In 1992, 12-year old Severn Suzuki attended the UN’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and closed a Plenary Session with a speech that went down in history as “The Speech that Silenced the World for Five Minutes.”
“I am only a child, yet I know if all the money spent on war was spent on finding environmental answers ending poverty and in finding treaties, what a wonderful place this earth would be.”
But collective memory is regrettably short-sighted, and the World soon turned a deaf ear and went back to “business as usual”.
After 20 years, Severn Suzuki went back to the UN’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to denounce yet again the huge pressure that we, as humans, are putting on the biological systems that keep us alive every day.
Today, as we face an unprecedented challenge, politicians, media, and at times even scientists, are fueling a narrative that depicts the pandemic as a war and the COVID-19 as our “invisible enemy” to be boldly and manfully (why not “womenfully”? That’s a question for another time) fought.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day (April 22), and as the COVID-19 lays bare the deep inequalities in our countries, it’s worth asking ourselves whether the greatest fight is against the virus, or rather against the processes that facilitated its spreading.
In accompanying you throughout this reflection, this article will address two matters: firstly, to what extent are health outcomes intertwined with environmental protection? And secondly, can this pandemic provide a window of opportunity to collectively demand a more socially just and environmentally sustainable future?
Are health outcomes intertwined with environmental protection?
“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbour so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
David Quammen, author of the book “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.” It has been estimated that 60% of emerging human pathogens are zoonotic, i.e. transmitted from non-humans to humans. According to a report recently published by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), two elements that act as facilitators for the transmission of zoonotic pathogens are the progressive environmental degradation due to anthropogenic actions as well as the (often illegal) wildlife trade. Let’s explore them both.
Agricultural Practices and Livestock Farming
The current geological epoch has been defined by many scientists as “Anthropocene”, meaning an epoch in which humans are the primary cause of permanent planetary change.
The increased land use for agriculture and livestock farming has been contributing to the disruption of natural ecosystems. Changes in land use and deforestation lead to a loss of biodiversity, which in turns has a so-called “dilution effect” on the transmission of zoonotic diseases; in areas of high biodiversity, more species sustain vectors and the disease is diluted, whilst in areas with lower biodiversity, the burden of disease is higher. Regrettably, according to WWF’s 2018 Living Planet Report, wildlife populations have declined by about 60% in the past 50 years. Over the same time span, zoonotic diseases (i.e. those that spread from animals to humans) have quadrupled.
Is the fact that zoonotic diseases skyrocketed in areas with high levels of environmental degradation a mere coincidence? “Clearly, these two things are linked”, claimed M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International. This is particularly true for those areas that are characterized by high levels of forest destruction caused by agricultural expansion, mining and logging.
In the past decades, we have witnessed an increase in the demand for food (particularly animal proteins) as well as in land use for agriculture and livestock farming. In this respect, research has shown that intensive farming is amongst the main causes behind the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases. In effect, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that large numbers of animals being farmed together do facilitate infection across species.
Another anthropogenic action leading to progressive environmental degradation is the often illegal and uncontrolled wildlife trade. Recently, R. Nuwer reported on the New York Times that the global wildlife trade is acting as a driver for the transmission of animal-borne illnesses such as COVID-19. Similarly, a report recently published by WWF shows that 75% of currently known human diseases originated from animals and that 60% of emerging infectious diseases (EID) are wildlife zoonotic diseases.
All in all, even though the nuances of such correlation are yet to be explored, it seems undeniable that environmental degradation, which is the consequence of a dominant economic model that is pillared on the systematic looting of natural resources, has detrimental effects on public health, and on societies at large. To some extent, climate change acts as a threat multiplier by intensifying existing vulnerabilities, inequalities and injustices. And the current pandemic is shading light not only on health issues but also on issues of social injustice, inequalities and what can be defined as environmental racism. Individuals living in underprivileged situations – those without health care, living in neighbourhoods with poor air quality, undocumented migrants, incarcerated people and many more – are indeed more highly exposed not only to this deadly virus but in general to the negative consequences of the loss and/or degradation of ecosystem services.
