By Alice Hilder Jarvis
2020 was destined to be a critical year for life on Earth. Described by the United Nations as ‘our last best chance’ to address the climate crisis, the pressure was on this year to move beyond platitudes and nebulous ‘net-zero’ promises, and to take decisive action towards our climate goals. Coordinated and comprehensive climate action has yet to be delivered. In the face of another crisis, however, extensive government intervention has been ubiquitous. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic and social expectations of ordinary citizens seem more pliable than ever. The Overton window has been flung open: public tolerance for drastic measures in response to a crisis appears to have reached a record high. As we emerge from lockdown and establish a ‘new normal’, we have been given a priceless opportunity to recalibrate our habits and cultural standards—including, critically, our relationship with the planet which sustains us.
Whether or not we wish to acknowledge it, it has been clear from some decades now that humanity’s relationship with Earth is in dire straits. The ecological conditions which permitted human evolution—the Goldilocks range of global temperatures, in which all of human evolution took place—have now vanished, probably never to return. To date, Earth has experienced only a 1.1°C increase in average global temperature since pre-industrial times—yet, already, hurricanes, floods, wildfires and droughts are advancing from the extreme into the everyday. Heat-related mortality is rising; our ability to grow crops is being eroded. 75% of the volume of ice in the Arctic Ocean has melted in the last 30 years.
These numbers have a staggering human cost—a cost which will be paid disproportionately by the world’s poor; citizens of the Global South who bear the least responsibility for carbon emissions; people of colour with whom the West has consistently demonstrated its failure to empathise.
Among the greatest errors of the ecological movement to date has been to hide the human cost of the climate crisis behind more comfortable, gratifying campaigns, encouraging people to ‘save the polar bears’ or ‘adopt an orangutan’. Certainly, climate collapse will harm these things: we are already living through the sixth global mass extinction. The WWF’s Living Planet report of 2018 announced that human-induced climate and ecological degradation has wiped out 60% of animal populations since the 1970s. In focusing on the damage to the non-human world, however, the environmental movement may have shot itself in the foot. There are simply too many of us who couldn’t care less about the damage we haphazardly inflict on the ‘natural world’, so long as it won’t stop is from getting on with our lives. The problem is, it will.
If we continue along our current climate trajectory, we can expect ‘the collapse of our civilisations, and the extinction of much of the natural world’. So predicted Sir David Attenborough, in an address to the UN’s Climate Change Summit in 2018. Earlier this year, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change advised that the UK should prepare for a 4°C rise in global temperatures. Little over a decade ago, this same committee warned that 4°C of warming was incompatible with organised human civilisation as we know it.
The collapse of our civilisations is not a matter for polar bears, orangutans, and bees. To see what social collapse looks like, we need only look to Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Over the last few decades, these countries have shown the world the sheer scale of human suffering which follows the collapse of organised society. Having largely averted its gaze from the immense trauma of social collapse in these countries, however, the West’s apparent apathy in the face of the threat of climate-induced social collapse should perhaps not be surprising. We would do well to remember that the Syrian civil war, which has raged since 2011 for nearly a decade, was inflamed by drought—a phenomenon once considered a natural disaster, but which will be commonplace under our future climate system. The million Syrian refugees entering Europe as a consequence of this crisis set the scene for a wave of regressive populism flooding through the West, from which we have yet to recover. The coastal flooding of Bangladesh is likely to displace ten times as many people as the Syrian war.
Already, the UK government has been warned that its policies on immigration and asylum are forcing migrants to risk their lives attempting ‘incredibly dangerous’ channel crossings. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, responded to this with a commitment not to improving safe and regulated migration to the UK, but to rendering already unsafe routes ‘unviable’. It is difficult to imagine that the West will receive the climate migrants of the future with open arms—particularly since we may by then be experiencing first-hand the most direct impacts of climate breakdown. Further social collapse, indeed, may be precipitated by global food shortages. In 2019, the whole of the Northern hemisphere faced a crisis in food production, which was down by 20%. For now, consumers remain shielded from these crises thanks to our capacity to import food; as droughts, flooding and crop failures increase, however, these crises will be felt not just by food producers, but consumers too. Climate change is a threat multiplier, increasing the risk of political instability, war and terrorism, in addition to its direct impacts on our ecosystems.
For those of us living in parts of the world which have not been ravaged by Ebola, SARS and other emerging viruses, Covid-19 came as a jarring reality check about our vulnerability to new infectious diseases. In the age of antibiotics, it is no surprise that many in the Western world felt caught off guard, suddenly faced with a disease about which they knew next to nothing. Yet, ecologists and climate scientists have been warning of a pandemic for decades, stating with increasing urgency that the risk posed to us by emerging diseases is growing, fuelled by climate and ecological breakdown. There is little doubt that humanity’s climate-hostile habits are directly responsible for our increased vulnerability to pandemics like this one. If we are serious about prioritising human health in the aftermath of the pandemic, we must heed the warnings of scientists, who are telling us in no uncertain terms that our climate-hostile, ecologically destructive habits have to change.
