Has the planet simply had enough of people? Are there are too many of us, and this pandemic is the paramount example? It’s easy to let our minds meander this way, but we have likely had more serious pandemics (Let’s see this one reach its conclusion before we declare that). In just gross number of deaths, and certainly in percentage of population infected and lost, there are similar, perhaps even more frightening, catastrophes littered through our history.
- The Spanish Flu happened in 1918, infected approximately 500 million people with an estimated 50 million deaths. The world population was a little under two billion, roughly a quarter of where it stands today. Humanity decreased by 10%
- The Black Death, or the second coming of the Bubonic Plague, is estimated to have accounted for 75 million deaths in the 1300s, when the population was less than half a billion. That’s less than one-tenth of today’s population.
- Eight hundred years prior to The Black Death, in the 500s, The Justinian Plague, is believed to have taken 50 million, just over a quarter of the planet’s population at the time. That was less than 2.5 percent of the current population.
To avoid belabouring the point further, pandemics are certainly tied to big numbers of people, in particular tightly packed populations, but to sum them up as a result of overpopulation alone is just not the case. We are 1500 years removed (and 7.6 billion people amplified) from the Justinian Plague, which was 1000 years after the first recorded plague in Athens during the Peloponnesian War.
As many millions, perhaps billions, of us survive in isolation and practice social distancing when we go out in public, it is certainly worth pondering what may have caused this situation. Nevertheless, our current population is not unique to the pandemic. Overpopulation is a real problem. We might even be able to link it to the spread of COVID-19 in a myriad of ways, but in doing so, it’s important to remember pandemics are not new to the world. We’ve moved from an estimated 4 million in 10,000 BCE (when agriculture begins) to 7.8 billion in 2020. The last 100 years have given us an increase of 6 billion, but pandemics happened long before that.
While this coronavirus might have been traced back to a bat via wet market or a black market pangolin in Wuhan, that hardly explains why I’m now sitting sequestered in a forest in North Carolina. Some have said that nature, i.e. the planet, is letting us know who’s boss via pandemic. Because certain Chinese eaters have a taste for exotic animals (so did Charles Darwin, or check out the Explorers Club Annual Dinner in New York), now the rest of us are feeling the wrath of Mother Nature. She has grounded us all, sent us to our rooms to think about what we’ve done.
With “exotic” (aka: foreign) animals as the culprits behind the virus, there has also been a rash of claims that “exotic” humans are getting closer to wild spaces, and that may be the root cause of pandemics. Apparently, people are now in contact with more wildlife, the sources of many deadly viruses of late: Sars, Mers, West Nile, Zika, bird flu, Ebola… Lyme disease, which is commonplace here, is spread by ticks (deer and mice), but never the fault of people living in the countryside or nature’s wrath. Yellow fever, malaria, AIDS—are these all revenge?
Climate change is something different than COVID-19 and those other pandemics, though both have revealed just what nature is capable of in terms of human fatality at any point. But, that’s certainly not to say this pandemic is a result of human development newly expanding into natural environments, where the wild animals are. We have been doing that for centuries now, not to mention the fact that we once lived as hunter-gatherers in nature itself, so to call this retribution for interacting with nature is possibly misdirected.
COVID-19, according to many experts, is nature firing a “clear warning shot”. We are damaging the environment, so the environment is retaliating. As much as I believe that the planet will eventually bare the negative effects of industrial development—overconsumption, air pollution, ocean plastics, deforestation, and so on—in dramatic fashion, is an animal-derived pandemic really that? Read beyond the headlines and the real point is not what nature is doing to cause this crisis so much as it is what humans are doing.
This pandemic has spread across the planet in but a few months (the first case was November 2019). It is not as lethal as Ebola (a fatality rate of 50%) or SARS (15%); on the other hand, it is potentially more contagious than the flu with a fatality rate several times more severe. In other words, COVID-19 has been so difficult and domineering because it has a notably high fatality rate and it is transmitted so easily, particularly within the modern lifestyle.
- We are increasingly urban and further elbowing our way into the most crowded places. COVID-19 is passed from human to human very easily: cough, sneeze, breath, touch, talk, etc. To make matters worse, urban lifestyles are largely reliant on human-to-human interaction or being close to others, including getting food, getting to work, entering a building, or even going for a walk.
- We ship just about everything, from cotton to cantaloupes to computers to cars. COVID-19 can survive for hours on boxes, days on plastic and metal surfaces. Whether its international shipping or domestic, the virus can spread via a uninfected person touching surfaces where an infected person have recently touched. This virus can get place to place without an actual infected person carrying it there.
- Most of us buy stuff on a daily basis, so how many boxes, bags, and screens do we touch in 24 hours? Modern living is wrought with take-out coffees, to-go lunches, on-demand shopping, one-day delivery, touchscreens, and countless other technologies and luxuries that are perfect for transmitting COVID-19. Many of us, at least until recently, couldn’t imagine life without these things.
