Is COVID-19 Nature’s Revenge?

March 17th, 2020 - by Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War

Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War

“Can’t you hear what Mother Nature is screaming at you?” — Al Gore

(March 15, 2020) — In Joaquin Miller Park, in the hills above Oakland, California, the remains of an ancient tree are on display. Taller than a standing human, the rings of the remnant stump reveal a long and challenged history. At one point, hundreds of years ago—long before the arrival of European settlers—a bolt of lightning struck the tree, leaving a mark that still remains.

Part of the tree was severed by the impact and resulting fire, leaving the towering tree unbalanced and in danger of toppling. What happened over the next several decades gives an astonishing look into nature’s remarkable—and underestimated—survival responses.

Leaning to the east and threatened by collapse, the tree did something that trees are not widely known to do: It grew a leg. On the side of the tree that had begun to tilt toward the ground, a new woody growth slowly emerged from the trunk, creating what an architect might describe as a “flying buttress”—the kind of exterior support used to secure the walls of tall, stone churches.

That tree in Oakland has something in common with a mutant lamb in Ukraine.

In the aftermath of the Chernobyl reactor explosion, downwind livestock experienced waves of stillbirths and troubling deformations. One newborn lamb emerged with two small stumps where its front legs should have been. Incapable of walking on four legs, the young lamb learned to use the stumps to push itself upwards, enabling it to stand upright, balanced on its two rear legs. From this posture, the lamb learned to move about by hopping, somewhat like a kangaroo.

A year later, after the animal died, the farmers burying it made a surprising discovery. The leg bones of the animal had, in the course of its short life, managed to evolve to resemble the bones of a kangaroo—becoming thicker and stouter to better handle the lamb’s self-taught ability to hop.

Is Nature Self-aware?

These two disparate incidents suggest that nature—which is usually dismissed by First World humans as an unconscious, neutral presence—may, in fact, be capable of sensing dangers, evaluating threats, and responding to them.

Our Indigenous ancestors saw Nature as a living force—a complex matrix alive with spiritual potential and worthy of human devotion. The European colonizers who usurped the Indigenous lands, rejected this human bond with the natural world and substituted a pragmatic belief in the virtues of plunder and profit.

This new ideology viewed Nature as unaware and disembodied, which conveniently removed any concerns about the need to request “consent” before ravishing the landscape—with the exploitative assaults of miners, loggers, and hunters.

The banished belief systems of our Indigenous predecessors may have been closer to the truth than we ever realized. As the Smithsonian Magazine noted in an article titled, “Do Trees Talk to Each Other?”: “Forest trees have evolved to live in cooperative, interdependent relationships.” They even communicate through a “Wood-wide Web” of “underground fungal networks.” (For more on this, see Peter Wohlleben’s 2016 book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate.)

If wild vegetation growing in woodland forests has the ability to transmit warnings from flower to flower and from flower to tree, that suggests that Nature is, to some degree, cognizant. As an article in Quanta Magazine notes, there are mounting studies that support the existence of “plant communication.” In one well-studied example, it was established that “willow trees, poplars and sugar maples can warn each other about insect attacks.” Upon receiving the warning, nearby trees respond by “pumping out bug-repelling chemicals to ward off attack.”

These musings lead us to revisit James Lovelock and his Gaia Hypothesis of a “Conscious Earth” based on observable data demonstrating that the planet functions as an interconnected living entity.

Does Nature Have a Right to ‘Self-Defense’?

What if it turns out that plants, insects, and animals are aware of existential threats? What if nature has the ability to respond to human-caused assaults on biospheric order? What if nature is intrinsically engineered to respond to a global threats like the current Sixth Extinction? Wouldn’t nature have the right to respond to a destructive, hegemonic “power structure” by (as the urban revolutionaries of the 1960s put it) “any means necessary”?

Human activity has been relentlessly—and demonstrably—terraforming our planet by raising temperatures and sea levels while lowering the prospects for plant, animal and human survival. Nature has every reason to lash back against destructive human activities that have decapitated mountaintops to recover coal, polluted rivers and streams with industrial run-off, clear-cut forests to establish swaths of chemically dependent monocultures, and poisoned the air with clouds of toxic and carcinogenic climate-changing pollution.

It can be argued that the planet’s self-styled “developed nations” have been waging an undeclared “war on nature.” Humans have spent centuries dominating and ravishing the natural world in pursuit of short-term profit. But recent history has revealed that Nature has its own powerful arsenal of weapons with which to defend itself against humanity’s assault. Nature’s arsenal bristles with an array of extreme weather events that include droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires. Nature also wields weapons of biological warfare and has a long history of deploying infections like Yellow Fever, Bubonic Plague, Ebola, SARs, and, most recently, COVID-19.

