Climate Change

COVID-19: Can we flatten the un-sustainability curve?

The Earth needs to resurrect and heal. It is the right time to define collective growth and prosperity, not in terms of rising income but rising ecological wellbeing

 
By Venkatesh Dutta
Last Updated: Tuesday 05 May 2020
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Ebola have shaken the global economy and society in the last two decades. The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) disease is following suit. The nature has hit a reset button.

Economies are in a state of seizure. This type and scale of viral outbreak is first-of-its-kind in our lifetime. A pandemic can be controlled by closing borders — but nature has no boundaries. We must remember that on our planet, everything is connected to everything else.

Virus is a symptom — a reminder that we have to be prepared for even bigger lockdowns in future. It is a wake-up call from nature for the choices we are making.

Imagine if our lands fail to produce food grains; if our groundwater reserves run dry; if our rivers become grossly polluted and lifeless and if our forests become wastelands.

Imagine we have to remain inside our homes for months together to avoid heat waves. There is no way we can shut everything down in order to lower emissions, slow down melting of ice and protect the last surviving fish and turtles in our rivers.

Pandemics like COVID-19 will be too frequent if we do not respect the rights of other living organisms and their habitats. It is also clear that new pathogens from wild animals will continue to challenge our natural immune protection.

Nature may hit the reset button for the collective future of all animals, not just human beings. Civilization will survive not by its roads and buildings, but by its forests, rivers and the biodiversity.

When biodiversity is intact and wild habitats are maintained, the chances of pathogens infecting humans become less. Viruses in wild animals are uniquely suited to cause human pandemics. We have to relook the entire wildlife food chain to check viral exchanges from wild animals.

A healthy and robust ecosystem protects us from diseases. The Earth is giving us multiple and repeated warnings. Extreme weather events are new normal we have to adjust to. Scientists find atmospheric and ocean temperatures in the Antarctic at record highs.

Arctic sea ice is declining at a much faster rate relative to the previous decade. The 2012 sea ice cover is the lowest in the satellite record, since 1979.

The data of March 2020 shows that Arctic sea ice extent was 14.78 million square kilometres, eleventh lowest in the satellite record. As the Arctic sea ice cover diminishes, it becomes thinner and mobile; ice floes are able to travel longer distances in a much shorter time.

Ice sheets in both Antarctica and Greenland have been losing mass since 2002 at a rate of 281 giga tonnes per year. It is nature’s huge warning bell which we must heed now. Rising sea level is another disturbing trend, which is caused due to global warming mainly from melting ice sheets and glaciers and the expansion of seawater.

At least 19 of the 20 warmest years have been experienced since 2001.

A major reason for increasing temperature is the spike in heat-trapping greenhouse gases through human activities such as deforestation, vehicular emissions and burning fossil fuels for energy. Level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is currently 413 parts per million (ppm) — up from 316 ppm in 1960.

Forests still cover about 30 per cent of the world’s land area, but they are disappearing at a distressing rate. In 15 years between 1990 and 2016, the world lost about 1.3 million square kilometres of forests, the vast majority of it tropical rainforest — an area larger than South Africa.

We lost the most valuable and irreplaceable habitats for wildlife along with forest cover. Many wild animals are getting vulnerable to extinction, and many are coming to human habitation with increasing incidences of human-wildlife conflicts. An area of forest the size of the United Kingdom is lost every year around the world.

The increasing temperature dries out forests easily, making them more flammable so they burn more easily, which contributes to more carbon dioxide.

We have seen the forest fires in Australia that wiped out about 110,000 sq km of bush, forest and parks. Eating animals is also responsible for deforestation as the deforested land is used for growing fodder to feed them or is developed as grazing land.

Many animals are intermediate host for disease causing viruses that may ultimately pass from wildlife to humans.

Then, we have added so much plastic to our daily lives; at least 8 million tonnes of plastics is dumped into the ocean every year. More than 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced annually, yet more than 90 per cent of it is not recycled. 

Half of all plastic ever manufactured has been made in the last 15 years. It is coming up in our food chain and is harming birds, fish, turtles and human health. Can we all clean up the mess and our habits of throw-away culture?

In this age of Anthropocene — we forgot that all species are distinctive — humans are not to be served by the other animals and plants. Ecology is neutral; it does not respect superiority of beings. We may claim that we are the most evolved species with superior intelligence. But, it is also true that we have invaded our ecosystem like madcaps.

The Earth needs to resurrect and heal — we are sick because our planet is sick. Our health is the outcome of our behaviour with the natural world. The virus is signaling to correct our path, to respect the nature.

We have taken over the whole planet and overpowered all other biological animals. But we forgot that our entire economic prosperity could be wiped out by tiny microorganisms. In a sense, we have a very small and fragile planet.

What happens in Antarctica will affect everyone. We have to restore wooded areas that have been damaged, substantially decrease the rate of deforestation, phase out single use plastics and reduce plastics going to our water bodies. If we reforest the deforested land, it will offset our carbon footprints in a big way.

It will also create habitats for wild animals. We have to shift to low-carbon lifestyles with adopting minimalist approach of living — may be we need to redefine growth — not in terms of rising income but rising ecological wellbeing. Time is less for flattening the unsustainability curve and we can make the most difference.

After all, this could be the last chance to living more sustainable lives.

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