As the local risks of the COVID-19 pandemic subside and we anticipate rushing back to normal, perhaps we should review what this “normal” means.
The forced pause in our lifestyles by lockdowns and isolation has provided us with a rare opportunity to evaluate our usual behaviour and traditional assumptions. The resulting insights might caution us about continuing to do what we have been doing.
For diseases, COVID-19, technically labelled SARS-CoV-2, is just the most recent version of the coronavirus to run rampant in our human populations. Its 2003 version, which we called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, was SARS-CoV-1. It was followed in 2012 by the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV). The source of these zoonotic diseases was likely bats because of the similarity of their immune systems to our own, with other animals being the connecting vectors. Two lesser known but nearly fatal neurological diseases, Hendra in 1994 and Nipah in 1998, came from bats to humans through horses and pigs. These diseases were preceded by Ebola and HIV-AIDS, which were transferred from primates to humans as a result of the intensifying interface between ourselves and wild animals.
Virologists warn us that hundreds of other diseases are currently waiting for the opportunity to make this same leap from species to species as we increase our intrusion into nature. A 2020 United Nations biodiversity study estimated that 1.7 million unknown pathogens are lurking in animals, any of which could threaten the health of people. About three-quarters of the five new infectious diseases that appear in humans every year come from animals.
We should not be surprised. Our long history of domesticating animals for agriculture has brought us many diseases: smallpox, chickenpox, typhus, measles, diphtheria, polio, influenza, tuberculosis, syphilis, leprosy and hepatitis. Modern medicine and hygiene have arrested most of these diseases, but the impact of any zoonotic disease is amplified immensely by the billions of people currently living in crowded cities and travelling internationally.
Ecologically, our definition of “normal” is itself “abnormal.” Consider our human population, now 7.9 billion, up 100 million people from a year ago. After millennia of incremental growth, it reached 1 billion in 1804, 2 billion in 1927, 3 billion in 1960, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1999 and 7 billion in 2011. These numbers are expected to reach 8.1 billion in 2025, 9.7 billion in 2050 and perhaps 11.2 billion in 2100. The disquieting conclusion from a biological perspective is that a pandemic of humans has set the conditions for the pandemic of COVID-19.
The problem is not just our numbers, but our consumption of resources and the polluting wastes that result. The carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion has raised pre-industrial atmospheric levels from 280 parts per million to 420, up from 416 last year. Global temperatures are rising accordingly, with 20 of the years since 1997 being the hottest recorded in modern human history.
The 2015 Paris Agreement, signed by 196 nations, was supposed to keep global temperature increases below 1.5°C and not more than 2.0°C. It is projected to miss even the least ambitious of these targets. And the objective of reaching “net-zero” emissions doesn’t reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, it merely stops any increase. The restraints imposed on human activity by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 did reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 2.3 billion tonnes, or 6.4 per cent, but this is expected to be only temporary as economic activity returns to its untenable “normal.” Eliminating all CO2 emissions and planting about a trillion trees is the most realistic strategy for reaching “net-negative.” Meanwhile, a warming planet continues to worsen species extinction, ocean acidification and sea level rise, while having a “threat multiplier” effect as increasing numbers of people are displaced by political, economic and environmental stresses.
The “normal” to which we yearn to return is not the “normal” that promises a secure future for either ourselves or our planet. We can’t reduce the human population, slow technology’s obsessive enchantment with itself, or stop the likely transmission of other coronaviruses from unexpected sources.
But Vancouver Island is an environment of trees, so we can help by protecting and managing our forests because they are cooling our planet by capturing and sequestering carbon, in addition to regulating our hydrological cycles, stabilizing our weather, sustaining our biological systems, and nourishing us with their calming enchantment.
We could improve this “normal” by making our lifestyles more efficient — by being less frivolous and wasteful as consumers and international travellers. (One person’s share of a return flight from Vancouver to Mexico, for example, is about a tonne of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the equivalent of living thoughtfully and modestly for a year.) We could eat less meat and encourage local agriculture. We could recycle more conscientiously, especially plastics. But most importantly, we could honour the intelligence of our forests, for the services they provide are crucial to our individual and collective wellbeing.