Nature’s armory also includes earthquakes and volcanic eruptions—and both are increasing in number and ferocity, thanks to human behavior.

Quakes, Volcanoes, and Climate Change

Scientists recently have come to understand that volcanoes and earthquakes are weather-related events that become more acute when global temperatures rise.

In 1989, the Loma Prieta quake rocked the Bay Area, triggering fires in San Francisco, buckling eastbound lanes on the Bay Bridge, and collapsing 1.25 miles of the Cypress Freeway overpass. The quake killed 67, injured 3,800, and caused more than $10 billion in losses to the human economy.

In the aftermath of the deadly 6.8-magnitude quake, I wrote an article for Earth Island Journal that linked the massive quake to human-driven global warming. After discovering evidence that rising global temperatures in past eons had been accompanied by significant increases in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, I proposed a link between Antarctica’s ice-fields and the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire”—a huge region of seismic activity where the planet’s tectonic plates grind against one another, triggering tremors and volcanic eruptions from Alaska to Ecuador to Japan and Indonesia.

The actual landmass of the southern Arctic lies hidden beneath layers of polar ice that are, in some cases, 2.5 miles thick. In the Age of the Anthropocene (a geologic era defined by the impacts of humankind), the ice at both poles has been melting at unprecedented and accelerating rates. As the ice turns to runoff, the polar continents begin to break apart, calving icebergs as large as cities.

This process reduces the weight that previously bore down upon the buried seabed geology and, as the pressure of that immense, stabilizing weight begins to lift, the buried geology begins to shrug and stir. At the same time, rising sea levels begin to exert additional lateral pressures on landmasses—including seismic rupture zones worldwide.

As The Guardian pointed out in a 2016 article on the weather/quake connection: “an earthquake fault that is primed and ready to go is like a coiled spring.” And, as geophysicist John McCloskey informed The Guardian, all that’s needed to trigger a quake is “the pressure of a handshake.”

The Planetary Fire Alarm

Think of the Ring of Fire and the Southern Ice Cap as a parts of a four-legged table—a piece of furniture with deep cracks running across the top. How do you keep such a table stable? You might place a stack of books on top to bear down on the structure, steadying it and preventing it from wobbling. If the books are removed, the table becomes more likely to shake.

The buried geology beneath Antarctica is like the tabletop. As the pressure of the icecap is removed, the buried landmass begins to rise. The submerged plates of the Ring of Fire are the cracks. As the ice melts and the polar geography shifts upwards, the pressures that constrain the Ring of Fire lessen and things begin to move, shake, and erupt.

The theory that increased seismic activity is linked to rising global temperatures has become accepted by a growing number of world scientists (See: “How Climate Change Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanoes” and “Could a Changing Climate Set Off Volcanoes and Quakes?“)

I took the theorizing a bit further, however, by proposing that the 1989 quake suggested that Nature may have the ability to identify and respond to existential threats. If quakes and pyroclastic eruptions can be linked to rising global temperatures, their activation may be compared to a “fire-alarm” that automatically sounds an alert and activates sprinklers in a fire-suppression system.

In my Loma Prieta article, I observed that, since gas-burning automobiles were a major source of the pollution driving the climate calamity, the quake almost seemed to be a “targeted attack” with Nature “striking back” and destroying the bridges and freeways used by the cars, vans, busses and trucks largely responsible for stoking Global Warming. In short: alarm bells followed by sprinklers.

As former Vice President and climate crusader Al Gore famously declared, in reference to the rising howls of extreme weather: “Can’t you hear what Mother Nature is screaming at you?”

And that brings us to the coronavirus.

COVID-19: Nature’s Revenge?

The outbreak of coronavirus in China could be seen as another example of Nature’s pro-active response to the suicidal behavior of homo not-so-sapiens. The industrial disasters at Fukushima and Chernobyl have added new clouds of radiation to the atmospheric remnants of open-air nuclear weapons testing. Our oceans have become carbonized with atmospheric oxides while declining populations of sharks, whales, seabirds and fish have been replaced by growing gobs of floating, swirling plastic waste. Our drinking water is contaminated with lead, mercury and a lethal legacy of PFAS and other “Forever Chemicals.” Our bees and birds are dying from the addition of toxic chemicals and the reduction of sustainable habitat.

If Mother Nature is, to some degree, a sentient force, we shouldn’t be surprised if she is finally thinking: “Enough, already! It’s time to get rid of these human pests.”

The coronavirus now sweeping the planet, may prove to be Nature’s pesticide-of-choice. While the COVID-19 virus is unlikely to totally eradicate the misbehaving hoards of modern First World humanity, it should clearly be taken as a warning.

