This Crisis Requires Fresh Thinking Within the Environmental Movement

Who’s been worse when it comes to handling Coronavirus, the federal government or the media?  Though the Trump administration has been laughably incompetent and ill-prepared for the pandemic, cable news has been no less derelict in its reporting.  Just like the politicians in Washington, the media has been caught flat-footed, having previously failed to inform the public about the true origins of Coronavirus, let alone other diseases which are linked to our disruptions of the natural world.  Having botched the environmental discussion about pandemics, the media’s reporting on Coronavirus has been decidedly short-term, thus making it all the more unlikely that society will make the necessary adjustments to avoid future crises, that is if we even manage to emerge from this one.

For me, Coronavirus carries a slight sense of déjà vu.  Ten years ago, I warned about the deadly cocktail of environmental destruction and proliferation of tropical diseases in my book, No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet.  As I wrote at the time, climate change, intense El Niño-driven drought and fires in the Amazon have resulted in a boomerang-type effect.  When pasture land dries up, water becomes stagnant, which in turn results in greater numbers of malaria-driven mosquitoes.  Under such conditions, tropical diseases like dengue flourish, and huge percentages of indigenous people in local villages wind up contracting malaria.  The increasingly more intense El Niño cycle is also linked to cholera, since warming ocean currents encourage the growth and spread of bacteria.  This in turn has led to outbreaks of cholera in Peru, a country fond of ceviche, a favorite dish comprised of marinated raw fish.

Complex Interplay of Forces

As I wrote at the time, perhaps prophetically, “every time South Americans are hit with a powerful El Niño and a cholera or dengue outbreak, they wonder what it’s going to take for the Global North to spring into action.”  Apparently, in light of recent events, the only way the public will wake up to the threat of disease is when a pandemic emerges in more affluent countries, and even then, the media will perpetuate a narrow-minded perspective which fails to address systemic and underlying environmental problems.

To be sure, Coronavirus differs from other tropical diseases, yet environmental campaigner Chandra Bhushan argues that a warming planet tends to encourage the spread of further illness, as rising temperatures and humidity assist in the breeding of pathogens.  Writing in Financial Express, Bhushan points out that while there’s no “smoking gun” linking climate change to Coronavirus, let alone concrete evidence that global warming activated the virus to jump from animals to humans in the first place, nevertheless it’s possible that our immune systems have become compromised due to changes in the environment, thus making us more vulnerable to novel superbugs.

Normally, he remarks, we produce antibodies which neutralize bacteria and viruses, but now, in the era of global warming, pathogens are surviving at higher temperatures outside the human body.  As a result, these pathogens have become more adept at withstanding heat inside the body as well, thus suggesting an indirect link to climate change.  Ultimately, however, it’s too simplistic to merely blame global warming for the rise of pandemics such as Coronavirus, since much more complex forces are at play.  Experts point out that Coronavirus is considered to be a “zoonotic” disease, meaning that it originated in an animal species and then moved to humans.  If anything, the rise of Coronavirus forces us to confront the uncomfortable truth that we have done a poor job at “staying in our own lane,” which has in turn disrupted the natural order.

Search for Smoking Gun

Though no bats were discovered at the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, China where the Coronavirus outbreak occurred, studies have concluded that the disease may have originated with them.  Because they harbor a higher proportion of zoonotic viruses than mammals, and can fly across vast distances as they transport disease, bats are ideal hosts.  What’s more, bats can pass along viruses in their feces, for example by defecating on a piece of fruit.  If another animal consumes the fruit, that creature in turn can become a carrier.  Some studies have shown that a bat-borne virus lacks the ability to attach itself to human cell receptors, which has led others to suggest that an intermediate host may have spread the disease.

Scientific teams have reportedly uncovered SARS (or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)-like coronaviruses in pangolins, endangered animals which were seized by Chinese authorities in the south of the country.  Pangolins, scaly animals which have been physically compared to an artichoke, or a cross between “an anteater, an armadillo and a pinecone,” are considered to be the most smuggled mammal in the world.  Last year alone, 100,000 pangolins were killed, and as a result they are threatened with extinction.  Highly prized for their scales which are used in traditional Chinese medicine, pangolins are also sought after for their meat which is regarded by some as a delicacy.