All available evidence concerning the genesis of the current pandemic suggests that Covid-19 is zoonotic (transmitted to humans via non-human animals). Zoonotic diseases now constitute more than 60% of new infectious diseases, the proliferation of which is a direct result of ecologically insensitive human activities. A WWF report published in June 2020 attributed the frightening rise in new zoonotic diseases to ‘humanity’s broken relationship with nature,’ citing two main causes: intensive farming, and poor food safety standards. Unsustainable agricultural practices, principally focused around the production of beef, soy and palm oil, are driving land conversion on an enormous scale. Wildlife corridors are blocked off and habitats fractured, forcing wild animals to relocate, often encroaching on human civilisation. Opportunities for zoonosis proliferate.
Covid-19 is merely the latest and most noticeable in a string of emerging zoonotic diseases to afflict humanity, following in the footsteps of Ebola, HIV, SARS and MERS. Not one of these prompted humanity to reconsider our ecological habits which facilitated their emergence. Covid-19 could be different, though. In the first eight months of 2020, coronavirus cost over 832,000 people their lives. Its global economic impact could be anywhere from $2.4tn to $8.8tn. Not a single country has been spared. Around the world, the pandemic has demonstrated the ability of governments to implement rapid and far-reaching changes, when given sufficiently powerful motivation. As such, Covid-19 offers us a unique opportunity to radically change course.
As humanity reimagines its collective relationship with the planet, we must avoid relapsing into old and unhelpful habits. It is tempting, when we speak about the climate crisis, to set ourselves up in opposition to the natural world, contrasting humanity with “the environment”. The word ‘environment’ literally means that which surrounds—but it is a mistake to speak of the natural world as if it is a separate entity, which surrounds us but from which we are ultimately disconnected. In reality, humanity is not an add-on, but an outgrowth of nature.
Our experiences of the pandemic should convince us of the incongruity of our insistence on human estrangement from nature. It was in nature that many sought solace as we struggled to adjust to an unexpected ‘new normal’. In the first weeks of lockdown, photos circulated of swans reclaiming Venetian canals, which ran clear for the first time in living memory. Air travel ground almost to a halt. CO2 emissions dropped by 17%, to levels not seen since 2006. Yet, seeing how Earth thrived when ecologically destructive human activities were suspended, many concluded that humanity was ‘the real virus’, ravaging Earth just as Covid-19 ravaged our fragile human societies.
Faced with such powerful evidence of Earth’s flourishing in humanity’s temporary absence, cries of ‘we are the virus’ were to be expected. The problem with this soundbite is that, when we say we are the virus, we endorse the sentiment that humanity’s relationship with Earth is inherently pathological. At its core, such rhetoric erases human agency: it permits us to see climate and ecological collapse not as a consequence of our fossil fuel addiction and alienation from the land, but as an unavoidable side-effect of human existence on Earth. Not only is this incorrect—it will actively hinder humanity’s climate progress. Buying into the myth that humanity is destined to rape the natural world only adds fuel to the fire stoked by fossil fuel giants and other climate-hostile industries, which rely on our complicity in their destruction of the Earth. We have finally begun to move past the popular climate denial which paved the way to the White House and stymied the ecological movement for decades. We must not now retreat into the next most comfortable thing: the pretence that humanity is powerless to palliate the climate system; that climate collapse is inevitable when human progress is combined with a fragile planetary equilibrium like ours.
As we progress towards a post-Covid world, let us remember that we are living at the intersection of two crises: the Covid-19 crisis, and the climate crisis. Over the last year, the world has given almost undivided attention to just one of these, at the expense of the other. A fuller understanding of the impact of climate breakdown on zoonotic disease demonstrates just how tenuous the distinction between the two really is. The Covid-19 crisis and the climate crisis are not separate, but fundamentally intertwined. In order to address our ongoing vulnerability to future pandemics, we must urgently address the climate-hostile, ecologically damaging practices which amplify their likelihood. Rather than lapsing into the casual hopelessness of ‘we are the virus’ rhetoric, let Covid-19 be a reminder to us of just how intimately we depend upon the health of Earth for the preservation of human health.
When waking up to the enormity of the climate emergency it is all too easy to wallow in fear and collective guilt. But Earth has shown us that she can bounce back from the damage humanity has inflicted, if given the smallest of chances. Our politicians have shown us that no political system is so rigid that it cannot bend to accommodate humanity’s needs in the face of a crisis. If we can just summon the political will to enact the changes we so desperately need, it is not too late to reverse our ecocidal tendencies, to tend to our planet’s ailing health, and to nurture a better relationship with Earth. As Zadie Smith counsels in her article ‘Elegy for a Country’s Seasons’, the time has come for us to turn away from ‘what have we done?’ and to address the question ‘what can we do?’
Art by Alexander Haveron-Jones