If human patterns of extraction/consumption/pollution/warfare have created a situation in which millions of our poorest humans are fated to become displaced migrants, sickened families, and war-shocked refugees, isn’t it clear that we need to radically change our behavior?

Empires Vanquished by Microbes?

If the Anthropocene’s impacts have grown to include the mass destruction of such biological treasures as Great Barrier Reef and the Amazon Rainforest, why is it that we have failed to halt the exploitative corporate forces that promote this ever-expanding devastation? If our failure to cultivate governments that honor thrift, compassion and sustainability come at the cost of one billion animals burned into oblivion in the wildfires that swept over Australia, doesn’t Nature have a right to respond?

And, like the tree that grew a leg, the lamb that learned to hop, and the quake that crushed the gas-guzzlers, the Wuhan Plague is proving to be effective in striking back against specific, causative activities—consumption of resources and pollution of the biosphere. But, unlike the “distant” apocalypse of climate-linked extinction by the end of the century, the coronavirus is an imminent threat—one that is literally “breathing down our necks.”

By attacking the root causes that threaten Nature’s survival—overconsumption, pollution, and militarism—the coronavirus has managed to fundamentally alter human behavior in a remarkably short time. As one expert grimly predicted, COVID-19 could leave “96 million infected in US with up to 500,000 dead.”

The virus has prompted millions of people to drop travel plans, avoid sport arenas, cancel business trips, tear up concert tickets, and opt to “shelter in place.”

Not even an autocratic bully like Donald Trump is a match for the COVID-19 virus. As UC Berkeley professor and former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently observed: “Trump is facing crises that elude his capacities to con. He can’t bully the coronavirus. He can’t intimidate or threaten it into submission. He can’t convince it to go away or make a deal with it. Nor can he order the stock and bond markets to do better.”

In a matter of weeks, this small, invisible virus has managed to spur massive social changes that have remained immune to public demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, global treaties, and political interventions. Consider the following:

The global airline industry—one of the major contributors to global warming—has grounded thousands of planes.

Fleets of cruise ships—floating highrises that pollute the air with greenhouse gases and cater to consumption and hyper-indulgence—are now viewed with suspicion, if not outright apprehension.

Thanks to the spreading virus, the New York Stock Exchange—the Broadway of Capitalism—has been knocked off its greed-binge, taking a string of historic losses (relieved only by the sudden demand for Clorox wipes and facemasks).

Beyond that, the virus has even demonstrated the unique ability to thwart the world’s most powerful armies. The Pentagon (one of the most oil-dependent and climate-polluting enterprises on Earth) is reporting coronavirus contamination among troops in the US and at US bases around the world. COVID-19 even forced the Pentagon to issue a partial declaration of surrender when it announced the cancellation of planned “war games” with Israel and South Korea.

According to The Hill, the coronavirus has forced military-industrial complex to halt construction of Lockheed’s F-35 fighter jet at factories in Italy and Japan.

Pandemics and Population

This isn’t the first time that pandemics have raged across continents but there’s always the chance that this one just may be the last. Over the 300,000 years since the Paleolithic appearance of Homo sapiens, the global human population has generally hovered below 250 million. This stable human presence remained virtually unchanged for millennia—a sustainable population in equilibrium with the resources of the planet.

This began to change with the formation of prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies and later with the development of agriculture in the Middle East. But it wasn’t until the Middle Ages—between 1000 and 1300 AD— that human numbers began an unprecedented—and biologically unsustainable— ascent. In the span of those 300 years, the population of Europe roughly doubled. But this manifestation of the “rise of man” was soon cut short by the “revenge of Nature,” which sounded an alarm bell, followed by a death knell.

As the human population began to boom in the 14th century, an outbreak of bubonic plague (aka “The Black Death”) began to decimate Europe. The pandemic arrived “from the East” (most likely China) and spread through Italy, Spain, France Britain and Russia. The devastating contagion (which could kill a victim within hours of exposure) raged for three years and killed 60 percent of the population of Western Europe, significantly reducing the global population as nature’s pathogens swept through packed human cities, killing millions. Of the 80 million alive in 1347, only 30 million survived to see 1350.

The disease reemerged again in 1665 when the Great Plague of London killed 15 percent of population. But, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the human population bounced back—with a vengeance. The planet’s human population increased from .02 to .23 percent in 1600 and rose to .33 percent in the mid-1700s.

For millennia, disease and famine had limited human populations to naturally sustainable numbers (below 250 million), but improvements in agriculture and technology set about to challenge the rules of the game. Between 1750 and 1850, the population of England nearly tripled. Between 1800 and 1900, the world’s human population virtually doubled from around 250 million to 500 million.