Perhaps, a bat and pangolin virus may have traded their genetics before spreading to humans, though such theories have yet to be proven definitively.  Some have suggested it wasn’t a pangolin which spread the virus, but rather some other mammal species, perhaps belonging to the badger family.  Others have pointed out that while pangolins are the world’s most trafficked animal, they are rarely found in wildlife markets as they are generally killed and their scales removed for medicinal use beforehand, and “a dead scale off the surface of an animal is unlikely to spread a virus.”

Reassessing Relationship to Wildlife

While the consensus among researchers is that Coronavirus originated in the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, which also sold meat from other wild animals, there are still lingering questions.  One possibility is that the virus emerged earlier, since some of the first victims had no link to the market.  Under this theory, the virus may have originated elsewhere and later made its way to the market, which served as a kind of “amplifier,” or, alternatively, the virus was somehow able to thrive in the market and then jump from human to animal and back again.  Such speculation, however, doesn’t resolve the central question of when the original “spillover” event occurred.  Perhaps, Malayan pangolins contracted the virus in their native habitat or from bats along their trafficking route, though all available evidence suggests the outbreak occurred in China itself.

Whatever the case, Coronavirus forces us to reconsider our underlying relationship to wildlife.  To be sure, some animals carry dangerous pathogens but it’s our closer proximity to wildlife, coupled with globalized travel, which is creating greater risk.  When a pandemic arises, people might be tempted to exterminate bats, though that would be a colossal mistake.  As scientists point out, it’s not the animals themselves which are creating the problem: in fact, bats consume tons of insects, thus reducing the spread of other human diseases such as malaria and dengue.  Bats also help to promote bio-diversity and the overall health of their respective ecosystems by pollinating plants and spreading seeds.  Similarly, even though it’s not the pangolin’s fault that Coronavirus has spread, conservationists are concerned that people may be prompted to kill even more of the creatures in the wake of recent news reports concerning the pandemic.

Horrific Conditions

All things being equal, if people simply did a better job of “staying in their lane” and kept their distance from wildlife, then perhaps we wouldn’t be facing a pandemic.  The risk, however, is that when bats and pangolins are sold in so-called “wet markets,” viruses may leap from one species to another.  The Wuhan market, for example, seems to have served as a “perfect viral melting pot,” since it had a wild animal section in which both live and slaughtered species were put on sale, while hawkers displayed gruesome body parts of camels, koalas and birds.

Reportedly, the ground in such markets is “slick with water and blood,” and “the animals that have not yet been dispatched by the butcher’s knife make desperate bids to escape by climbing on top of each other and flopping or jumping out of their containers.”  On the other hand, “at least in the wet areas, the animals don’t make a sound,” whereas “the screams from mammals and fowl are unbearable and heartbreaking.”

From a hygienic perspective, bringing animals together from different countries, different habitats and different lifestyles is a perfect storm asking for trouble.  Experts warn that when such animals become stressed due to displacement or confinement, they are more prone to disease.  That is to say, the animals become “immunocompromised” and this leads creatures to shed more virus, thus leading in turn to a potential “spillover effect.”  Meanwhile, hawkers who handle or butcher animals are susceptible to viruses through cuts in their skin, while secretions of infected snakes can be “aerosolized” and breathed in by both workers and shoppers alike.

Wildlife and Wider Society

The issue of wildlife markets as incubators of disease forces us to consider pandemics in wider perspective, since the problem touches on many underlying trends ranging from changing social tastes and morés of an increasingly affluent globalized elite to special political protections emanating from the very top.  Though turtle and boar meat can be spotted in Chinese restaurants from time to time, other types of rare game meats from civet to cats and snakes and pangolins are rare and regarded as specialties only within certain regions.

