How our civilisation creates environments that leave us vulnerable to pathogens like COVID-19.
From the Sumerians to the Romans, past civilisations idealised themselves as indestructible and eternal, making collapse seem unimaginable. Our current global civilisation is similarly convinced of its strength, and is overtly confident in its ability to innovate away problems. Which is why, before December 2019, people struggled to imagine a situation like the current COVID-19 pandemic we face. WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialised, democratic) citizens collectively trusted that science and technology have stopped natural phenomenon — like disease and famine — from being able to significantly infringe upon their lives. But this has proved naive. Though a small elite has been able to insulate themselves from the effects of the pandemic and many corporations stand to profit from it, by and large the West has been brought to its knees by the virus, with no certainty that it will be the last or the most lethal. Add in the looming prospect of environmental catastrophe (heightening the risk of future viral outbreaks), and this all begs the question: what kind of civilisation do we live in, if not the indestructible one envisioned? What if, rather than protecting us, the world that we live in creates and exacerbates environmental conditions that expose us to pathogens like COVID-19?
This pandemic has created a vacuum for discussion strongly tethered to the relevant topic of how societies should handle pandemics moving forward. Awareness of how the treatment of nature fuels pandemics, links between zoonotic disease, industrial agriculture, and wildlife trading, and (more recently) investigations into a ‘lab-leak’ theory, have cropped up various overlapping backstories for how we got here. But shock and politicisation of COVID-19 has overshadowed factors that point to the fragility of our modern civilisation in the face of a viral outbreak. Most people understand that diseases, such as those that come from coronaviruses, come from a close contact event between human and nature, where pathogens jump ship from domesticated or wild species into humans. But this is only an end-of-the-line explanation, which does not consider the conditions and contexts in which this zoonotic transmission is made possible. Largely, global defiance of ecology through modern industrial practices that work against biological systems leaves us vulnerable to such disease.
For one, industrial practices perpetually destroy biodiversity, when biodiversity is a key factor in protecting against animal to human transmission (zoonoses). Zoonotic pathogens living amongst biodiverse populations of species are much less likely to be transmitted to humans. This has been shown in diseases such as West Nile virus and Lyme disease. A researcher at the French Research Institute for Development explains how “[…]genetic diversity will be able to bring resistance to different infectious strains and thus become less easy to transmit. If populations are reduced, genetic diversity also shrinks and natural resistance phenomena suffer”. In other words, if animals live in a healthy biodiverse environment they thrive, and their own genetic diversity is strengthened, reducing the chances that viruses will jump species into humans (or other intermediary hosts). Some terrifying effects of decreasing biodiversity include outbreaks of bat-borne viruses such as Hendra and Nipah, which are directly linked to fruit bat habitat destruction. These viruses have a 50–75% fatality rate. Research has also charged deforestation and habitat degradation in West and Central Africa with causing Ebola outbreaks.
Biodiversity means health for ecosystems and us, yet our civilisation rests on practices that systematically reduce it. Widespread economic past-times change genetic environments for the worse, in both wild and domestic spaces. Industrial agriculture is a big culprit that repetitively destroys wild landscapes and accompanying species diversity in favour of mono-crop cultures and biotechnology. Mono-cropping maintains the life of one domesticated species at the expense of millions of others in a fight against ecology. This system requires constant soil turnover (tilling), harsh chemicals (pesticides and herbicides) and around the clock care and resources. The impacts of this kind of activity spread from the ground up, affecting soil diversity and megafauna populations. Looking at tilling alone, studies show it reduces the presence of soil-based mycorrhizal fungi by at least 40%. Many plants cannot grow without mycorrhizal fungi, and a lack of plant diversity hurts animals that need to eat them. Wildlife trafficking is another culprit. Wild animals are removed from their diverse habitats and caged and crowded into settings with a mixture of wild and domesticated animals and humans, creating an unnatural variety of close-contact situations within unhygienic conditions. As for domesticated animals (blamed for zoonotic transmissions such as H5N1 (Bird Flu)and SIV (Swine Flu)) overcrowding and prolific antibiotic use also set up a monocultural environment with weak biodiversity, allowing for disease causing pathogens to prosper. Despite mythologies of exotic viruses deep in wild jungles, domesticated animals are the common culprits of zoonoses, either as reservoirs or amplifiers and intermediaries of pathogens. Domesticated animals are also in regular close contact with humans, making maintaining a healthy and biodiverse environment for these species even more vital. COVID-19 should serve as a reminder that our environments, in which we order, mistreat, and privileged non-human species, inevitably effects us. It should awaken us to the fact that we live in a civilisation, which rather than being resilient to zoonotic disease, is designing conditions for contagion.
