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Nature’s Revenge: Climate Change and COVID-19

Tehachapi, California. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The corona virus pandemic is no accident. Like past global epidemics, it’s a warning that nature has had it with the ecocidal proclivities of man. These outrageous actions are changing climate and are warming and threatening planet Earth. Nature (the Earth) is fighting back. Climate change is sowing pandemic diseases.

Corona virus in America

No vaccine is likely to block for long the spreading death. Like most people of the world, Americans fail to see the broader significance of the pandemic. In addition, Trump and his sidekick, Mike Pence, spread confusion about the virus. Retired general Barry McCaffrey denounced the “Revolting sycophancy by Pence and others in the [Trump] Administration… There are eerie echoes of ‘supreme leader’ adulation to all of this. That Trump tolerates or needs this kind of faux devotion is dangerous in a democracy.” However, with the national attention on the virus, Americans don’t think much about democracy. They are getting ready to bunker down and hide in their homes to avoid infection.

On the grip of the Anthropocene

Such measures of panic have limited value. A bolder and wiser policy is necessary. If heads of state sign an enforceable treaty of ending in the next ten years or so the dependence of their countries on fossil fuels, over fishing, plastics, logging, pesticides, and industrialized farming, there may be a hopeful turnaround in the planet’s spiral towards more potent pandemic diseases, higher temperatures, and catastrophic breakdown.

UN climate experts say humanity has about a decade to prevent “irreversible damage” to the world from the monster of anthropogenic climate. Ten years is the time we need to, at least, limit the chaos of climate change.

I am not predicting the future by saying we need to act fast to save ourselves and the planet from our petroleum nightmares. I am a historian who has been observing American relations with the natural world for decades. I have also studied the dark history of human exploitation of the Earth.

The hubris of capitalism and state communism did so much damage to the Earth, scientists are describing our era as Anthropocene (human epoch). Like giant dinosaurs, men (primarily of the West) turned science and technology into weapons for the conquest of the world, including land, the seas, and the sky.

That “conquest” brought immense and unforeseen calamities: nearly wiping out the rich variety of life and filling the land with poisons and the seas with plastics, oil, and deleterious pollution. You cannot go on killing and forcing to extinction wild animals and plants, including insects, birds, fish, and other countless forms of life on land, rivers, lakes and the seas without a violent response.

According to the British charity, Population Matters, some 10,000 years ago, humans made up 1 percent of the animal population. Wild animals were the overwhelming majority: 99 percent. In 2011, humans ware 32 percent and wild animals 1 percent of the animal population. About 67 percent of non-wild animals were food for humans.

The missing wild animals, even the tiniest, are the species that kept the Earth beautiful, fruitful, habitable and alive.

Mother Earth

The Earth, I think, is still beautiful, fruitful, alive and sacred. The Homeric Hymn to Gaia (Earth) describes the Earth as mother of the gods and wife of heavens, very ancient Mother of All, which nourishes every single plant and animal.

The  ancient Greeks were not alone in venerating the Earth. Many other pre-modern people and Native Americans thought of the Earth as their Mother and Mother of the natural world.

Regulating pollution

Second, I am not an epidemiologist or virologist. I simply don’t like humans harming the environment-natural world because they are harming all plants and animals, including me.

For several decades, starting in the 1970s, I observed admirable efforts in the United States to change the dangerous Biblical obsession with human dominance of nature. Laws passed that said we had to limit our stupidity and greed to ourselves. We had no right to export our religious fanaticism in polluting the air, water, and land and in threatening wildlife, especially already endangered species.

To put teeth to these pioneering laws, President Richard Nixon in December 1970 founded the US Environmental Protection Agency.

I joined EPA in May 1979. That gave me a privileged angle from which to test the mission of EPA: that of protecting human health and the environment.

I never had any doubt that human health and the environment (air, water, wildlife) needed protection. Environmental pollution gave birth to the cancer plague. The cancer pandemic was killing and continues to kill millions.

Newspaper headlines, articles, and books (like the 1962 Silent Spring by Rachel Carson) painted a giant picture of an abused and poisoned world.

I worked for the Office of Pesticide Programs, which administers the widespread use of petrochemical insect and weed killers of enormous deleterious power and reach. My colleagues used to be very quiet about pesticides. But a few raised nagging questions about the safety of those chemicals and the integrity of the very labs testing them.