“Their consumption,” writes the New York Times, “is driven as much by the desire to flaunt wealth as by a mix of superstition and belief about the health benefits of wildlife.”  Though China’s tasted for wildlife is somewhat new, and has been spurred on by economic growth, many on social media have expressed anger that the country’s nouveau riche has endangered the lives of others through their relentless appetite for exotic species.

Over the years, meanwhile, Chinese wildlife agencies have “practically become a spokesperson for wildlife business interests,” while wildlife “protections laws” have become a catch-22 by protecting business interests as opposed to the animals themselves.  The wildlife trade has become so symbiotically fused with the government, that businesses have promoted their own aims as reflecting the national interest, with tiger and rhino farms going so far as to claim they are euphemistically furthering “conservation,” and bear farm owners claiming they are promoting “public health.”

Belatedly, the authorities shuttered the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan after the pandemic spread.  Officials have also temporarily banned the wildlife trade, and they may even outlaw it altogether.  Beijing was no doubt stirred to act after users on Weibo, a social media platform, denounced the sale of wildlife under the hashtag #rejectgamemeat (the trending category attracted 45 million views).  In the long-run, some hope the emergence of Coronavirus may lead to a “domino-like effect” which will prompt further steps against wildlife trafficking throughout China and Southeast Asia.

“The just-issued trade ban should not be a temporary measure,” argues South China Morning Post, adding “it should be made a lasting policy.  China has to choose between the narrow interests of wildlife businesses and the national interest of public health.  It cannot allow a minority of wildlife traders and exotic food lovers to hijack the public interest of the entire nation.”

Punishing Wildlife

While it’s unclear whether the temporary wildlife ban may become permanent, many are asking why it has taken Beijing this long to act.  If anything, the warning signs were already on the wall back in 2002-4 during the SARS epidemic, which probably started in a wet market.  That disease was traced back to a coronavirus that jumped from bats to Asian palm civets, a small weasel-type mammal related to the mongoose.  Civets are considered a delicacy in southern China, and can also be found for sale in wildlife markets.

From civets, the virus jumped to humans engaged in the wildlife trade in Guangdong.  In a frenzy, authorities then drowned or electrocuted thousands of civets as a means of cutting off the source of the SARS virus.  Reportedly, authorities ignored appeals from the World Health Organization — which feared the killings might destroy vital clues about the source of SARS — and Hong Kong animal activists, who condemned the slaughter.  CBS news reported that civets were burned, while photos showed health workers dressed in white protective suits drowning the animals.

Officials subsequently removed all references to “yewei” (meaning “wild taste,” a Chinese term for wild animals used as food) from shop signs in Guangdong.  They also prohibited the sale of civets, but after a mere few months the ban was reversed and the trade ramped up just like before.  More recently, many have wondered why Beijing did so little to regulate the sale of wildlife since the outbreak of SARS: indeed, top Chinese scientists have been urging the government to adopt a lasting ban on wildlife sales for years.

From Deforestation to Ebola

But just for the sake of argument, would banning the sale of wildlife at unhygienic markets actually halt the spread of pandemics?  While such measures would undoubtedly help, there are still wider forces at play which could undermine efforts to halt the spread of disease.  Take, for example, deforestation which puts humans into closer contact with wildlife.  An important driver of climate change in and of itself, deforestation is subjecting stressed animals to habitat loss and exacerbating disease.  One ominous harbinger of change was the Malaysian Nipah virus of 1998-99: in that case, researchers concluded the disease had been spread by fruit bats which had in turn been dislodged by forest fires and an El Niño-related drought.  Once the bats started to feed on fruit trees grown on the same farms as pigs, this allowed the virus to migrate from bats to pigs and then on to farmers.

Just as deforestation in the Amazon is thought to be driving up the spread of malaria, destruction of rainforest in West Africa may have played a role in the spread of Ebola, yet another zoonotic disease.  Like Coronavirus, Ebola is thought to have originated in bats and then jumped to humans, though other animals such as antelope, porcupines, gorillas and chimpanzees may also be culprits.  At the time of the epidemic, researchers connected deforestation in West Africa to Ebola, noting that habitat destruction had brought wildlife into closer contact with people.  But in addition to deforestation, virtually any form of climate change, including droughts and even increased rainfall, will inevitably increase the risk of Ebola outbreaks since warming temperatures drive bats and other animals into new areas.

