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“पृथ्वी रक्ष्यति रक्ष्यत:”
If we save nature, nature will save us.
- Rig Veda
As the world continues to get tossed about in a whirlwind whipped up by the coronavirus pandemic, we wish we had uplifting things to share with you; that some miracle will happen, that a new vaccine will appear tomorrow and take care of all our worries, that Covid19 will soon be history, just a blip in our glorious human history. But our research points otherwise and offers food for thought in three distinct areas.
Our first recommendation is that we ought to approach the current pandemic as a diagnostic tool for human way of life in the 21st century. As scientists have forecast, such incidents will be more frequent and virulent due to the combined impact of the destruction of nature via deforestation, human encroachment of wildlife habitats and climate change. Covid19 has come as a wake up call; how we respond to its demands and whims will make all the difference.
We are convinced that the Covid19 pandemic was inevitable. Such pandemics will continue to happen in the capital-anthropocene epoch which is defined by the disruption, deterioration and degeneration of human-nature relationships while capitalism flourishes. Had the virus been the root cause, it would have been easier to resolve the present health crisis and other socio-economic and political disruptions. The root of the problem, however, lies in the way we continue to use and abuse nature. Our relationship with the natural order, with its complex ecosystems and fragile habitats, has become consumptive, intrusive and disruptive. As scientists have been telling us, such a relationship contributes to viruses being shaken loose from their natural hosts, causing them to spill into human populations across geographies.
By now, all of us have witnessed how such a pandemic thrives in the global village of mass production and consumption. The intricate networks of travel and mobility have made coronavirus an instant global phenomenon. Covid19 is neither random nor a surprising event. The question was not whether such a pandemic would erupt, but when and how it would do so. After infecting over 3.3 million people and causing over 230,000 deaths, it has spread to all areas of human inhabitation, from Siberia to Tasmania, from Paro in Bhutan to Timbuktu in Mali.
Why were we unaware, and this badly prepared? Scientists knew about this and had warned such a spillover would happen, but political and institutional hesitation to accept the fact and fundamentally change our way of life has resulted in our unpreparedness. We were not ready to accept any disruption or inconvenience. The virus, on the other hand, was prepared; it had been incubating until the right moment, the right place and the right host became available. All evidence suggests that the virus knew exactly what it was doing. Meanwhile, humans have been the confused ones, unable to figure out what to do, when and how.
But this has been the course taken by humans all along. We pretend that we are fine until it becomes impossible to hold that view. We then try to put the burden on someone else. This time, our surprise is aimed at the virus. Yet, it was around us all this while, erupting in full scale only after the purview of human consciousness has narrowed so significantly that we fail to account for the concerns and perspectives of nature and other species.
Our constant craving for comfort has blinded us to the pain and suffering of others - other human beings, other animal species, including those that are raised for consumption. The industrial farming system capitalises on torturing animals. Wet markets, where domesticated and wild animals are kept in crammed, dirty cages before being slaughtered, have emerged as sites where viruses can breed and jump to humans.
Similarly, deforestation, carried out rampantly to fuel industries that benefit the wealthy and powerful, encroaches on wildlife habitats and contributes to climate change, both precursors to numerous disease outbreaks. While these exploitative activities are undertaken in the name of helping the poor, they work to enrich already wealthy individuals and corporations. And so, such activities continue despite everyone’s knowledge about their consequence on human and non-human communities.
Our second recommendation is to look at Covid19 as a crisis multiplier. What may seem like a single problem ripples onto multiple fronts, causing much more than just health risks. Currently, the pandemic has shown that it overlaps with seven other crises; havoc caused by disruptions and changes in climate; massive biodiversity loss and encroachment of habitats of non-human species; ecosystem breakdown, deforestation, water shortages and barriers in the production and consumption of healthy food; excessive global trade and exchange of goods and travel that undermine self-reliance; rampant consumption and disposability of goods; extreme inequality including a widening economic divide, increased domestic violence and policy shifts that discriminate against the wellbeing of the elderly; and growing disharmony in social groups including racial and ethnic discrimination.
These crises emanate from the troubled relationship between humans and nature, especially all elements associated with climate disruption. In fact, climate disruption and Covid19 are two sides of the same coin and so strategies will have to be developed to address both. If we fail to do so, both humanity and the earth will be engulfed in a deep and irreversible crisis. It is not a mere coincidence that while the feverish earth suffocates under runaway climate events, Covid19 attacks the human lung. The lungs of the earth and our own lungs are suffering from the same symptoms.
