Lessons for sustainability from the virus


Back in the day, when I was studying International Relations and I majored on the international relations of Environmental Politics, I was introduced to the difference between anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric environmentalism (basically a desire to take care of the environment for the good of humanity versus for the good of the planet / the ecosystem).

As the years have gone by I probably find myself identifying more with the latter.

I suspect non-anthropocentric environmentalist types are quietly thinking to themselves, and perhaps expressing in hushed whispered tones to one another with hand over their mouth, that COVID-19 should hardly be a surprise to us.

An ecosystem challenged by an overabundance of humans extracting an unsustainable level of resources and causing climate change will find ways to respond, by trying to reduce our number and by trying to get us to extract less and cause less damage to it. If the ecosystem is “intelligent” and ordered, it must inevitably respond in some way to the damage we are causing to it. None of this lessens the horror of the virus or the crisis to humanity globally, but nature does these things every so often, and probably for a reason.

I see no great lesson in that, because I suspect it may be an obvious and rational conclusion, if one is a non-anthropocentric environmentalist type. I also see no great lesson in the fact that some people will only self-isolate and stop spreading the virus if they are quarantined, rather than quarantine themselves, if some people seek to avoid the crisis, try to ignore it, try to exploit it through profiteering, and that some engage in helping others and show solidarity.

It was always thus, in times of epidemic and war. Humanity has very different aspects, and very different responses to societal crisis, from highly altruistic to very egotistic.[1]

So do I think there is a lesson at all from the current crisis? Perhaps it comes in the form of the now famous pollution maps from Northern Italy and Wuhan province, and the photos of the Venice canals. Pollution levels in parts of the world in lockdown are at their lowest for decades.

As economic and human activity grinds to a halt, nature is recovering itself and giving us the cleanest air to breathe in decades. A supreme irony, since the coronavirus is especially dangerous for people who have underlying respiratory problems, the very people who would most benefit from pollution-free air. Nature can be very ironic.

Will we learn the lesson? Of how much our own environment would benefit from our reducing our polluting activities, our resource-extractive activities? How much benefit we might derive in our own health and well-being by curbing our polluting activities? Or do we just go back to the economic model and the resource utilisation to which we were used before the virus outbreak?  

Some say nothing will ever be the same after coronavirus. I fear they are wrong, that we will try to get back to what was “normal” before, and as quickly as possible. But remember the pollution maps. Nature is hurting us badly at the moment, but it may also be trying to teach us an invaluable lesson. If we are humble enough to learn it.

[1] For a wonderful literary perspective on this truth, the reader is encouraged to read La Peste (The Plague) by Albert Camus.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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