I’m guessing you’ve heard about the scourge that has reached nearly every corner of the globe, putting life as we know it in jeopardy and forcing the planet to confront the probability of monstrous calamities in the future?
That’s right. It’s us.
Recently, when the pope suggested that the coronavirus might be the Earth’s response to the man-made climate crisis, there were two ways to look at it. The first was to dismiss it as religious magical thinking. The second, perhaps more thoughtful way, was to treat the comment as a sound, even useful, metaphor.
The fact is that ever since the world economy has shut down, our beleaguered Earth is responding in extraordinary ways. I was in Venice last October, when the canals were their usual oily, inky black, complete with warnings on TripAdvisor against putting your hands in the water. (Kind of gives new meaning to the phrase “Don’t Feed the Bears.”)
Now, after Italy’s lockdown, there are YouTube videos from Venice of crystal waters, and schools of fish roaming down the same canals where waste from water taxis and cruise ships used to flow.
In New Delhi, for the first time in decades, residents can see the Himalayan mountains in the distance. In Los Angeles, where for years the gasoline lobby has argued that fuel emissions did not cause smog, empty freeways and clear skies tell a different story. In Beijing, health officials estimate that the lives of 4,000 children will be saved due to the industrial lockdown.
In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that pollution kills 4.2 million people a year. How’s that for a pandemic?
Naturally, we are all itching to get back to normal, to give “Tiger King” a break and start socializing again. And also to return to work, to re-energize an economy in tatters. Before we do, however, we may want to take a look at what got us here, and what “normal” should look like in the future.
In fact, there is a question whether a populace on pause, forced to take a long, deep breath, might be doing some thinking. A populace, for example, who have gotten a taste of free health care (if temporarily) and an expanded social safety net. (Remember during the Democratic primaries, when we were told we couldn’t afford a trillion dollars over 10 years for universal health care? In April, Congress found two trillion over pizza during a long weekend.)
And then there is climate change. Did you know — because I didn’t — that the Earth is rumbling less because of the lockdown, or that it was rumbling at all? Seismologists have determined that the shaking of the Earth’s surface has declined due to the lack of transportation. Does the idea that the Earth is shaking because of human use give anyone pause?
So here’s a modest proposal. Once things are up and running again, maybe, just maybe, we consider using a bit more gently a planet that is literally shuddering beneath us.
Of course, human nature being what it is, this is probably not likely to happen. Our president dreams aloud of the economy coming back with a “big bang.” The wet markets are reopened in Wuhan. Cruise ship lines — which many feel should be banned once and for all — are set for a huge bailout. New television commercials for S.U.V.s are already targeting an isolated populace starved for open roads and the freedom of travel.
But back to the pope: No, Mother Nature did not create Covid-19 to punish the world for abusing her. But don’t rule it out in the future. If there’s a refrain you hear from climate scientists recently, it’s “Get ready, this is just a warm-up for what’s coming.” There is a connection, albeit indirect. As the climate change advocate Vijay Kolinjivadi recently wrote, the current rate of industrialization “depletes the natural ability of the environment to balance itself and disrupts ecological cycles. . . . The need for more natural resources has forced humans to encroach on various natural habitats and expose themselves to yet unknown pathogens.”
Another prophet, the late comic George Carlin, actually presaged the pontiff in an HBO special from the 1990s. He theorized, only half-jokingly, that the Earth was sick of this pesky nuisance known as human beings and had already begun the process of phasing us out. It would “defend itself,” he said, “in the manner of any large organism.” Eerily, he speculated that this would happen by creating a virus that attacked the immune system. Having vanquished us, he concluded, the planet would finally “shake us off like a bad case of the fleas.”
Or maybe we could stop biting the host. If the lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that we can get by with a little less. Not everything, but certainly a little. If we could wean ourselves off rabid consumption, even marginally, it could make a huge difference.
Of course I won’t be holding my breath (unless I go to Beijing or New Delhi). My guess is that next year we go even harder, as the industrial complex tries to recover the wealth that’s been lost.
Four-point-two million dead due to pollution? Do I hear five?
The virus is us.
Kurt Wenzel is a novelist who lives in Springs.