Ironically, the privileging of one species at the expense of almost all others is a moral system that our civilisation applies not just to agriculture, but to ourselves in our cultural and political transgressions. An era of human rights has heightened attention on the ‘human’, deepening cultural norms that value human life at the expense of non-human life. The issue with (and the irony of) blind human supremacy is not only morally problematic, but functionally self-destructive. As we try to ‘flatten the curve’ for coronavirus in humans, we dismiss how mass species extinction continues to spike, reinforcing an environment ripe for future diseases to infect us. This kind of reductionist thinking is short term and illogical. Fortunately, science is coming to its senses in understanding that human livelihood is not independent of — or even only loosely tied to — the health of other species, but entirely enmeshed in it. So attention on the value of biodiversity is increasing, with research slowly beginning to spill over from the scientific community into the political mainstream. Not so promising though, is how the importance of biodiversity increasingly serves as a ruse for corporate land-grabs. Transnational actors are trying to imbue biological life with monetary value, part of a new pattern that geographer Jessica Dempsey calls ‘enterprising nature’. Scholars and activists are concerned that turning biodiversity into a commodity only worsens environmental and humanitarian crises. It maintains an ethic of separation between human socio-economic activity and environments, and falsely assumes market-value idealism is the best and only way to protect and care for biodiverse life. Using biodiversity and development rhetoric, billionaires are garnering more wealth and control by grabbing up land and seeds, while imposing expensive, destructive and unnecessary industrial agrochemical and genetic engineering technologies on local communities, mostly in the Global South. This causes immediate and direct human-ecological effects from mass suicide, cultural genocide and femicide, to pollution, soil erosion and species extinction.
Commodifying biodiversity also distracts from addressing the root causes of global disease-ecology struggles. Refusals to address the vulnerability of our civilisational structures are usually bolstered by complete trust in the modern science-technology nexus to fix the flaws of socio-economic design. One favourite political trope is the triumphant defeat of disease through medical science. Thanks to vaccines and antibiotics in particular, we have defeated pathogens that plagued humanity for millennia, yes? Certainly, these discoveries are paramount and have saved countless lives, pushing back the threshold on many diseases. Yet COVID-19 is proof that such totalising rhetoric is unable to balance scientific capabilities with ecological forces. Instead of valuing medical science as set of tools in the context of natural and built human-environmental factors, naive perspectives create a scientific god-complex not at all in touch with reality, which inevitably side-lines broader and much needed scientific discussion on disease ecology. It also ignores the fact that many of the pathogens we defeat with vaccines and medicines are often caused by our social habits and habitats in the first place. Urbanisation, crowding, industrial chemicals, deforestation and lack of sanitation are all part and parcel of poor environmental design, which don’t just invite in but opened the door to pathogens. Add global trade networks to the mix and you also give them roads to travel far and fast. So diseases do not represent neutral issues waiting to be solved by innovation, to be applauded once we’ve figured out how to soothe the burn inflicted by stepping into the fire. How we construct and interact with environments, in turn, sets the scene for our own health as a species.
This is also true in the sense that biodiversity does not just protect us against harmful pathogens in the first place, but helps us fight them if we do become infected. We require a plethora of diverse nutrients and bacteria to build and maintain well-functioning immune systems that can fight infectious disease. Immunologists and microbiologists tell us how vitamin D and microbiota play a critical role in immune response. So it is not surprising that patients with severe COVID were more likely to be vitamin D deficient and lacking beneficial species of gut bacteria. Also, the strength of a child’s immunity has been shown to depend on the amount of biodiversity they are exposed to during developing years. Children raised in urbanised and/or highly sterile environments develop poor immunity compared with children who spent more time outdoors and/or have pets. Those who lack exposure to biodiversity are also more likely to experience mental health issues.
It is a common cliché that humans are connected to nature, one that is often abused by new-age doctrines which focus on one-to-one understandings of nature, characterised mostly by symbolic gestures and treating nature as a romanticised backdrop. But deeply understanding humans as ecological is something that is overlooked and undervalued despite the scientific evidence and logic that backs it. That the collapse of human health is happening alongside the collapse of environmental health is not a coincidence. If we want to avoid an uninhabitable earth, we need to readdress how we interact with the living world around us. If our civilisation continues to buck the ecological realities of life in nature, we will only continue to perpetuate an environment ripe for disease to spread and to proliferate within and between our own bodies. We will have no one to blame but ourselves.