By 1920, the global population had doubled again, topping 2 billion. By 1960, the population had more than tripled, blowing past 6 billion. By the 1980s, the planet’s human population passed the 8 billion mark—a figure sixteen times greater than the planet’s historic “carrying capacity” for humankind.

The Human Plague

In 2013, filmmaker Sir David Attenborough noted that “the human population has increased by nearly 2 billion since 1999 for a total population of 7.7 billion.” Attenborough predicted that number could reach 9 billion sometime before 2070. These alarming numbers prompted Attenborough to characterize humanity as “a plague on the Earth.”

As a wise elder who has spent more time studying nature than almost anyone else on Earth, Attenborough offered a prescient warning: “Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us.”

As science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson observed in The Guardian: “There are nearly eight billion humans alive on the planet now . . . more than twice as many as were alive 50 years ago. It’s an accidental experiment with enormous stakes, as it isn’t clear that the Earth’s biosphere can supply that many people’s needs—or absorb that many wastes and poisons—on a renewable and sustainable basis over the long haul.”

According to the Global Assessment of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (based on a study of 15,000 scientific and global publications), “the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20 percent, mostly since 1900” and “at least 680 vertebrate species have been driven to extinction since the 16th century.”

Today our oceans are warming and turning acidic, plagued by “dead zones” and plastic waste, with more than one-third of marine mammal species on the brink of extinction. The leading causes of extinction are all-too-familiar: “land and sea use change, direct exploitation, climate change, pollution and the spread of invasive alien species.”

Paleoecologist Paul S. Martin argues that human overpopulation and expansion underlies a series of historic mass extinctions: “[F]irst, in Australia 60,000 years ago, then mainland America 13,000 years ago, followed by the Caribbean islands 6,000 years ago, and Madagascar 2,000 years ago.” In short, Martin says: “When people got out of Africa and Asia and reached other parts of the world, all hell broke loose.”

Time to Consider a Post-Human Planet?

A growing cadre of scientists and big-picture thinkers have begun to seriously consider the question: “Would the world be better off without humans?” Jonas Salk, the scientist famous for developing the first successful polio vaccine, is credited with the following observation: “If all insects on Earth disappeared, within 50 years, all life on Earth would end.” (Note: In 2019, 41 percent of US honeybee colonies vanished. Since 1990, the world has lost more than a billion Monarch butterflies. More than 40 percent of all insect species are facing extinction due to pesticide use and biodiversity loss.) The good news? According to Dr. Salk: “If all human beings disappeared from the Earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.”
Some critics contend that the planet is in such peril that conception itself should be a crime. The Anti-natalist Party has called for an end to the Human Experiment with the slogan: “Let’s be the last generation and go out with a liberal and happy party.” Meanwhile, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement” has a similar rallying cry: “May we live long and die out.” VHEMT’s (pronounced “vehement”) organizing principles are both radical and sensible: “Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health. Crowded conditions and resource shortages will improve as we become less dense.” (And, it should be said that, if there is to be a “culling” of the human herd, justice requires that the net should fall on the worst polluters in the wealthiest nations, not on the poorest families living in the most desolate regions.

So what could we expect from a major human depopulation (be it voluntary or enforced)?

Alan Weisman, the author of the book, The World Without Us, foresees how a world without humans could abet the recuperation of biodiversity. Weisman believes that depopulation would reduce the severity of global climate chaos since “most excess industrial carbon dioxide would dissipate within 200 years,” if humans were to vanish from the Earth.

Weisman predicts other benefits of an Earth without human Earthlings: “[W]ithin decades, the ozone layer would replenish and ultraviolet damage would subside. Eventually, heavy metals and toxins would flush through the system; a few intractable PCBs might take a millennium. During that same span, every dam on Earth would silt up and spill over. Rivers would again carry nutrients seaward, where most life would be, as it was long before vertebrates crawled onto the shore. Eventually, that would happen again. The world would start over.

Our Eviction Notice May Be Due

The outbreak of the coronavirus may prove to be a Final Notice from our Planetary Landlord. If we can’t learn to stop ripping apart the gown of nature in the pursuit of short-term profit, this could be our final hour.

The words of Samuel Johnson come to mind. Like the prospect of being “hung in the morning,” the COVID-19 virus “concentrates the mind wonderfully.” So, as we all slather our hands with sanitizer and “shelter in place,” let us also consider what a different future might look like. And let’s hope a looming global Pandemic is not the only solution to the existential threat of our faltering, all-devouring, profits-above-all Humanademic.