Many of the worse epidemics of our times first began when humans butchered wildlife for industrial purposes.
The world is changing a lot lately. Schools of fish are swimming in the canals of Venice, deer are roaming the streets of Japan, and the skies of China are cleaner than they've been in a long time.
Meanwhile the rest of us are in trouble. We're cooped up in our homes and visiting our loved ones on video chat. People in service industries are struggling to figure out how to make a living. This state will go on for an undetermined length of time until some way to fight the Coronavirus comes through.
What is the root cause of all this? Is it a lack of government preparation? An inability of the citizenry to abide by the shelter in place orders? A media industry that blares out ill-informed opinions under the guise of facts? People hoarding medical supplies and not altering their travel plans? The Chinese government for not reacting quickly enough? The wildlife trade that has facilitated the wet marketplaces where the virus originated?
Well, yeah, all of that. But the root is something far more inhumane, which is the fact that humanity has always been reckless in our treatment of the natural environment. And it's only going to get worse if we don't change our ways.
Bats didn't cause this. It's not like nature randomly creates pandemics against humanity. Instead, it is the way these creatures are treated; kept in cage and butchered in marketplaces after being captured in the natural world where they belong. Since the outbreak, China has put a temporary restriction on wildlife trade, but it needs to be made permanent.
“Pandemics are on the rise, and we need to contain the process that drives them, not just the individual diseases,” Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and the president of EcoHealth Alliance, wrote. “Plagues are not only part of our culture; they are caused by it.”
He added that spillovers of diseases from animals to humans are “increasing exponentially as our ecological footprint brings us closer to wildlife in remote areas and the wildlife trade brings these animals into urban centers. Unprecedented road-building, deforestation, land clearing and agricultural development, as well as globalized travel and trade, make us supremely susceptible to pathogens like coronaviruses.”
This will continue. As the Arctic tundra melts we are being exposed to new viruses that are had been buried under the permafrost. The fish that we consume are living in an environment that is filled up with man-made plastics that change the very chemical composition of the water. Our natural disasters are becoming more dangerous, as can be seen by the destructive fires in New South Wales.
These epidemics will continue if we return to the way we're run our world as usual. Every time we deregulate another aspect of the oil industry, everytime we tolerate fracking near a water supply humans and animals need, every time we incentivize poaching wildlife for the needs of the super rich, every time we elect a populist demagogue in America, in Brazil, in England, and in other nations who deny the effect of climate change, then we push deeper into a world that's dangerous for everyone.
So this is what you can do.
The first is to listen to young people and follow their example. Activists like Greta Thunberg, who will see the effects of our choices within their lifetimes, need our support.
The second is to educate yourself. Ignorance and apathy are required by the elites to continue exploiting our natural resources. Get your information from experts, not from pundits more interested in preserving the status quo than in changing the world.
Get involved. Change your habits, even in small ways, so that they have less impact. Consume less meat, don't use single-use plastics, bring your own grocery bag. These are small things and don't have nearly the same impact as putting pressure on the big corporations and governments that do the bulk of the ecological damage, but a movement of people to prioritize the environment is a huge start.
Finally, do what you can to organize. Support candidates who recognize the urgency of climate change and encourage protection of the environment. Don't tolerate defeatism and don't tolerate the reckless disregard of nature.
If that sounds hard, imagine how bad the next pandemic might be.