The Breaking Point

The coronavirus pandemic is more proof humanity is pushing the planet’s limits, and its luck

Feature by Gregory Beatty

We’ve been building to this point for a while. Now that we’re finally here, we have a decision to make.

Do we want to continue with the illusion we don’t live in a globally connected world? Or do we want to finally acknowledge that we do and invest in the international infrastructure we need to prevent future calamities like this from happening?

It’s a simple question, really. After thousands of years of evolution where we’ve progressed from tribes and villages to nations and mega-cities, we’ve reached a point, with our communication, transportation and other technologies, where we live life on a global scale.

To deny that is folly. It’s also dangerous because, as climate activists have pointed out, there is no planet B. In an incredibly hostile universe, Earth is the only home we have. And we need to respect that stark reality.

The University of Saskatchewan took a step in that direction in 2018 when it established a Planetary Health unit. The unit arose out of a report commissioned by The Lancet and the Rockefeller Foundation, says Steven Jones of the university’s Health Sciences department, and uses a transdisciplinary mix of physical, natural and social sciences to study the U.N.’s 17 sustainable development goals to transform the world.

“Over the last 50 years, particularly in the West, but generally globally, there have been tremendous improvements in human health,” says Jones. “But those have come at a tremendous cost to the environment. That’s obviously not sustainable. We’re seeing the evidence of that now, not just in climate change, but also the loss of biodiversity.”

The U.N.’s development goals were created with that idea in mind. They cover education, nutrition, peace, clean energy, sanitation, gender equality and more critical factors, and provide a blueprint for our future health and well-being.

Pandemic Politics

COVID-19 has slowed society to a crawl in mere months. The pandemic is revealing the dark underbelly of two forces that have undermined international cooperation in recent years, says Jones.

“Since the great recession in 2008, we’ve seen a move toward nationalism and populism,” Jones says. “Both are extraordinarily dangerous for public health.

“The notion that we can function as independent nations — I don’t think that’s actually ever been true, and it’s definitely not true now,” says Jones. “But the concept that it’s us first, and everyone else second, third or fourth — that simply can’t work in today’s world.”

The campaign that U.S. president Donald Trump and other populist politicians are waging to pin blame for the pandemic on China and the World Health Organization is a perfect example of that mindset, says Jones.

“Demonizing a people or country has happened before,” he says. “We tell ourselves this story because it absolves us of our responsibility to do something.

“That’s one of the dangers of populism. It’s always someone else’s fault.”

Another thing populists tend to do is offer simple solutions to complex problems, says Jones.

“The solutions aren’t practical, but they’re attractive because most people don’t want to worry about this stuff,” he says. “Unfortunately, we do need to worry, if not for our benefit, then for our children because we continue to lay down problems for them. Although now, it’s clear we’ve created problems that are going to be significant in our lifetime.”

Climate change is the ultimate global reckoning we face but it’s far from the only one. International trade and investment have made our supply chains global. If we want to keep them secure and reduce their environmental impact, we need to coordinate with each other.

With the long-range weapons we have now, from remote-control drones and cruise missiles to spy satellites and nuclear bombs, war is a global enterprise too. Even a major industrial accident, such as a reactor meltdown or oil spill, can have international ramifications.

And as we’re currently seeing, pandemics are a growing problem.

“If diseases spread at the speed of sailing ships and camel trains across the Silk Road, it would be easier to deal with,” says Jones. “But they don’t. They move at the speed of jet planes and motor cars.

“Even here in Saskatchewan, we’re literally 40 hours from anywhere in the world,” says Jones. “There’s virtually no virus that will show symptoms in that time.

“People will pick up a virus in some distant location and be home before they get sick. That demonstrates we are all part of one big system, and we need to ensure that all parts of that system are healthy if we’re going to be healthy in the long run,” he says.

Think Global

A third arrow in the populist quiver is relentless criticism of international institutions. Yes, sometimes the criticism may be justified. But is that the fault of the institution, or the member countries with their myriad geo-political rivalries, agendas and animosities?

Despite their limitations, international organizations such as the U.N. and WHO at least give our 190-plus countries a forum to discuss the many problems we face and how to solve them. But to make the organizations truly effective we need to supply them with the resources and authority they need to do the job.

