thailand among them – are today at their “lowest point” in history: 100 million hectares of tropical forest were lost from 1980 to 2000, and about 1 million species are now threatened with extinction.
True, pandemics are not new phenomena. The “Black Death” in the 1340s, for instance, originated in north-west China and was introduced to Europe via Genoese traders. From what is now Italy, the disease spread across Europe. After killing an estimated 400 million people worldwide, it was followed by an impressive cultural period known as the European Renaissance that erased the remains of feudal society and helped take Europe towards modernity.
Since then, medicine – relying mainly on ancient or early modern Indian, Greek, Persian and Arab traditions – has made huge leaps forward. And yet, viruses are today unprecedented in their current scale and spread. Plenty of studies have in fact confirmed the “increasing frequency of pandemics occurring over the last few decades.”
Apart from globalisation and its effects, the reason is once again deeply entrenched within climate change and the impoverishment of biodiversity. It is enough to mention that, since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled and that about 85 per cent of wetlands – the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems – present in 1700 had been lost by the year 2000.
This and a wide number of other related phenomena – such as a 40 per cent rise in the carbon footprint from tourism between 2009 and 2013 – have weakened what for centuries have been the first natural barriers against the spreading of zoonotic diseases, that is any disease that can be passed from animals to humans or vice versa.
The “solutions” implemented by airlines and a wide range of other stakeholders – such as Shell, Total and BP – consist mainly (although not only) in “offsetting” their climate polluting activities with tree planting. In truth, their monoculture tree plantations cause havoc to biodiversity, and are aggravating, not improving, the climate and biodiversity crises.
Thanks also to these profitable practices, nature is today declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. This has prompted many to adopt the concept of “Anthropocene” – from the Greek anthropos, “man” – to describe the geological era in which we are living. The term aims to underline the way in which the terrestrial environment, in all its physical, chemical and biological characteristics, is shaped by the effects of human action.
The concept of “Anthropocene”, however, is not only largely inaccurate, but also unfair. A problem of human behavior is no doubt present, but this is linked to a few societies and certain specific economies, located in particular in Northern Europe, on the Atlantic coast of the United States and in Eastern China. Most of the rest of the world and its inhabitants bear little responsability for the causes and dynamics related to “Anthropocene”, if not the fact of sharing its dramatic effects.
Although “Anthropocene” is a largely inaccurate concept, ongoing debates surrounding this term are nonetheless igniting a few positive effects. The most important is the reaffirmation of the centrality of human beings and their actions.
The marginal centrality of our planet and its inhabitants had been confirmed by many discoveries made in modern times. Think about Copernicus, who confirmed that the Earth revolves around the Sun and that therefore the former is not positioned at the centre of our solar system; or Kepler, whose telescopes confirmed for the first time that the Earth is only one planet among billions of others. The same applies to dozens of others scholars and scientists, including Charles Darwin, who contended that monkeys, apes and humans must share a common ancestor and are therefore part of a broader and more complex process connected to life on Earth.
After many centuries, the concept of “Anthropocene” is making a decisive contribution towards tackling what has long appeared as an inherent “perception of marginality” of humanity, giving new strength to the positive and negative impact that we can all exert on our surroundings and planet.
We are back at centre stage: it is up to all of us to question and reshape our way of dealing with the environment and the species which inhabit our planet. If we do not learn the lesson, we must be ready to face plenty of other – and possibly more lethal – epidemics and natural calamities.
Some might have the impression that the continent which is suffering the most from the current pandemic – Europe – has indeed “learnt the lesson”. In fact, the EU’s Green Deal, released in December 2019 by the new president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, set out how to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.
To this end, the deal aims to make it mandatory for EU member-states to implement measures to reduce carbon emissions as per the European Green Deal (EGD). It does not, however, tackle many of the main interests at stake, and by itself will not offer – in its present form – a major contribution to improve the climate and biodiversity crises.
It is enough to mention that the EU governments continue to provide massive, long-term, subsidies to new fossil fuels, and that plenty of natural resources of African countries – including cobalt, needed for our tablets and computers – are still being syphoned off through offshore companies that, to a large extent, are linked to European (and American) companies and businessmen. As the Panama Papers confirmed, anonymous companies (about 1400 of them) and tax havens are used to exploit the natural wealth of some of the world’s poorest countries.
On top of this, Europe is the second largest global producer of plastics (after China), dumping from 150,000 to 500,000 tons of macroplastics in the Mediterranean Sea and other European seas every year.
Last but not least, it is important to keep in mind that the EU is the sum of its member states: dozens of meaningful examples show how single European states – think for instance of France, whose arms sales to Egypt jumped from €39.6 million in 2010 to €1.3 billion in 2016 – are polluting and acting on a global scale.
It is relatively easy to set medium and long-term strategies in order to “clean” your own home. Much less so is to counter the structural interests connected to the exploitation of the natural resources of “others”, and the pollution of their environment.
All of this reminds us that “the lesson” is still far from being learnt, although some actors – and particularly the ones whose policies are affecting the planet the most – will continue to portray themselves as more civilised and enlighted than the others.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.