Nothing can ever be the same again
The chiffchaff’s ‘two-note call brought me a deeply moving surge of hope’Photo: Andreas Trepte, www.photo-natur.net
Many of the scientists helping governments around the world deal with the coronavirus pandemic are the same scientists warning those same governments about the effects of unchecked climate change. Will their warnings now be heeded before it really is too late?
It was the kind of spring day that you yearn for. A vast blue sky, and some warmth in the sun for the first time since October. After the dark, sodden shutdown of winter, the woods seem to be flinging open their doors and welcoming us in. Accepting their free-of-charge invitation, the three of us walked up the steep bank through the trees: myself, my wife and our son – home from university for the foreseeable.
The still leafless oaks and birches rang with birdsong. The beige leaf litter was white with wood anemones, whose blooms seemed to twinkle like stars whenever a breeze strayed through the trees. Reaching the top of the hill, we paused to catch our breath and look down over the valley below. The view of tall-hedged fields and the silvery thread of a fast-running beck was so beautiful that for a moment I almost forgot that we were living in a national emergency, and were enjoying our one piece of daily permissible exercise.
Can you remember where you were, when you first heard about Covid-19? I can’t. To begin with, it just seemed like bad news from a faraway land. There was nothing to suggest that it was the first, distant ripple of a tsunami. Can you remember where you were when you realised that the virus is going to change everything for ever? I can. It was as we stood looking over the valley below, trying to spot our own house in the distance. Everything, I realised at that moment, looks the same as it always has, but really, it will never be the same again.
Taking out a KitKat, I snapped off a finger to share. A wood pigeon took fright and crashed away through the trees. The wood pigeon wasn’t the only one feeling frightened. As I write, a third of humanity is in terrified lockdown. The primary human reaction to threat is the flight-or-fight response. Fight-or-flight served humanity well for the vast majority of our hunter and gatherer history. Unfortunately, it’s no good during pandemics in our crowded world. We can’t fly away from Covid-19 like a wood pigeon. And for all the talk of being at war, most of us can’t physically fight it either. All we can do is hide and wait.
So how are we going to manage to live through this time? During times of crisis, many of us turn to nature for solace, refreshment, entertainment and a sense of connection. But doesn’t Covid-19 jeopardise this nurturing relationship with nature? Scientists agree that the recently emerging catastrophes of Ebola, Sars, Mers and Covid-19 are all zoonotic, originating in animals before transferring to humans. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that three-quarters of the new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate in animals. Far from being comforting and safe, isn’t nature turning on us? Has our faithful companion become a lethal hoarder of pathogens?
But nature is not the enemy. In fact, scientists believe it’s one of our best protectors against pandemics, and always has been – if we let it be. Unfortunately, we’ve spent recent decades dismantling this protection by destroying and degrading vast areas of the natural world. Disease ecologist Dr Thomas Gillespie of Emory University believes that by radically shrinking natural habitats and annexing “wilderness” areas for our own use, humanity has been removing the protective barriers between ourselves and the animals that carry these pathogens. In effect, we’re removing the buffer zone that kept us safe.
Habitat loss also causes species to crowd together in degraded environments – a blueprint for contagion. At the same time, cities are packing more and more humans together in unhealthy slums. Put simply, we’re turning the world into the kind of impoverished ghetto where pandemics thrive. And if you add to the mix, the eating of exotic wild animals purchased from so-called “live animal markets”, then we’re just asking for trouble.
Aaron Bernstein, director of Harvard University’s Center for Climate Health and the Global Environment, widens the scope of this debate by linking climate change to the rise in zoogenic illnesses. He argues that the human actions that lead to climate change, are also behind the recent rise in pandemics.
Globally, the largest cause of habitat loss is deforestation, which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes. Air-cleaning forests are replaced by large “steakhouse” livestock farms, which in turn serve as a source for the spillover of infections from animals to people. “When we change the rules of the game by drastically changing the climate and life on Earth,” Professor Bernstein stated recently, “we have to expect that it will affect our health.”
Just as the causes of pandemics such as the coronavirus go hand in hand with the causes of climate change, so the effects of climate change exacerbate the catastrophic outcomes. Put simply, polluted air is deadly during a respiratory disease pandemic. A study on Sars (a disease closely related to Covid-19) found that infected patients from regions with higher air pollution were 84 per cent more likely to die than those in less polluted areas. The same outcomes are expected with Covid-19. Nature’s clean air kept our lungs healthier, but we’re turning it (and ourselves) into a chain smoker of diesel fumes and CO2. We seem hell-bent on lowering our collective immune system.
If any good is to come of this terrible situation, then it must be the realisation that the long-term fight against Covid-19, and the ensuing pandemics that scientific consensus expects, is the same as our fight against climate change. Already, scientists are pointing out that the lack of emissions in lockdown China saved many more lives than the 3,297 that official numbers say died of the virus. The real challenge is not to slip back into bad old ways when we come out of lockdown.
Covid-19 is requiring us to take radical and unprecedented actions to protect ourselves; climate change requires the same level of action. The same scientists who warned us about threats from Covid-19 are also warning us about the perils from climate change. Thankfully, our government has heeded their warning against Covid-19; why does it persist in ignoring them concerning climate change? Already, the aviation industry is lobbying for bail-outs, and clean air deadlines in UK cities are being postponed.
Will the terror of Covid-19 be the celebrated point when we realise that we simply can’t go back to our habitat-destroying, air-polluting, pandemic-encouraging ways? The point when we accept that our species is committing suicide. The point when we all become radicalised and decide to take action. These words are hard to write at a time of international emergency, but we must act on them: we are either living through the preliminary stages of what is going to be a catastrophic, possibly final epoch for humanity, or we stand at the beginning of the road that will lead us up the hill, to the fine view of a healthy and just world. Whichever choice we make, things will not go back to how they were.
It was after we’d shared the KitKat and were walking home that the chiffchaff started to sing. Its two-note call brought me a deeply moving surge of hope. This tiny bird, the first of our songsters to return from migration, had flown all the way from West Africa just to be in our local woods. Weighing less than a KitKat, it had managed to negotiate the stricken Sahara to cross the Mediterranean. We too will start and complete the journey of our own survival. The hour is darkest before the dawn. The winter silence is loudest, before the chiffchaff sings. Like the birds, like nature our companion and protector, like our Sister Earth, let us choose life.