Covid19 has the power to generate a crisis so deep that if we do not begin to change our philosophy and lifestyle, we could face mass destruction, even extinction. If there is any silver lining to this pandemic, it is the hope that it will alter the extreme concentration of incomes in the hands of the top one percent of the global population; or that it will prompt us to work towards self-reliance and more localised and bioregional economies; or how it may expand our consciousness to encompass the wellbeing of other species and their needs of home and health; or it may help, as Arundhati Roy writes, to finally discard the “doomsday machine” of capitalism. Will it help us find a door to enter an alternative world order that gives priority to ecological sustainability, equality and inclusive human values?
Despite the grim realities discussed above, our third recommendation is to view Covid19 as an opportunity multiplier. As permaculture practitioners, we trust that every crisis carries within it seeds of new opportunities. Corona offers us an open slate to reassess the trajectory and health of human beings, human civilisations and the earth.
We need to assess what has happened to the webs of life on earth in the current epoch. What is the state of the webs of soil-carbon-water? What is the state of the webs of soil-food-health? What is the state of our forests and our wood-wide-webs? So far, we know the secret to overcoming pandemics lies in the proper functioning of these webs. Although most new pathogens come from animals, the WHO states that the epidemics that follow are a result of the complex web of human infrastructure, deforestation and globe-spanning transport networks. Together, they have destroyed the habitats of other species.
Imagine the impact road initiatives and other mega projects of global funders like the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank will have on this equation. All that cement, steel and iron laid over virgin forests and landscapes. All the digging and overhauling of the earth’s surface. We urge readers to watch the movies Samsara and Baraka to get a glimpse into the kind of world we have created and the future we are heading towards.
Covid19 reminds us that such disturbances are what quickly sweep a virus far beyond the forest, farm or ecosystem where it first jumped from animals to humans. This was the case for Ebola, SARs and MERs. With the way Covid19 has proliferated, we have to wonder whether viruses are also getting smarter and have found more sinister ways to abuse human ecosystems and habitats.
Given this context, we must ponder deeply on a number of questions: Are we creating diseases and sickness per acre or health and wellbeing? This applies to forests, farms, wetlands, mangroves or coastline per acre. Why has human wellbeing been established at the expense of all other webs of life? And how can we assume that we can continue climbing the upward curve of consumption forever? This is an important moment in human history, the consequences of our actions are immediately visible to us. Whether we like it or not, we have to pause. But are we rethinking, reassessing?
Covid19 is a humble yet fierce reminder that our regular way of doing things is no longer viable, possible or desirable. The earth has endured our excesses, but for how long? When we cross the tipping point, natural systems will have their own way of addressing it. At this moment, the earth is doing what it can to breathe, cool down and carve out a more feasible course of action. It will take the course of self-correction and regeneration. On that front, it does not take our permission, nor our orders.
This time calls for deeper thinking and feeling about our current way of being and to imagine not only a new vaccine but a new way of life. There is a general view that a new vaccine will take care of our miseries as it has done previously during outbreaks of smallpox and cholera. But evidence suggests that such optimism is naive. Irrespective of whether we have a new vaccine, the virus will continue to mutate and puzzle us while pandemics like this one will become more frequent.
Changing the way we live on and along with this living, breathing earth is possibly the best way to reduce the frequency and severity of such pandemics. The new way of life should not emphasise the role of human species as being on top of the chain of webs of life but as interdependent members of an earth community with responsibilities that go beyond ensuring their own survival.
Look at the consequence of the lockdown and the reduction in the movement of people in the past three weeks in Nepal. It has shown how quickly the earth can regenerate; the skies have become clean and clear, noise and air pollution have declined, carbon emissions have reduced significantly while river and wetland ecosystems have begun to rejuvenate. While the bigger issue right now is to protect all people from the virus and safeguard their livelihood, the lockdown has also shown that we need to find alternative ways of living to ensure people are protected and their livelihoods sustained without abusing the earth.
Will this pandemic prompt us to find ways to generate livelihoods in a sustainable manner? It is important to flatten the inequality curve just as much as the Covid19 infection curve. Unhealthy ecosystems are equivalent to Covid19 for the poor who generally do not have access to adequate medical care. This is a global trend with only slight variations between countries.
Covid19 has revealed a rupture in our society, economy and polity while compelling us to rethink our relationship with nature. If this rupture is properly understood and addressed, this rather tragic event can also open up new windows of opportunity for human learning. It is yet to be seen how humanity will learn from this.
Will we learn how to sustain human civilisation on earth? We know that the earth will regenerate even if humans are not here. It is imperative for the benefit of humans that we regenerate the whole earth system and its subsystems.
Jagannath Adhikari Jagannath Adhikari is a researcher in the field of agriculture and food security.
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