what COVID-19 is teaching us about humans and the natural world

what COVID-19 is teaching us about humans and the natural world

Green Goddess Supply Glass

COVID-19 is kicking the world’s ass right now. Whether you are one of the many people that buy into the hysteria, or one that understands the facts of the situation while avoiding panic yourself, the effect this virus is having on the entire world is undeniable. People are losing their jobs, suffering from food shortages, and countries around the world are enforcing quarantine measures on local residents while closing businesses as well.

Society is crumbling under the pressure of the coronavirus. Yet, although it seems that everything revolves around human life right now, wildlife is being affected in unprecedented ways as well. Primates are ravaging the urban marketplaces of Thailand, while dolphins and swans return to the shores of Italian cities as humans retreat to their homes for social distancing and self- (or mandated) quarantine.

Some are referring to these developments as Nature’s signal to us that the absence of human life is better for the Earth as a whole, conforming to the popular ideology that “humans are a cancer” to the natural world. I’d like to offer a new perspective:

The COVID-19 pandemic is not showing us how the world functions more healthily without humans, rather demonstrating how artificial the notion of civilization existing apart from nature is, and has always been, deeply artificial.

Ecological Consciousness

“Ecological consciousness… [is] in sharp contrast with the dominant worldview of technocratic-industrial societies which regards humans as isolated and fundamentally separate from the rest of Nature, as superior to, and in charge of, the rest of creation… For thousands of years, Western culture has become increasingly obsessed with the idea of dominance: with dominance of humans over nonhuman Nature… Deep ecological consciousness allows us to see through these erroneous and dangerous illusions.”

(qtd. in Luke, 2002, pg. 180)

Take a moment to realize something: The global human population is affected by minuscule organisms constantly – from the beneficial bacteria that takes residence in the lining of our digestive system, to the viral strains like influenza and coronavirus that render us debilitated. What is happening right now can be thought of as a form of genetic sampling error (GSE), known as genetic drift.

GSE is a powerful, random natural event that has distinct directional influences on populations. The effect of GSE depends on the size of populations, effecting smaller populations much more dramatically. Genetic drift is when the GSE event affects a population at a rate that is inversely proportional to its size. One of the best-known examples of genetic drift was the near-extinction of Californian elephant seals.

In the 1890s, when these animals were hunted nearly to extinction, their population became so small that it experienced a phenomenon known as the “bottleneck effect.” The 20 individuals that were left offered little genetic variation for the persistence of the population, demonstrating the directional effect of GSE toward a sort of faunal monoculture. With such little variation, the remaining population was at risk of being swept away by the slightest of contagions.

Now, since there are several billion humans on the planet, our species will not see any (immediate) dramatic effects from COVID-19 – especially not to the scale of bottlenecked elephant seals – but the cultural and behavioral effects will live on.

As we hide away in our concrete jungles, the notion of our imperviousness to the goings-on of the natural world and the mechanisms that sustain them fades away.

Green Goddess Supply Glass

The Natural World Gets a Break

Our refusal to be held accountable for how our interactions with wildlife affect non-human life is painfully brought to light as families of macaques fight each other in the streets of Thailand for food that tourists should have never fed them in the first place.

The excessive tourist activity and environmental pressures we place on natural resources are clear as day as the dolphins and swans display their beauty in the waterways of Italy as the gondolas are no longer in operation.

Sure, we can say that nature is “recovering,” in some sense. But we must understand that this is not because humans are a “cancer.” No, we operate within the confines of the natural world and use resources just like any other species. The problem is human behavior.

“[Our] environmental crisis is the result of our arrogance towards nature.”

(qtd. in Watson, 1983, pg. 2)

Anti-anthropocentric biocentrism, the ideology that states that human needs and desires are not above any other living organisms within the natural world and that environmental happenings should not be considered from the perspective of a human being, will not save us.

We must realize that our actions and attitude need to change. We don’t need to disappear. We don’t need to cease all human activity on Earth. Human beings are not a cancer. We are living organisms that share the same systems and resources as the dolphins and macaques reclaiming their space in this world.

“Human beings do alter things. They cause the extinction of many species, and they change the Earth’s ecology. This is what humans do. This is their destiny. If they destroy many other species and themselves in the process, they do no more than has been done by many another species. The human species should be allowed – if any species can be said to have a right – to live out its evolutionary potential, to its own destruction if that is the end result. It is nature’s way.”

(Watson, 1983, pg. 7)

We are not separate from this world. We are not above the creatures we share it with. We have the capacity to change. So let’s do that. (Preferably before we get our asses kicked by another pandemic.)

Oh, and one last note…

References

Luke, T. W. (2002). Deep ecology: Living as if nature mattered. Organization & Environment15(2), 178-186. https://doi.org/10.1177/10826602015002005

Watson, R. A. (1983). A critique of anti-anthropocentric biocentrism. Environmental Ethics5(3), 245-256. https://doi.org/10.5840/enviroethics19835325


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