- Cheap, leisure air travel has become commonplace. Weekend getaways to international destinations or even just across the country means one infected person could create a plane full of carriers from one trip, with each new person creating a wake of infection as they move on. Rapid mobility has made spreading anything that’s contagious much faster.
Perhaps the biggest problem this time, however, is the fact COVID-19 can easily go undetected in an infected person. Four out of five people carrying COVID-19 are asymptomatic or only show mild symptoms, so it’s easy for an infected person to unknowingly move amongst unsuspected crowds. The ripple effect of that in today’s world is staggering, somewhat unimaginably so, although the unimaginable has certainly become much more tangible in the last 60 days.
Our annihilation of natural spaces for human development has certainly become more severe as we’ve embraced pavement, suburbia, and fossil fuels. Our overconsumption of the planet’s resources has helped to power serious population growth. Nevertheless, the human condition as we know it in the age of COVID-19 is not the result of nature’s revenge or the number of people but, more so, of the careful construct of global capitalism. Because the world has become increasingly dependent on international and industrialised everything, we are much more susceptible to new contagions, despite advancements in medicine.
The social structures now in play—economy, politics, medicine, job markets—have not been designed for resilience but rather exploitation. In pursuit of profit, companies and governments have continually hidden their sins (upon labourers, upon the environment, upon their customers and voters, upon the greater good) so that consumers can participate in the economy without guilt or worry for the future. However, the almighty dollar/financial market, as many have recognised before now, is a fickle thing with only a veneer value. Here we sit, many of us feeling helpless, because the frameworks which have governed our lives, both literally and economically, have continued failing us, now at the most crucial moment.
- The economy is collapsing because people are only buying what they “need”. What does that say about the normal state of things, when the moment frivolity is largely taken out of the mix, titans of the economy can’t survive?
- The medical infrastructure is failing on multiple levels. The very people who are working to save our lives are doing so without the PPE they need to be safe. Hospitals are under-equipped and somehow under-funded when, at the same time, conglomerate companies are being bailed out.
- Old prejudices are once again emerging as we find racial, educational, and economic disparities in the percentage of victims. Nonetheless, it’s these vulnerable among us who continue to work jobs that put them at greater risk because they can’t afford to do otherwise.
- Our global systems are threatening to fail because countries no longer have got the wherewithal to produce what is needed. What irony is it that China’s Hubei Province, with Wuhan as its capital, is a centre for producing the world’s medical PPE and respirators.
Our governments, those business, and us as consumers have had plenty of warning about this and time to prepare ourselves. We could have taken better caution after SARS, MERS, West Nile virus, Ebola, H1N1, Zika… all in the last 20 years. We could have learned to better prepare for emergencies from Haiti’s earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, Tohoku’s tsunami, the 2003 European heat wave, Hurricane Maria, and dozens of other natural disasters of the 21st century. Somehow, it seems that hasn’t happened.
The proven COVID-19 antidote—social distancing/isolation—is being called into question because of the economic consequences. Officials are now literally deciding between the potential deaths of thousands (millions?) of people versus the economic collapse of those people not spending enough money for the next couple of months. Which do we value more as a society, health (preparation, prevention, protection) or wealth (exploitation, expedience, excess)? The truth is that things could be very different, and it’s a change we can all be part of it.
From our observations, we know governments and corporations have not looked after our collective interests; rather, the establishment has been built to work on behalf of capital gains. Here in a time of need, states and countries are bidding against each other for medical equipment in short supply, and companies are driving up the price while they can rather than looking out for the greater good. Meanwhile, tax dollars are sent to save ill-prepared billion-dollar industries that have been destroying the planet. While it would be wonderful to have a centralised system that looks after its citizens and workers, we would be bad designers to continually sow our seeds the same way. We have to adjust based on the results, the same we’ve seen again and again and again.
Luckily, we as individual consumers do have a voice in this, but we have to start using it. Individually, in small groups, as cooperative villages, even as connected countries, we can create a different way of living. We can produce, buy, and store food at home, in and from our communities. We can renewably generate our own energy and, equally as important, lessen our energy demands. We can collect and clean freshwater. We can build comfortable, energy-efficient homes from local materials (or retrofit what we’ve got). We can create mutually beneficial relationships with neighbours and local people, joining with others to meet our basic necessities. We can be kind to people half a world away, not exploiting their impoverishment to buy our t-shirts or cellphones at a better deal but rather sharing in the common goal to make life stable and sustainable for all. We can pool our knowledge and our resources, and we can protect our planet.
What if we lived in a world where we work tangibly for what we need—food, water, shelter, community—and assign appropriate value to what we don’t? What if we built up resilience and stability through preparation, planning, and cooperation rather than gambling on stock market figures? What if we bought what was good for us, others, and the planet instead of contributing to exploitative accumulations of wealth because its trendy, easy, or “affordable”? What if there were another option? What if we could help others get there, too? What if together we just decided to make these things happen ourselves?