Is the Planet Telling Us Something With COVID-19?
Updated: Jul 9
Almost 50 years ago, James Lovelock coined the “Gaia Hypothesis” that proposed all living and non-living systems on earth are fully integrated, self-regulating and work together to maintain perfect conditions for life on earth. Lovelock believed that humans are pushing Gaia to its limit and we now threaten the very survival of the planet. Is COVID-19 Earth’s most recent response to this threat, leashing a virus to wipe out a human virus that is literally destroying it?
Nearly three quarters of the world’s livable space is now controlled by humans; we consume between a quarter and one third of all global primary production, or what is produced by plants. Our activities have caused a decline of 60% of wildlife in the last 50 years. We have altered the world’s climate and put the protective ozone layer at risk. Nearly half of us now live in cities and over 7 billion people, or 70% of the world’s population, will be urban by 2050. Humans live almost three times as long as we did in the stone age. Consequently, our modern human lives have a huge footprint; our built environment weighs some 30 trillion tonnes, or 50 kilos of human stuff per square meter of the globe. It is said we now live in the Anthropocene, a new geological age, brought on by own actions where we have transformed the planet to our very own liking, without thought or care for anything else living on it. Has planet Earth got to the point to say enough is enough?
As an environmental scientist working to make our lives more sustainable, I think not. COVID-19 is not the first human pandemic, nor will it be the last. There have been many in our history, HIV/AIDs, MERS/SARS, Spanish Flu, Cholera, Black Death, the Plague of Justinian, the Antonine Plague, to name a few. Pandemics are a result of how and where we live and as a social species its effects are even more deadly when we congregate in the confined spaces of our cities and within the gatherings of our social and cultural norms.
COVID-19 is not the result of the Earth’s, nor God’s judgement, as to how we live, but rather it be a wake-up call as to how we should live when we all get back to the “new normal”. Just look at what has happened in the last few months, as living in lock down has greatly reduced our human footprint and let nature blossom once again. The canals in Venice are clear, blue skies have been seen in New Delhi, streets in New York are empty, wildlife is being seen where never seen before in cities and short-term air pollution levels have dropped worldwide. Yet COVID-19 should not be viewed as a long-term silver lining for the betterment of the environment. Instead our impacts on our world continue at an enormous cost. As UN Environment Chief Inger Anderson said about the effects of COVID-19, the “visible positive impacts (on the environment) are but temporary because they come on the back of tragic economic slowdown and human distress”. How human society and our economy return from the ravages of COVID-19 will really make a difference to the future of our human built and natural environment, our economy and our society.
COVID-19 no doubt has caused each of us to stop for a moment and pause, to reflect on our very own lives and how we live them. Being in lock down has given us more family time, we now spend and go out less, and we now reach out more to old friends, even if it is from a safe distance. It has allowed us to appreciate the first responders and our health and essential workers that risk their daily lives to reduce the risk to our very own. We clap in support of them from our balconies, we put together musical concerts remotely while watching Netflix and collectively slowing down the internet. As toilet paper, hand sanitizer and eggs disappear from grocery stores, we recognize how fragile our supply and life lines really are and many of us have thought at one time or another, that in just a blink, we all could end up in an apocalypse. And through this prolonged time of lock down, all of us are wondering how we will ever get back to normal after COVID-19 and just what the new normal of getting back will actually look like. And through this all, what will be the risk to me and my family?
So, why don’t we all stop for a moment and think how we can make the new normal better. Now is the time to think that maybe we don’t want to go back to the way things were, that maybe we don’t need the economy to come roaring back on all cylinders, bringing back all the rush and stress of modern life from before. Now is the time perhaps that we can make society more just and civil, to make all lives matter, to protect and prolong the lives of the elderly and those most vulnerable to pandemic effects. Now is the time to make our lives more sustainable, to drive less and walk more, to fly less and work more remotely and to support and develop renewable energy sources, as climate change impacts are still with us, despite the effects of COVID-19. Now is the time to look at nature in a different way recognizing all species, other than human, have an equal right to a safe place on earth. Now is the time to help those developing economies and individuals truly in need from the ravaging effects of this pandemic and to ensure that if it ever comes back, we can all be prepared to confront it head on, to develop a vaccine and effective treatments and make sure that no one in the world ever goes into lock down again.
In 2018, Professors Tim Lenton and Bruno Latour upgraded the Gaia Hypothesis to Gaia Version 2.0, arguing instead that human beings have the potential to positively affect planetary regulation through our own actions. By understanding how we affect the planet, through climate change and other human caused processes, we also have the capacity to make required changes to bring the planet back to a globally sustainable state. Maybe coming back from the jolt of COVID-19 will give us a unique opportunity for ensuring true and lasting change, allowing us instead to create a circular economy, to move toward a justly world society while allowing for the continuation of an unimpeded natural world. Together these approaches provide an opportunity for a world that truly is sustainable and resilient to the impacts of future pandemics. Now is the time for each of us to assess our own individual risks and choices and act together to make a better new normal, whenever it arrives. Now is the time, for winter is coming.