A virus, humanity, and the earth

Last Updated : 04 April 2020, 19:41 IST
Last Updated : 04 April 2020, 19:41 IST

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A little virus has “locked down” the world. It has shut down the global economy. It has snuffed out the lives of thousands and livelihoods of millions.

What is the coronavirus telling us about ourselves as the human species, our dominant economic and technological paradigms, and the earth?

Firstly, our lockdown moment is reminding us that the earth is for all species, and when we step back and make streets “car-free”, air pollution is reduced. Elephants can come to the suburbs of Dehradun and bathe in the Ganga at Har Ki Pauri in Haridwar. A leopard roams free in Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh.

The second lesson is that this pandemic is not a “natural disaster”, just as climate extremes are not “natural disasters”. Emergent disease epidemics are, like climate change, “Anthropogenic” -- caused by human activities.

Science is informing us that as we invade forest ecosystems, destroy the homes of species and manipulate plants and animals for profits, we create conditions for new diseases. Over the past 50 years, 300 new pathogens have emerged. It is well documented that around 70% of the human pathogens, including HIV, Ebola, influenza, MERS and SARS, emerge when forest ecosystems are invaded and viruses jump from animals to humans. When animals are cramped in factory farms for profit maximisation, new diseases like swine flu and bird flu spread.

Human greed, with no respect for the rights of other species or even for our fellow human beings, is at the root of this pandemic and future pandemics. A global economy based on the illusion of limitless growth translates into a limitless appetite for the earth’s resources, which in turn translates into limitless violation of planetary boundaries, ecosystem boundaries and species boundaries.

The third lesson that the virus is waking us up to is that the health emergency is connected to the emergency of extinction and disappearance of species. It is connected to the climate emergency. When we use poisons as insecticides and herbicides to kill insects and plants, an extinction crisis is inevitable. When we burn fossil carbon that the earth fossilised over 600 million years, we violate planetary boundaries. Climate change is the consequence.

Scientific predictions indicate that if we do not stop this anthropogenic war against the earth and her species, in a hundred years we will have destroyed the very conditions that allowed humans to evolve and survive. Our extinction will follow that of the 200 other species that are being pushed to extinction every day. We will become one more of the one million species threatened with extinction because of human greed, arrogance and irresponsibility.

All life-threatening emergencies of our times are rooted in a mechanistic, militaristic, anthropocentric world view of humans as separate from nature -- as masters of the earth who can own, manipulate and control other species as objects for profits. It is also rooted in an economic model that views ecological and ethical limits as obstructions that must be removed for increasing growth of corporate profits. This model has no place for the rights of Mother Earth, rights of other species, rights of human beings, and the rights of future generations.

During the crisis and in the post-lockdown recovery, we need to learn to protect the earth, her climate systems, rights and ecological spaces of diverse species, indigenous people, women, farmers and workers.

We have to shift from the economics of greed and limitless growth which has pushed us to an existential crisis. We need to wake up to the fact that we are members of an ‘Earth Family’ and the real economy is the ‘Economy of Care’ -- for the planet and for each other.

To avoid future pandemics, future famines and a possible scenario of expendable, throw-away people, we must move beyond the globalised, industrialised economic system which is driving climate change, pushing species to extinction, and spreading life-threatening diseases. Localisation leaves space for diverse species, diverse cultures and diverse local living economies to thrive.

We have to consciously reduce our ecological footprint so we leave a just share of resources and ecological space for other species, all humans and future generations.

The health emergency and lockdown has shown that when there is a political will, we can deglobalize. Let us make this deglobalization of the economy permanent, and localise production in line with Gandhi’s philosophy of Swadeshi – made locally.

As our experience in Navdanya has taught us over three decades, local, biodiverse organic food systems provide healthy food to all while regenerating soil, water and biodiversity.

Biodiversity richness in our forests, our farms, our food, our gut microbiome, connects the planet, her diverse species, including humans, through health, instead of through disease.

A little virus can help us make a quantum leap to create a planetary, ecological civilisation based on harmony with nature.

Or, we can continue to live in the illusion of mastery over nature and move fast forward to the next pandemic. And finally, to extinction.

The Earth will continue to evolve, with or without us.

(The writer is an environmental activist, seed and food sovereignty advocate and founder, Navdanya)

Published 04 April 2020, 19:16 IST

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