COVID – 19 and the inability to properly celebrate the 50th Earth Day

I have been working with a group of people to plan a 50thEarth Day celebration for Rhode Island but given the global pandemic associated with COVID-19, the odds of having a public celebration on April 22 are approaching zero and getting slimmer every day (we are starting to discuss an on line event) considering that the whole state is in lock down and it is extremely unlikely that the pandemic will be over by Late April.

I was thinking about how in the early years of Earth Day we did lots of politics, and constructed spider webs of yarn in homage to the web of life and the connectedness of everything.  But eventually the corporate pushback, starting with the Chamber of Commerce in 1973,  and the funding needs of the various environmental organizations, left us with an Earth Day mostly devoted to cleanups and tree plantings instead of raising more hell in the halls of government and thinking like an ecosystem.  By thinking like an ecosystem, I mean consciously examining the evolutionary pathways of life in ecosystems and trying to understand the interactions that lead to the current result.  Have you noticed that the branches of different trees in the forest do not touch?  Have you ever wondered why?  Or why coyotes in some places hunt in the daytime, whereas in other places they hunt at night?  Or how coves look generally the same at every scale from a portion of a puddle to the Gulf of Maine?  It is this effort to think like an ecosystem that keeps me pondering how COVID -19 was unleashed on human communities and how unprepared they were for it in most places.  And maybe most of all WHY we are unprepared.  

On a recent walk I was pondering how COVID-19 relates to so many of the projects I am currently working on.  I write frequently and occasionally speak out on distortions in the medical industrial complex that lead to the massive neglect of the public health and prevention and how the inequality driven by the growth of the medical industrial complex does not help the RI economy. I write frequently about the anti regulatory, anti tax, and anti government fervor of the right wing and the neoliberals and how that leaves us unprepared for the future and totally unable to cope with issues like the climate catastrophe in any meaningful way.  The semi systematic dismantling of public health systems in the US, built in response to global outbreaks, could only be done by those who hate science, democracy, and transparency because it gives lie to their propaganda. Science and democracy provides communities with tools to fight ecosystem destruction and poisoning as well as the climate stupidity of those who govern from the patriarchal gut. When the know nothing in the White House says climate science is a hoax created by China, so let us cut taxes on the oil companies, promises that coal will never die, deregulates methane emissions while encouraging deforestation, and then cuts the budget for public health, is it any wonder that we are in big trouble?   

I write and speak frequently about forests, and most of the novel diseases we are seeing, COVID -19 included, are reaching humans as part of the global deforestation, with humans pushing into the last remaining wild forests and in destroying them in the name of profit running into wild populations harboring disease vectors humans have never experienced before, but are very susceptible to.  Deforestation also relates to the extinction crisis, and it is often human interactions in the forest with the animals that harbor the novel diseases such as carrying carcasses and eating them,  that is one of the big threats to the animals that are disappearing around the world. I started thinking about the environment when I read about endangered species in 1967, and after 50 years, the situation is much worse and the consequences for human communities are ever more deadly.  (The viruses often are just part of the forests biodiversity with no adverse effects on forest populations, just on populations of creatures  and people that have not been part of the local ecosystem and therefore have no resistance).  Deforestation is a leading indicator of the mining, drilling, and industrialization that leads to the burning of fossil fuels, with deforestation among the larger drivers of the climate catastrophe, trees and soils releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide each year as they are destroyed, though deforestation and soil destruction is still much less of a driver of climate catastrophe than fossil fuel burning.  

So I guess it is only fitting, ironic, or some such crazy juxtaposition that almost all the big events people were planning to celebrate the 50thEarth Day are being cancelled due to the triumph of neoliberalism that creates the massive deforestation and exploitation that brings people into contact with novel diseases and dismantles public health systems that could have made it much easier to stop the epidemic from spreading, while spreading propaganda that a deadly global epidemic and climate catastrophe are not a big deal.  The most powerful monied forces on the planet are not only continuing to rip out the soul of Mother Earth and leave devastation in their wake, they are proud of their destruction in the name of profit.  Unfortunately, even for them, the forces they have let loose in the world will bite them too even as they seek shelter in their luxury bunkers, and they have let loose a huge wave of activism by the young who are desperate for a future but see it burning and drowning before them.  

We have lost a chance to see a truly celebratory 50thEarth Day, but maybe it will give us a world in which the activism turns into the force that turns the world towards what we looked for 50 years ago. I sure hope so, and will do what I can to keep the activism moving forward.      

The origin of Covid – 19 and its relationship to the climate crisis

These days it is hard to avoid thinking about the Covid-19 outbreak, and I am mostly working on climate issues, and I am sure there are conspiracy theories about how they are linked.  Conspiracies aside, there is one way that the virus and our climate are definitely linked, and that is through deforestation.  Let me explain.

There have been a number of relatively recent disease outbreaks with novel diseases, diseases that western science had not seen before, and often diseases that the communities where the outbreaks originate had not experienced before.  Most of these diseases are also originally transmitted to people from tropical wild animal populations, with bats and primates implicated in some of them.  What is happening is that the deforestation process works in a variety of ways, driven by factors like new road construction and the development of plantations.  As roads reach new areas, it increases both the cutting of trees and the shooting of wildlife for food.  Some of the wildlife is eaten locally and replaces food sources lost as deforestation progresses, some of the hunting takes advantage of the new roads and transports the food to urban markets where there is often a high demand for bush meat. With the hunting taking place in places where very few people have hunted previously that are now available for exploitation due to new roads, or places where hunters are no longer living isolated communities, hunters are running into novel diseases in the same way that a survey of biodiversity in places that have not been explored/exploited before find new species of geckos, salamanders, and monkeys.  It makes perfect sense that if you are finding new species of animals and plants, you are running into new microorganisms, some of which will eventually be used to cure diseases, others that will cause new diseases, and most that have little direct effect on humans.  

The climate link is that the protection and maintenance of good health in the global forest, and especially tropical forests, is a critical part of our strategy to prevent the worst effects of climate change.  We have to move towards zero carbon emissions rather quickly, but we also have to suck carbon dioxide out of the sky and trees and soils are the most natural and least energy intensive ways to do that.  The best way to keep the trees and soils healthy is to protect tropical forests. We are already seeing reports how the carbon budget of the tropical forests is turning negative.  Deforestation is the big driver, but a decent amount of the loss of carbon in tropical forests is a cascade effect.  As forest turn silent, as the animals are all hunted out even if it is prior to deforestation, the forest unravels.  No animals are eating seeds that need to go through digestive systems to germinate.  No animals are depositing seeds in their poop as they move from place to place.  Very small pests run amok with predators gone. The ability of the forest to sequester and store carbon falls apart, requiring ever greater efforts to de carbonize to preserve the climate, and new ways of sequestering carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere.  

The conclusion is that the process that brings the new diseases to humans, deforestation and the bush meat trade is part and parcel of the climate crisis, and to better prevent future novel diseases, we need to do a lot better job of protecting the forests that help keep the climate intact.