The coronavirus lock-down has been fun so far, with lovely weather, a slower pace of life, and people being inventive at finding ways (mostly digital) to keep a sense of community going. And it’s important that we are doing what we can to keep the pressure on the NHS from becoming intolerable. All the same, I have an uneasy feeling that it won’t feel quite so much like a holiday as the time stretches into weeks and months and the news gets more and more alarming.
It’s not surprising, but must be said, that government policy is skewed towards alleviating people's fears rather than developing resilience and good health, and towards separating people into little boxes rather than bringing them together into real community. It’s not a genuine answer to the problem long-term. The assumption is that we can all get back to ‘business as usual’ before too long.
The pandemic has of course pushed the climate emergency into a tired second place; but this health crisis is not separate from the wider crisis of climate change and ecological destruction. It seems fairly well established that the cause of the virus is mistreatment of the animal world (as with Ebola, Bird Flu, AIDS, and others). It is part of humans’ mistreatment of Earth and the natural world, of our disconnection from nature and using the whole world as just a collection of 'resources'.
As the Christian mystic Thomas Berry wrote in 1994, “We cannot long have a rising gross human product and a declining gross Earth product. We cannot have well humans on a sick planet.” Indeed we could not; what we have now is sick humans on a dangerously depleted planet.
Justine Huxley, of St Ethelberga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, recently put this far better than I could: “Pandemics like COVID-19 are not separate from climate breakdown and ecological destruction. Ecologists and conservationists have been predicting this moment for a long time. We have destroyed habitats, hunted wild animals to extinction, caused dramatic rises in temperature, changed the migration patterns of animals and humans, and altered ecosystems – with blind disregard for the delicate balance held within the web of life. The risk of zoonotic diseases is just another side effect of our destructive attitude”.
‘Zoonotic’ is a new word for me: diseases transmitted from animals to humans. Some research concludes that all viral infections are essentially zoonotic, beginning from the Neolithic when animals were first domesticated. They increased 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”.
It has been suggested that the chaos coming in the wake of coronavirus is a ‘dress rehearsal’ for societal breakdown caused by climate change; but it is not separate, and this may be the beginning of the real thing. The problem is so vast; our whole culture is built on exploitation, and on violence against the natural world. The hope is that coronavirus will result in people recognising the real root of the problem – that all this is the inevitable result of the way we have been living – and start to think about the ever-growing crisis in a new and creative way.