Bringing the Earth into balance in times of crisis
The staggering loss of life from the coronavirus pandemic has thrown our daily lives into chaos. Whenever it is deemed safe enough to leave the protective bubble of our homes, the world will be markedly different. To reduce the chances of the next pandemic, human and planetary health need to be solved together, as an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
The leading hypothesis on how the virus originally infected people in China is that it started in clusters as viral spillover from infected bats and possibly other wild animals forced into close proximity with people. But don’t blame bats or the Chinese for the Earth out of balance.
Phenomenal economic growth (U.S. per-capita GDP was $3,000 in 1960 and is over $60,000 now) has drawn down massive amounts of biological capital, returning it to landfills with unprecedented global warming emissions a byproduct.
Explosive population growth (3 billion people in 1960, nearing 8 billion now, with several billions more anticipated this century) crammed people into cities, destroyed wildlife habitats, and forced wild animals to adapt or perish. Some 1 million species face extinction. Closer to home, 3 billion birds have vanished from North America. Many of the plentiful urban ones, like starlings and pigeons, harbor infectious diseases.
Insatiable meat consumption is upping the ante on spillover. Crowding pigs and chickens at feeding operations was a factor in the swine flu outbreak of 2009 and the bird flu of 1997. Poaching, overhunting and the global trade of wild animals contribute to disease spread. The loss of predators that keep host animals, like mice and deer, in check is connected to the spread of Lyme disease in North America.
Our global footprint has depleted 60% of the ecosystem benefits given freely to us by Nature. These are best maintained by the wild things that purify drinking water, cleanse the air, pollinate orchids, regulate the climate, contain new medicines and enrich our lives.
Unfortunately, at the rate we are going, these losses will only accumulate as we force more animals out of natural habitats, alter migrations, and melt the permafrost that may be incubating novel infectious organisms.
So, what can be done to change direction in time?
Immediately, we must speed development of new medicines and vaccines while caring for the most vulnerable. The One Health program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a multi-sectoral approach to zoonotic disease prevention that links human and ecosystem health. It needs to be joined with culturally appropriate family planning that bends the human population growth curve while reducing wasteful consumption.
“Wet markets” where animals are highly concentrated must be closed, and the trade of wild species that have elevated risks of zoonotic disease transmission strictly curbed, especially in the U.S., which imports 20% of the global wild species trade.
In collaboration with indigenous peoples and local communities, governments need to protect 30-50% of Earth’s fast-dwindling wild areas in the coming decades. This cost-saving global measure would require $100 billion annually compared with $7 trillion already invested on the coronavirus pandemic. Along with getting off fossil fuels, it would keep atmospheric carbon safely stored in forests instead of emitting most of it to the atmosphere when forests are cut down.
As consumers we have choices. Eating lower on the food chain, buying from local growers organically certified, substituting hemp as an alternative to wood fibers, and reforming forestry practices for climate and wildlife safety would protect rainforests.
Consider that one in four medicines came from tropical rainforests — climate control centers of the planet — that are quickly being decimated. Taxol, a widely used drug to treat ovarian cancer, was synthesized from the Pacific yew, once considered a trash tree by foresters. Had we liquidated our own rainforests, the drug may never have been developed and those lives never saved.
As we recover from this pandemic, we must not lose sight of the penultimate distress signal from Nature that scientists and religious leaders such as Pope Francis are warning us about. The awe-inspiring heroism of medical staff, and the ingenuity of scientists who have identified the virus, are now working tirelessly on treatments and a vaccine. In recognition of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and for the benefit of the next generation, we need to address these crises simultaneously.
Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D., chief scientist at the Geos Institute, is an award-winning scientist with over 200 publications and books on nature, human health, and climate change. William J. Ripple, Ph.D., distinguished professor of ecology at Oregon State University, was the lead author of the 2019 “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” and is the director of the Alliance of World Scientists https://scientistswarning.forestry.oregonstate.edu/. Franz Baumann, Ph.D., former United Nations assistant secretary general, is a visiting research professor at New York University.