In 2014, again somewhat presciently, I wrote about how China, in yet another instance of reckless economic expansion, had pursued a harmful environmental role in West Africa.  By building roads and infrastructure, which Beijing hoped would complement its mining investments, China may have facilitated the spread of Ebola.  In another line conjuring up an eerie sense of déjà vu, I noted that “while China has been intimately caught up in West Africa’s economic spoils for some time, the Asian tiger’s role has been obscured in the midst of the media’s sensationalist coverage of the Ebola crisis.”

The Factory Farm-Pandemic Link

As if the media’s short-term coverage could sink no further, the issue of factory farms, pandemics and climate change has also slipped through the cracks.  Take, for example, the H5N1 virus: as I noted some time ago, migratory ducks, geese and herons can carry the H5N1 avian influenza, also known as bird flu, and pass the virus on to domesticated birds such as chickens.  Because they are capable of flying long distances, water fowl can spread many different types of influenza viruses.  When the waterfowl come into contact with chickens on factory farms, packed conditions offer an environment in which microbes can quickly turn into deadly pathogens.

In 1997, an H5N1 outbreak which in turn made the jump to human beings led the authorities in Hong Kong to destroy 1.3 million chickens.  As with the Coronavirus, it is thought that bird flu may have originated in a local market.  In that case, getting rid of the chickens seemed to work in the short-term, but such efforts unfortunately failed to contain subsequent outbreaks of H5N1 surfacing in dozens of countries.  In 2014, yet another strain of H5N1 hit North America, which led to the slaughter of tens of millions of poultry.

And it’s not only chickens which pose a worrying link in the food supply chain, but pigs as well.  The fact that pigs and humans share a similar immune system, which makes it easy for viruses to jump between both species, worries scientists.  In 2009, another influenza virus called H1N1 spread from pigs to humans and spread around the world within weeks, causing a pandemic.  And just a few years ago, 25,000 pigs living on Guangdong farms died from swine acute diarrhea syndrome or SADS, a virus which was nearly identical to a coronavirus found in bats.

Climate Change, Diet and Factory Farms

Not surprisingly, climate change threatens to introduce yet another wildcard into the already volatile mix of factory farms.  Scientists say it’s possible that migratory birds might alter their wintering sites in response to global warming, which stands to affect the distribution or risk of further H5N1 outbreaks.  It’s conceivable, for example, that Europe eventually might be prone to more risk from H5N1 than Southeast Asia.  “Industrial livestock production means that it’s not just a farm family that may be sickened by pathogens from a pig or cow,” notes Slate, “but potentially hundreds or thousands who consume meat or other products from those animals.”

The by now “routine viral assaults on food security,” adds Wired magazine, “demonstrate that regardless of the precise route of zoonotic transmission of the current Covid-19 outbreak, our reliance on massive-scale animal farming is neither prudent nor pragmatic in the best of times or the worst of times.  It’s time to admit that we, as a civilization, have outgrown the dated notion of using animals to produce meat.  Hunting and animal farming served their purpose for millennia of human population growth.  But in 2020, we need to be brutally honest with ourselves.  We can’t keep doing this.  The current system is broken.  It is inefficient, insecure, unsustainable, and extremely unsafe.”

On the other hand, removing animals from the food system has become more viable as of late, as demonstrated by tremendous innovation in both “plant-based” and cultivated meats grown in a lab, both of which avoid the risk of zoonotic disease.  “There’s no time to waste in pushing forward solutions for what is likely the underlying cause of this pandemic, and what has been at the root of dozens of prior zoonotic events,” adds Wired.  “We can’t afford not to have the same level of urgency in directing funding, effort, and talent into accelerating the development and deployment of safer, modern meat production methods.  It is past time to move away from animal-derived meat altogether.”