From emergency to recovery: can a green revolution be Ariadne’s thread for breaking this chain of negative consequences? In the aftermath of the recent pandemic, economies will need to be rebuilt. And like every shock, this pandemic can provide a window of opportunity for social change. A window of opportunity is a short, fleeting time period during which a desired action can be taken; yet, once the window closes, the opportunity to collectively demand a more socially just and environmentally sustainable future may take a long time to come again.
The restrictive measures imposed by Governments to combat the pandemic have had positive environmental consequences. For instance, there has been a dramatic decline in greenhouse gas emissions. China and Europe are forecast to emit 25% fewer greenhouse gases in 2020 and in New York there has been a 50% drop in carbon monoxide levels. Likewise, in Italy, under the nationwide lockdown, motor traffic congestion has dropped by 30-75%, and air pollution with it. Despite this drop being temporary, it somehow shows that undertaking bold action on the climate is feasible, and not just a leftist utopian dream.
The development of mitigation measures to climate change would be instrumental in preventing further zoonotic pandemics, like COVID-19, but it will mean much more. Most importantly, it would prevent the displacement of more than a billion people by 2050 due to fires, floods, droughts, and crop failures caused by the climate crisis.
As I said before, we have been feeding a war-like narrative about the coronavirus. But there is also a counter-narrative, and it’s less disruptive one that depicts the pandemic as something that can build momentum for a green revolution. Yet, a revolution calls for the mobilization of all people. What we need, is a Gramscian counter-hegemonic struggle where individuals collectively advance alternatives to dominant ideas of what is normal and legitimate.
In sociological theory, normalization is the process through which ideas and behaviours come to be regarded as “normal”. Is it possible to put this double-edged sword to good use? Positioning pro-environmental behaviours as mainstream, rather than niche, and positioning unsustainable behaviours as unusual, rather than “normal”, could potentially act as a catalyst for the collective struggle towards a green revolution.
Does this sound unrealistic, unachievable and many other “un-adjectives”? My advice to you is that, in order not to feel overwhelmed by the “un”, you should explore a whole new realm of possibilities that are blooming. Embarking in this adventure, you may convince yourself that this pandemic can be more than just a tragedy and that it could be a call to action to counteract climate change and increase the resilience of our cities.
In this respect, and interestingly, a lot of actions are being taken at the city level. In Italy, Milan announced a new transport recovery program called Strade Aperte (open streets), in response to the coronavirus crisis. This highly ambitious program includes reallocating street space from cars to cycling and walking.
Another initiative worth exploring is that of the so-called electricity prosumers; these actors, who both produce and consume renewable energy, could play a crucial role in energy transitions. According to recent studies, prosumers can lead to an increasingly democratized energy future (Hiteva and Sovacool, 2017); similarly, Parag and Sovacool (2016) claim that through self-consumption, localised trading of renewable energy, and active participation in system balancing, prosumers may help to overcome many of the challenges associated with this new system. Therefore, energy policy could leverage these emerging trends to promote a low carbon energy transition.
Equally interesting are permaculture initiatives, which are being used not only to support adaptation to climate change worldwide but also to promote environmental and social change. Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems; according to the Permaculture Research Institute, it is a “multidisciplinary toolbox including agriculture, water harvesting and hydrology, energy, natural building, forestry, waste management, animal systems, aquaculture, appropriate technology, economics and community development”.
All these bottom-up initiatives, however, should be combined with a massive top-down intervention. As they address the dire consequences of the current pandemics, elected leaders should explore this kaleidoscope of community-led initiatives and leverage them to pave the way for a transformational green revolution that will convert the old and grey world into a new and green world that is socially, environmentally and economically sustainable and just.
And it should be noted that a green revolution is not synonymous for sacrifice and for degrowth. On the contrary, it can entail growth and expansion; yet, growth and expansion should be pillared on capturing flows of natural energy rather than burning oil, gas, coal and uranium; on fair sharing rather than overconsumption. Ultimately, growth and expansion should be pillared on transnational and transgenerational care.