“Our democratic structures do not equip us to deal with [global] problems,” says Jones. “And frankly, human nature doesn’t either. Initially, we weren’t willing to do very much about COVID-19. Then suddenly, it’s like there’s a switch in the brain that says ‘Oh crap, this is going to affect me personally. So let’s do something about it.’”

The lesson Earth is teaching us with this pandemic is one we need to take to heart, says Jones.

“With this outbreak, people everywhere have had a firsthand view of how interconnected the world is and how an incident that first occurred on the other side of the planet has impacted on our daily life.

“The question is, do we have the wisdom and capacity to actually use this to leverage change?” Jones wonders. “I hope so. But historically, this is difficult to do.”

So stay tuned, I guess.  pd

For more on the University of Saskatchewan’s Planetary Health initiative, see healthsciences.usask.ca/planetary-health.


Sidebar

Poking The Beast

How reckless human expansion triggers pandemics

COVID-19 is the villain in the current pandemic, but the virus is symptomatic of a much larger problem: namely our needy/greedy exploitation of Earth’s natural resources.

The latest “frontier” is the jungles and tropical rain forests of the developing world where transnational corporations and other powerful business interests are busy slashing, burning, planting, prospecting and otherwise transforming vast swathes of wilderness.

“I read a recent paper in Nature that said since the 1940s, 306 diseases have emerged — and 60 per cent moved from animals into humans,” says Steven Jones of the U of S’s Planetary Health unit. “And very often that has been because of humans disturbing the natural environment.

“In 1976, we saw the first outbreak of Ebola,” says Jones. “There was another outbreak in 2014–15. We had SARS in 2003. I worked on that outbreak. Canada had 244 cases, and it cost the Canadian economy a vast amount in lost revenue.

“Then there was MERS in 2013, and now COVID-19.”

As humans encroach on wilderness areas, animals get scrunched into smaller and smaller habitats. Like humans, most animal species have reservoirs of disease. The more crowded they become, the easier it is for those diseases to spread — both within a species, and between species.

Ebola is a perfect example, says Jones. “It normally infects bats. It doesn’t seem to cause them any real problems. It’s like the common cold for us, where we feel a little unwell, and the cold is transmitted to other people, but we don’t die.”

In the rain forest, says Jones, bats and great apes live on the same fruit. “The bats feed on the fruit, drop them to the forest floor, and the apes consume them. People there subsist on bush meat, which can include gorillas and chimpanzees. A sick ape is easier to hunt than a healthy one, so in the act of butchering and eating the meat people get exposed to the virus and it gets into the human community.”

Bats are the likely source of COVID-19 too, and transmission appears to have happened through a bush meat market in Wuhan, China.

But that’s only one of many potential vectors, says Jones.

“The more we interfere with the natural environment, and the more we displace animals from their environment into ours, the more likely we are to come into contact with these viruses. And the more of us there are, the easier it is for the virus to be transmitted. Now, it’s to the point where we’re literally shutting down society to limit the spread.”

This new wave of zoonotic diseases which transfer from animals to humans isn’t the only pandemic threat we face, says Jones.

As the planet warms from climate change, we’re likely to see the range of different diseases expand.

“We’ll see an increase in dengue virus in the southern U.S., for example, and the distribution of malaria will change because the vectors that spread it will be able to survive year-round,” he says. “Those will have a tremendous impact on human health.”

As if that wasn’t enough, as the Arctic warms the permafrost is melting, and scientists are worried that could release bacteria and viruses that have been trapped for thousands of years.

“Our population hasn’t been exposed to them, so we’d have no immunity,” says Jones. “That’s what makes these viruses so dangerous — whether they come from animals in the rain forest, or the frozen tundra. They rip through the population.”

Even in the few months humanity has been sidelined by COVID-19, there has been a noticeable improvement in the global environment, with polluted skies and waters in major cities clearing, greenhouse gas emissions dropping, and wildlife wandering streets and parks suddenly empty of people and traffic. So yeah, Earth can get along just fine without humans.

Again, that’s a lesson we need to take to heart, says Jones.

“Climate change and the loss of ecological diversity isn’t going to destroy the planet,” he says. “The planet is not going to die. What’s going to happen is we’re not going to be able to live on it any more.

“Every time we’ve had a mass extinction, there’s been a bloom of life afterwards,” says Jones “But we might not be part of it, and that’s what people need to understand. We do not have a God-given right to exist on Earth.”