Lack of Public Discussion

Given their tremendous scope and complexity, what are the chances that the world will come to grips with such problems?  While portions of the U.S. public have only very belatedly started to take climate change seriously, society as a whole is blissfully ignorant of deforestation, except briefly, perhaps, when forest fires in the Amazon make their way into international headlines.  Given the necessity of “staying in our lane,” so to speak, averting further deforestation and exposure to wild animals and pathogens is of paramount importance.  And yet, as I explained in my book on the Amazon, addressing deforestation is a colossal economic, social and even political endeavor at the international level which barely represents a blip on the media landscape.

What’s more, if deforestation has remained overlooked, the notion of tackling factory farms and the food system, which will undoubtedly contribute to the spread of further disease, has been completely absent from public discussion and politicians rarely mention diet which is considered to be up to personal choice.  During the 2020 campaign, the only Democratic candidate to mention the issue of diet on the debate stage was Marianne Williamson, largely derided as a new-age lightweight who never attracted much of a following.  At another point, when offered an opportunity to discuss his choice of a vegan diet during a presidential debate, Democratic candidate Cory Booker declined to elaborate, perhaps fearing he would be perceived as judgmental or elitist.

If Bernie Sanders has been aware of the links between pandemics, wildlife and climate change, his own campaign web site makes little mention, though to be sure the Vermont Senator has come up with many positive recommendations to confront the scourge of Coronavirus, and the candidate has also been outspoken about the need for a Green New Deal as a whole.  On the other hand, during a one-on-one debate between Sanders and Joe Biden, neither candidate answered a question about public health and climate change directly, thus suggesting that politicians, even when they are on the progressive side, share the media’s penchant for “short-termism,” for lack of a better way of putting it.

Finding a “Silver Lining”?

As horrible as the Coronavirus epidemic has been, it is incumbent on environmentalists to try and salvage something from this humanitarian crisis.  “There’s nothing good about the novel coronavirus,” remarks noted environmental campaigner and writer Bill McKibben.  “It’s killing many people, and shutting millions more inside, with fear as their main companion.  However, if we’re fated to go through this passage, we may as well learn something from it.”

Already, people are avoiding flying, prompting Wired magazine to write that “if you’re reading this at home—isolated because your company has mandated that everyone work remotely, lest you all spread the novel coronavirus—know that your loneliness may be good for the planet.”  In the long-run, the deadly virus could bring about much-needed changes in behavior if people continue to avoid flying or boarding cruise ships, while opting instead for remote working and video conferences.

“Most of us learned as children what it meant to be grounded,” notes Philip Warburg, former president of the Conservation Law Foundation.  “Perhaps we should give that term a new, non-punitive meaning,” he adds.  “What in our local communities have we come to overlook as we scout out our next faraway travel prospect?…If we traveled less, we also might make more time for the activities that give us a sense of civic purpose and human connection here at home….For climate stability and personal health, it may be time to ground ourselves and give localism a chance.”

Environmentalist Response

Though it’s extremely discordant to even talk about “silver linings,” one unintended consequence of the pandemic has been a fall in carbon emissions from China and beyond.  In Hubei province alone, improvements in air quality may have saved the lives of 4,000 children under five years old and 73,000 adults over seventy, that is to say such improvements have saved more people than Coronavirus has killed.  In the U.S., meanwhile, people are working from home and, as a result, they are driving less.  What’s more, with fewer vehicles on the road, New York has seen sizable declines in carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and methane emissions.  In Europe, traffic is down in some of the continent’s dirtiest cities which had previously failed to adhere to EU air quality limits.  In Italy, reductions in nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane emissions, all of which can affect climate, were apparent to such a degree that they could be observed from space.

If they are shrewd, environmentalists will be able to capitalize on such developments and hopefully prevent a full-scale return to polluting “normalcy,” provided that the Coronavirus epidemic abates over time.  Even before the pandemic, activists with international environmental group Extinction Rebellion held street blockades in order to halt traffic and congestion.  Ironically, local authorities in New York have now closed off some streets in order to prevent large social gatherings, suggesting a possible opening for further activism.  In addition, environmentalists may find the public is more supportive of reining in the airlines, which are not only polluting but also serve as a conduit for accelerating epidemic disease.  Perhaps, recent events will even pressure airlines to quicken the pace of technological and environmental change.