Recovery programs are being drafted at the institutional level, and some of them are depicted as ecologically transformative. Nonetheless, only time will tell whether they will actually lead to a disruptive change or whether they are mere lip service.
Most notably, the European Green Deal aims to “transform the EU into a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use”. In addition to that, the European Green Deal promises a “just transition” mechanism to help retrain workers who lose their jobs. Every major aspect of the European economy will indeed have to be transformed, ranging from energy generation to food consumption, transport, construction, and so on.
There are many criticisms against the European Green Deal and other similar programs that are regarded as excessively ambitious. For instance, Yanis Varoufakis and David Adler of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025, wrote in the Guardian: “Will there be justice for the communities across Germany and France that have been asked to shoulder the costs of the climate transition? Does it speak to the swathes of Greek or Portuguese people who cannot afford to care about carbon emissions in 2050, preoccupied as they are with making ends meet this week? The stark answer is no.”
Others argue that such programs, which entail potential job losses as well as increases in energy costs, will trigger protests from the citizens (remember the Yellow Vests Movement?) and never achieve political consensus.
Moreover, some scientists claim that the timeline of achieving those Green Deal goals around 2030 and 2050 is not feasible. Others, however, are more optimistic; for instance, Mark Z. Jacobson, a Stanford professor of civil and environmental engineering, laid out roadmaps for 139 countries to use 100% wind-water-solar in all energy sectors. “These plans call for electrifying all energy sectors (transportation, heating/cooling, industry, agriculture/forestry/ fishing) and providing the electricity with 100% wind, water, and solar (WWS) power”. According to Jacobson, implementing the roadmaps by 2050 will not only avoid 1.5 degree Celsius global warming, but also reduce annual deaths from air pollution, create new jobs, increases worldwide access to energy, and much more.
Ultimately, narratives are a key aspect of how we deal with crises. It is now important to portray the pandemic not only as a tragedy with an end to itself but also as a symptom of a social and economic model that is grounded on the unsustainable exploitation of human beings and nature alike.
The current pandemic has shed light on the asymmetries that are idiosyncratic to our dominant economic model. According to Oxfam, “new analysis shows the economic crisis caused by coronavirus could push over half a billion people into poverty unless urgent and dramatic action is taken. This virus affects us all, even princes and film stars. But the equality ends there. By exploiting the extreme inequalities between rich and poor people, rich and poor nations and between women and men, unchecked this crisis will cause immense suffering”.
That’s why it is important to acknowledge that it is not the virus that ought to be fought, but rather the social, political and economic processes that facilitated its emergence and spread.
During the pandemic, governments all over the world imposed restrictive measures and a wide range of limitations to people’s individual freedoms. Isolation can certainly be alienating; but it can also be an opportunity to question ourselves and our societal model, as well as to envision the changes we wish to see in the future.
Dear readers, the choice is yours: will you be disengaged, and act as alien to one another, or will you be active citizens, and aspire to profound social change?
Zhang L, Yang JR, Zhang Z, Lin Z. 2020. Genomic variations of SARS-CoV-2 suggest multiple outbreak sources of transmission. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.25.20027953
Lu et al., 2020, Genomic characterisation and epidemiology of 2019 novel coronavirus: implications for virus origins and receptor binding. Lancet, 395, 565-74. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30251-8.
29 Lugassy et al., 2019. What is the evidence that ecosystem components or functions have an impact on infectious diseases? A systematic review protocol. Environmental Evidence, 8, 4.
30 Zohdy, Schwartz, Oaks. 2019. The Coevolution Effect as a Driver of Spillover. Trends in Parasitology, 35, 399-408.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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About the Author
Born and raised in the small island of Sardinia, Chiara holds a Bachelor in International Economics and Management from Bocconi University and an MSc in Social Policy and Development from the LSE. Her research interests and past experience revolve around migration, gender, social well-being, and environmental health. A voracious reader, tenacious half-marathon runner, and with a forma mentis that is pillared on insatiable curiosity and critical thinking, she has an undying love for the art of writing.