Coronavirus and Climate Breakdown
Glastonbury Oracle, August 2020
A lockdown is what happens in a prison when convicted criminals are being tightly controlled. Here in the rural southwest the coronavirus lockdown was fun at first, with lovely weather, a slower pace of life, and people being inventive at finding ways (mostly digital) of keeping a sense of community going. It was important, of course, that we should help to avoid intolerable pressure on the NHS – even if the root cause had been years of chronic underfunding – but would it just stretch out the whole thing to years rather than months? In the longer term it could not really be healthy.
It wasn’t surprising, but it has to be said, that government policy was skewed towards alleviating people's fears rather than developing resilience and good health, and towards separating people into little boxes rather than bringing us together in community. It was not a genuine answer to anything. The assumption was that we could all get back to ‘normal’ before too long. But, as Greta Thunberg had so directly said, it wasn’t normal at all. We had already been in a state of crisis.
The pandemic did of course quickly push the climate emergency into a tired second place; but this health crisis was not separate from the wider crisis. Though the details might still take some research – whether, for instance, it was the wholesale destruction of insects that led to the migration of horseshoe bats and their resulting close proximity to pangolins – who can tell? But it soon seemed well established that the basic cause of the virus was mistreatment of the animal world (as has been the case with Ebola, Bird Flu, AIDS, and others). It was part of humans’ mistreatment of the Earth, of our disconnection from nature and using the whole world as just a collection of resources. The risk of zoonotic disease is another side effect of this destructive attitude.
‘Zoonotic’ was a new word for me: diseases transmitted from animals to humans. Some research concludes that viruses only cause disease when they cross from one species to another – that allviral diseases are essentially zoonotic: that they began in the Neolithic when animals were first domesticated; that the industrial revolution gave greater impetus to this process; and that they increased further in both number and virulence from around 1975, along with the normalisation of intensive industrial factory farming, “the most profound alteration in the human-animal relationship in 10,000 years”. They are a result of the same historical process that has brought us climate change, environmental destruction and species extinction.
No political change can address this problem adequately. We need a whole new way of thinking; a new relationship with the rest of the planet.It’s been suggested that the chaos coming in the wake of the coronavirus is a ‘dress rehearsal’ for societal breakdown caused by climate change; but it is not separate, and it might just be the real thing. What will happen next? A ‘second wave’? Widespread famine? A terminal economic crisis? All have been seriously suggested. The question seems to be ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ the next crisis will arrive. Our culture is built on exploitation and violence – against the natural world as well as against other humans. It cannot last forever. Time has now been called.