Terrestrial life (non-human) declines by half in forty years. Marine life declines by half in forty years. Not my problem. Biodiversity loss, especially the loss of pollinators, spreads across the planet. Meh. Stocks of farmland degraded by excessive, intensive agriculture and agricultural chemicals. Somebody ought to do something about... what was that? Severe weather events of increasing frequency, duration and severity. Well my, my. Global warming. Sure, yeah, bad. We'll get someone on those things, eventually. They'll think of something.
Then a pernicious little virus sets in. Oh well, a few weeks of self-isolation and social distancing should do the trick and then we'll be back to normal, right as rain. Only we're not so sure of that as we were just a few months ago. We've started to look in the mirror.
Some of us are finally coming to realize that all of those annoying dire warnings thrown at us over the last 15 to 20-years were true. They weren't "alarmist," the excuse we often used to justify ignoring them. Have we really been living in a Potemkin culture?
The Guardian's enviro-scribe, George Monbiot, wrote an op-ed last week that went largely unnoticed as all eyes were riveted on the coronavirus. He questioned whether Covid-19 will awaken us from our stupor.
The temptation, when this pandemic has passed, will be to find another bubble. We cannot afford to succumb to it. From now on, we should expose our minds to the painful realities we have denied for too long.
The planet has multiple morbidities, some of which will make this coronavirus look, by comparison, easy to treat. One above all others has come to obsess me in recent years: how will we feed ourselves? Fights over toilet paper are ugly enough: I hope we never have to witness fights over food. But it’s becoming difficult to see how we will avoid them.
In combination with a rising human population, and the loss of irrigation water, soil and pollinators, this could push the world into structural famine. Even today, when the world has a total food surplus, hundreds of millions are malnourished as a result of the unequal distribution of wealth and power. A food deficit could result in billions starving.
But this is just one of our impending crises. Antibiotic resistance is, potentially, as deadly as any new disease. One of the causes is the astonishingly profligate way in which these precious medicines are used on many livestock farms.Monbiot observes that the spread of virulent epidemics, antibiotic resistance, climate breakdown, and the spreading reality of food insecurity are just some of the civilizational-scale threats we're facing. If we treat Covid-19 as some "one off" event, we're setting ourselves up for even greater catastrophes that won't be waiting for future generations. They're getting an early start and we're all in their crosshairs.
In the US, where 27 million people have no medical cover, some people are now treating themselves with veterinary antibiotics, including those sold, without prescription, to medicate pet fish. Pharmaceutical companies are failing to invest sufficiently in the search for new drugs. If antibiotics cease to be effective, surgery becomes almost impossible. Childbirth becomes a mortal hazard once more. Chemotherapy can no longer be safely practised. Infectious diseases we have comfortably forgotten become deadly threats. We should discuss this issue as often as we talk about football. But again, it scarcely registers.
There are two ways this could go. We could, as some people have done, double down on denial. Some of those who have dismissed other threats, such as climate breakdown, also seek to downplay the threat of Covid-19. Witness the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, who claims that the coronavirus is nothing more than “a little flu”. The media and opposition politicians who have called for lockdown are, apparently, part of a conspiracy against him.
Or this could be the moment when we begin to see ourselves, once more, as governed by biology and physics, and dependent on a habitable planet. Never again should we listen to the liars and the deniers. Never again should we allow a comforting falsehood to trounce a painful truth. No longer can we afford to be dominated by those who put money ahead of life. This coronavirus reminds us that we belong to the material world.