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Going Viral

Does anyone else feel like we have slipped into a parallel universe? While life goes on here in my little home and my wife and I feel well enough, outside the world is melting down. I keep trying to make some sense of the COVID 19 virus, what it means for our present and our future. I am not sure there is much sense to be made of it. But I will try.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we – the human race – had this coming. We have pushed Earth’s natural systems to the brink. Every day, we have become more numerous and more demanding. This planet is a finite world with limited resources. Yet we treat the Earth as if there is no end to what we can take. As a result, before our very eyes, extinction of species is exploding, the oceans acidifying, the climate in chaos, deforestation accelerating, pollution flooding our water and air, wildlife habitat being shredded. Glaciers are vanishing. Mountains falling apart. Seas are rising. Yet we go on demanding, using, consuming more, as if it would never end.

Is it really a surprise that human systems are also in a tailspin? I reckon we just hit the wall.

Whether or not the COVID 19 virus is the Earth reacting to the human plague, there is no doubt we cannot continue as we have. Something had to give. World leaders refuse to take concrete, meaningful steps to stem our over-consumptive ways. As individuals, we take a few steps – recycle, compost, use less packaging, drive a hybrid car – but these are window dressing when we keep having lots of children, taking long international flights, driving hundreds of miles per week, buying whatever knick knack currently attracts our attention. We have been in serious denial.

Picture the mega party at the end of time. We have been living it.

So along comes a tiny organism that is not really even alive, and brings almost everything to a screeching halt.

According to the Washington Post, the COVID 19 virus is “ little more than a packet of genetic material surrounded by a spiky protein shell one-thousandth the width of an eyelash, and it leads such a zombielike existence that it’s barely considered a living organism. But as soon as it gets into a human airway, the virus hijacks our cells to create millions more versions of itself.”

Pretty ironic eh? Our doomsday scenarios often involve nuclear war, zombie humans, space alien invasion, asteroid impact, supervolcanic eruption, solar flares and the like. Stuff we can see and maybe find a way to divert or defeat or avoid. Now along comes this invisible, unpredictable, indiscriminate killer. And in weeks, it brings the whole world to a near standstill. It is truly bizarre.

Coronavirus is nothing we can reason with nor argue with. It has no malice toward us, no evil intent. Which makes it that much harder to understand. You look out at the world, there is no zombie horde approaching. No missiles streaking down. No giant volcanic cloud, no F5 tornado (well, there might be, but not everywhere). Just a world gone quiet, with deserted streets and shops. Instead of being soothing, the quiet is ominous.

So far we have found no cure for the coronavirus. Our only defense is avoidance. We are being forced to pull in, to take time to slow down, to gaze at our navels and wonder, how has it come to this? What have we done? Is this our fault?

It’s pretty clear what we have done.

We pushed too far into the heart of nature, and finally uncovered something really nasty. We found the Heart of Darkness.

Nature is left with no safe refuge from our constant slashing, cutting, drilling, roading, mining, logging, killing, skinning, eating, exploiting, and consuming. In the “bush meat” trade, wild animals of all kinds are eaten raw and cooked, either as sustenance, for a thrill, as a sexual stimulant, or as a status symbol. And finally, the animals have bitten back.

There are literally hundreds of thousands of viruses out there, lurking in animals, often with no symptoms or signs. Some can obviously jump from one species to another, especially when we move and mix wildlife and domestic animals at a frantic pace. The livestock industry, the pet trade, wet markets, zoos, game parks, all mix animals and animal products and humans in ways we never have mixed before.

COVID 19 is hardly the first zoonotic disease we have unleashed. Nor will it be the last. They do not all start in wet markets or jungles. Remember Mad Cow Disease? Brucellosis?

Of course this current outbreak was predictable, and indeed, predicted. US Scientists warned in January that climate change and habitat disruption could unleash zoonotic diseases into the human population. Speaking about his book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, David Quammen said on March 25 “I asked people in 2010 ‘what’s the next big one?’ Scientists said it would be a virus, coming out of a wild animal, very possibly a coronavirus. What kind of wild animal? Very possibly a bat. Where? Very possibly a wet market. Where? Very possibly in China. Ten years ago, I was hearing that from scientists and put that in my book. And yet, the policy makers were left flat-footed.”

Here in North America, ticks, mosquitos and other pests are thriving in a warmer, wetter world, with more and more people (and less wildlife) to feed on. Lyme disease is a tick-borne bacterial horror that has taken decades to get a handle on and still affects thousands of people a year. Zika virus emerged a few years ago, resulting in a nightmare of microcephalic infants. SARS, Marburg, Ebola, Hendra, leishmaniasis… There are plenty more out there, waiting for a chance to spread and expand their life cycle. These viruses and parasites could care less about your stock portfolio. You are a perfect host for their success.

The COVID 19 virus has also left our lack of real leadership in the United States exposed for all to see, with politicians fighting, flailing, blaming, getting sick, strutting, preening, posturing, and looking to profit from our mutual misfortune. Meanwhile some rise to the occasion, displaying real leadership and care, shining lights in a dark sea. There is nothing like a crisis to show true human nature.

We are now isolated from one another, billions of tiny human islands in a sea of chaos. Just when we need each other the most. We can safely connect only electronically. Hugs, handshakes, high fives, kisses, back slaps, all canceled. Concerts, church service, sporting events, rallies, marches, parades, classes, school, seminars, meetings, clubs, gathering, happy hours, conferences, all off limits. Even family gatherings are a bad idea. We move in a bubble of fear, keeping our distance, avoiding those we should like or love.

One possible bright side…the planet is getting a much needed respite. Air travel, car travel, cruises, shopping, are all scaled way back. Air has cleared significantly in many urban areas. It will be interesting to see if C02 levels will drop from the 415 ppm measured on April 23. Wildlife may be able to reclaim some areas as people stop traveling. Roadkill should decrease.

Unemployment in the US went from 4% to 20% almost overnight. 28 million people are suddenly out of work. The stock market has tanked, erasing years of gains in a week. The fragility and illusory nature of our financial system has also been exposed. It is one giant Jenga game, and the key block has just been removed, with nowhere to place it. What is going to be left when the market stabilizes? If it stabilizes?

We need some time here to adjust to this new reality. These sort of disease mega-outbreaks could become more common. Faith in money and stock markets will hopefully decline while our faith in one another, in human kindness and the wonder and importance of the natural world, will rise. We can rise to this, we can overcome. But we must embrace humility and realize the Earth has its limits. The more we push those limits, the more we will suffer.

We are setting sail for the place on the map where we have never been. Hole up and hold on tight, it will be a wild ride.

Phil Knight is an environmental activist in Bozeman, Montana. He is a board member of the Gallatin-Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance.

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Phil Knight is an environmental activist in Bozeman, Montana. He is a board member of the Gallatin-Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance.

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