It turned out, the chemical industry labs had made the testing of chemical pesticides a profitable business, hardly concerned with science or integrity or public health. In 1976, a government scientist, Adrian Gross, caught the country’s largest testing lab, International Bio-Test, committing fraud, an awful and criminal tradition that continues to this day. For example, the Laboratory of Pharmacology and Toxicology in Hamburg, Germany, has been following the playbook of IBT, falsifying animal studies for the approval of pesticides.

The realization that pesticides have been dangerous for spraying America’s food and equally dangerous to wildlife, all but destroyed any ideas I had of the EPA being a good and responsible government agency.

I have written extensively on EPA and pesticides. A physician and great environmentalist in the UK, Rosemary Mason, shares my concern about pesticides. She has no doubt pesticides are the greatest health threat to the children and adults in her country.

Merchants of danger

There’s no doubt that powerful pesticides are deleterious to human beings and the natural world. Yet they are sprayed over crops, forests, and bodies of water. Those who control the production and use of pesticides, and the governments that approve those pesticides, are devoid of ethical norms and harm both people and the environment. They are contemptuous of civilization and the life-giving of the natural world. They are deceiving themselves and threatening the rest of us.

This unethical model has been duplicated in the economies of fossil fuels, chemicals, agribusiness, logging, cars, airplanes, and electricity production. These industries, funded largely by giant banks, are triggering global pollution and climate change. Virus pandemics are merely symptoms of these overarching anthropogenic attacks against the Earth.

Sanders and Biden

Ancient Athenians would ostracize and exile such people for ten years. In our modern times, however, not only we don’t ostracize these merchants of danger (corporate executives-oligarchs), but we subsidize them to do more of the same.

Senator Bernie Sanders keeps saying that, if elected president, he would force these guys to play by the rules, play a less hazardous game, even put some of them out of business. He would replace fossil fuels with solar, wind and other renewable zero-carbon alternatives. In that process, he says, the alternative technologies would create 24 million well-paying jobs. Sanders also promises to tax the billionaires behind the war against the Earth.

Former vice-president Joe Biden is not as forthright as Sanders on matters of rapid transition from petroleum to solar power. He does support fighting climate change, however. Yet Biden is beholden to his former boss, president Barack Obama. The Obama factor hangs all over him.

That was me, people

Obama was business as usual. He relied on Wall Street to dissipate the financial meltdown brought to America by Wall Street. Why would he have done such a sellout to the very institutions that nearly destroyed American and world economies? His EPA administrators (a black and a white woman) did nothing out of the ordinary. They even failed to reverse one of the most egregious damages the George W. Bush administration had inflicted on EPA: the destruction of the fabulous scientific document collections of the EPA library. Without those documents of hundreds of studies funded by EPA for several decades, the agency is blind.

Obama was schizophrenic. He cultivated an image of caring for the environment while, at the same time, he feasted with the industry. He used the Clean Air Act of 1970 and reduced the emissions of cars and coal plants. He often spoke with intelligence about climate change. He convinced China joining the United States in fighting climate danger. However, behind Obama’s enthusiasm, there lurk a demon to also do the bidding of the polluters and the oligarchs. He pretended he wanted to tame climate change, but, in reality, he did the bare minimum. He left the chemical industry alone, and did nothing about pesticides or agribusiness. He kept the national lands of the American West (some 450 million acres) open to fracking, oil drilling, mining, logging and feeding millions of cattle: all this destruction of public lands was for private enrichment.

In a speech at Rice University in Houston, Texas, November 28, 2018, Obama prided himself for accelerating fracking in the United States: “You wouldn’t always know it, but [oil production] went up every year I was president… Suddenly America’s like the biggest oil producer and the biggest gas [producer in the world] — that was me, people,” Obama said.

Epilogue

It’s this terrible Republican-like legacy of Obama that threatens Biden. Yet he is more likely to win the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. Sanders understands that, but keeps fighting. Nevertheless, he is trying to bring Biden closer to his philosophy.

Meanwhile, the corona virus has eclipsed climate change and everything else in America and the world. Yes, people are dying and the shutting down of the country has merits. But unless we connect the virus with the horrors of climate change and the anthropogenic impoverishment of the planet, we imperil ourselves and this beautiful Mother Earth, Mother to All.

More articles by:

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

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