Labels like “global overheating” or “the climate crisis” are imprecise and divert our attention from the scale, complexity, and speed of the ecological/economic/political crisis. There are at least four broad kinds of destruction, all wreaked by humans, that have created the present crisis:
- Pollution in the air, soil, and water
- Land use change on a planetary scale
- Hyperconcentration of wealth and political power
- Commodification of physical, biological, and social relations
These drivers are very different in their scope and effects. Each one could be clarified and expanded, and specific historical processes—such as colonization of Indigenous lands and erasure/expropriation of Indigenous knowledge—would need to be explained by reference to multiple drivers. Taken together they produce a series of pernicious effects, many of which themselves are further drivers. We experience these as separate problems, but they are acually all aspects of a systematic crisis that has to be understoon as political, economic and ecological. We could compile a very long list of those pernicious effects, but some salient examples include:
- Climate overheating (caused by air pollution [fossil fuel emissions, meat livestock emissions], exacerbated by land use change [loss of forests, darkening of ice from pollution], subject to sudden acceleration through feedback loops [methane releases])
- Sea level rise (caused by climate overheating, leads to further concentration of wealth and power as vulnerable populations are displaced)
- Ocean acidification
- Increase in severe weather events (impacts disenfranchised communities, causes extinction events, used by elites to further concentrate wealth and power [cf. Naomi Klein Shock Doctrine])
- Loss of forests as a result of land use change (which leads to a loss of natural CO2 uptake capacity, loss of biodiversity, changing weather patterns including drought and flooding…)
- Increased demand for meat (as a result of normalisation of unsustainable consumption through marketing [commodification of ecological relations])
- Increased use of lethal personal transport systems (which drives land use change to roads, pavement &c.)
- Loss of arable land due to fertilizer poisoning (caused by land use change and pollution, leading to food shortages; effect amplified by shift to meat production)
- Ocean dead zones due to fertilizer overuse
- Microplastic poisoning across trophic webs
- Extremely rapid extinction across most taxa
- Extinction not just of species, but of whole clades (amphibians)
- Zoonotic disease outbreaks (among many species, not just humans) as a result of meat animal farming at forest edge sites and increased demand for exotic or wild meat
- Normalisation of obviously unsustainable consumption (lack of response to what should be terrifying events such as rapid loss of amphibian species; government subsidies for short-haul air travel; deliberate acts of ecocide, such as buying and displaying SUVs, deliberate extinction of the white rhino to increase rhino horn value on the black market)
- Lack of awareness and resistance to change among elites
- Disproportionate human suffering among traditionally disempowered communities (caused by climate overheating, sea level rise, food shortages, commodification of social relations, debt)
- Anger and fear among disempowered communities
- Elite capture of popular protest through fostering populism and xenophobia
SARS-Coronavirus 2, the virus that causes COVID-19, probably crossed over from bats into some intermediate host, and from there into humans. At present, genetic studies of SARS-Coronavirus 2 have not been able to find a good enough match to show where it came from; by the time you read this, we may be closer to understanding its origins. However, previous zoonotic disease crossovers (including HIV, Nipah, Hendra, Ebola, SARS and MERS) involved human agency at both the macro (land use change, farming) and micro (bushmeat hunting) scales. Land use change—such as clearing forests in order to raise meat animals such as pigs, planting rubber trees, or cutting logging roads into old forests (which gives bushmeat hunters access)—creates the conditions whereby viruses that have evolved together with host species can jump into new animals that live at the forest edge. This point was well documented by Wolfe, Daszack et al in 2005, and is reiterated and extended in this well-referenced Guardian editorial. (We might pause to observe that human domestication of pigs, and the subsequent intensive farming of pigs in huge numbers for meat, has meant that pigs suffer from a number of serious zoonoses that have not so far infected humans. Right now African Swine Fever is causing enormous suffering among millions of very smart pigs worldwide.) At some point in late 2019, however, SARS-Coronavirus 2 emerged as a mutated strain that crossed over into humans and successfully infected other humans.
The COVID-19 pandemic has many dimensions. There is, of course, the SARS-Coronavirus 2 that causes the disease, but the speed with which it has spread and the suffering it causes cannot be explained by a virus alone. We cannot even begin to calculate how much worse the infection and mortality rates will be worldwide because of political maleficience (xenophobia, doctrinaire capitalism, paranoid control of information) in various large countries. We know that it emerged because of a huge demand for meat in the developing economy of China—and that is an economic, not an ecological, driver. Eating meat is a sign of success, anywhere in the world, and anthropocentric development will create pandemics. The Chinese government has now instituted a blanket ban on bushmeat, but that is unlikely to stop the trade in wild meat, and it certainly won’t curb the massive meat industry that feeds consumers who embody their self-worth by eating much more meat than they did twenty years ago.
It isn’t just meat, though. We could repeat a similar analysis with automobiles. Owning a car is a sign of success. That means turning about 20% of any urban area into a paved killing zone where children die if they happen to wander in, water is no longer absorbed when it rains, air pollution increases thousandfolds and the vulnerable begin to die…oh, and much of Southeast Asia, including Yunnan in China, is being deforested in order to plant rubber trees for car tyres. So once again, we create the biological conditions for zoonotic crossover events through land use change …and we also create an air pollution crisis that means a virus that attacks the lungs will be especially lethal in polluted, car-heavy cities.
So long as we accept the narrative given to us by elites who thrive on planetary suffering—whether they are oligarchies such as those in the US, the PRC or the UK, or muiltinationals like Amazon or Exxon or Google or General Motors or Cargill or Bayer or the Murdoch press machine—that these are separate calamities and we should struggle to “return to normal”, we are actively complicit in their concentration of power. Our efforts, however sincere, will only accelerate the extinction of our own species along with much of the other life on this extraordinary planet. Once we see that our personal experiences of debt, disease, storms, and bad food are symptoms of a much larger shift that is political, economic and ecological, then we can begin to choose how to respond: by attending to the politics of revolutionary communities, critiquing our own power, disowning implicit privilege, and building genuine solidarities; by cycling or walking, by growing and cooking healthy foods, by turning off Facebook, by supporting repair and makerspaces, by supporting local farmers and shops and factories—but also by taking control of how politics and economics work from the bottom up, by organising in hope and solidarity, in respect and joy, with respect and a commitment to the long-term health of the whole planet.