Moving Beyond “Climate Change Activism”

But while environmentalists should try to prevent a return to polluting business as usual, they must also evolve as a movement.  If anything, the Coronavirus epidemic forces not only a tactical but also a philosophical rethink, since public health, wildlife and climate change have become so intertwined that it’s a little difficult to distinguish one issue from the next.  Perhaps it’s even time to drop the term “climate change activism” and start talking about “anti-pandemic activism,” a term which might prove more accessible to many.  As Columbia University’s Earth Institute has noted, “depictions of the ‘climate apocalypse’ often fixate on the temperature changes, sea level rise and proliferation of natural disasters wrought by climate change.  Epidemics are an often overlooked outcome that belongs to that future.”

It would seem environmentalists have been caught just as flat-footed as the politicians when it comes to Coronavirus.  Having been deprived of street protest, one of their most powerful tools for raising public consciousness, activists have embraced social media messaging and digital strikes.  Young climate change activist Greta Thunberg, meanwhile, has urged supporters to “take it online.”  Recent developments have also forced campaigners to scrap plans for the fiftieth annual Earth Day in April, or alternatively move such commemorations into the digital realm.  While organizers have changed their tactics, some acknowledge that hashtag activism may not exert the required impact or just wind up reaching the same people within a constant echo chamber.

It’s time to shift gears and focus on healthcare, wellbeing and the delivery of essential supplies, says Extinction Rebellion.  To its credit, the environmental group seems to have given some thought to shifting exigencies, though statements are still somewhat vague on specifics.  The pandemic, campaigners note, “calls for an evolution – not a shelving – of our rebellion.  This is a time to remember what we are rebelling for – a thriving and just world of regenerative cultures that can weather crises, foster cooperation and look after each other on a global scale…We are living through an emergency response that shows us things can be done differently.  The possibility is opening up to make the necessary and urgent changes to respond to the intersecting global crises – financial, health, climate and ecological – creating a world where life can thrive.”

Crafting a New Environmental Message

Though certainly laudable, such statements must be accompanied by more specifics.  If cable news and the likes of CNN and MSNBC continue to ignore international environmental trends while adhering to their usual short-term outlook, then campaigners must try to raise the profile of long-neglected issues which have failed to enter public consciousness.  To be sure, it may be difficult to distill a succinct and cogent message given the complexity and magnitude of environmental challenges ranging from factory farms to wildlife protection and the link to public health.  Perhaps, however, people may be more receptive to environmentalism in light of the challenges which we currently face.

Activists might start by updating their approach to industrial farming.  Traditionally, campaigners have criticized factory farms for being environmentally wasteful, contributing to greenhouse gasses, driving deforestation and placing a burden on natural resources.  Others have addressed the link between meat consumption and obesity and illness.  What has been overlooked, however, is the connection between factory farms and the potential spread of new pathogens.  Perhaps, by combining many of these concerns about public health, the environment and diet, activists might finally manage to break through.

The Coronavirus epidemic should also prompt environmentalists to become more creative in their organizing strategy.  While they have the facts and science on their side, campaigners haven’t done a very good job at conveying their message to the public since climate change can sometimes feel abstract.  The pandemic, however, offers a unique opportunity to promote symbolism and iconic animals such as palm civets and pangolins.  Since children are more prone to embrace wildlife, it makes sense for campaigners to venture into schools and organize wildlife clubs, perhaps by promoting emblematic flags or badges sporting a pangolin with captions such as “Coronavirus wasn’t my fault!”  If children prove receptive, then perhaps in time this might encourage a ripple effect which reaches parents and families alike.

While devastating on so many levels, the Coronavirus epidemic could offer an opportunity for environmentalists to advance and even broaden their goals, provided they are willing to improvise and experiment a bit more, while at the same time seeking to distill and sum up the current public zeitgeist.

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