The Climate Crisis and COVID-19 Are Inseparable

Commentators like to point to Wuhan’s “wet markets” as the source of the pandemic, but COVID-19 is the result of a much larger, global phenomenon of environmental degradation. Combatting both means putting the politics of food production and land use at the very heart of our socialist project.

Sunaura Taylor, "Chicken Truck," Oil on canvas, 2008.

In the eighteenth century, Edward Jenner, the inventor of the first vaccine, confronted a crisis similar to what we face today — a world undone by disease. It wasn’t coronavirus that he was studying, but smallpox, an illness with a mortality rate ranging between 20 and 60 percent in the Old World, and higher yet in the New.

An astute observer and accomplished ornithologist, Jenner understood that epidemics are not timeless, unavoidable crises, but rather arise from civilization’s increasing entanglement with nature. It is due to their origins as animal illnesses that  pathogens like SARS-CoV-2 are called “zoonoses.” “The deviation of Man from the state in which he was originally placed by Nature seems to have proved to him a prolific source of Diseases,” began Jenner in the 1798 treatise on his vaccination experiments. “He has familiarised himself with a great number of animals, which may not originally have been intended for his associates.”

Jenner’s recognition of the close links between public health and broader environmental crisis is by no means shared by many commentators today. While the Right resorts to xenophobic tactics like scapegoating Chinese wet markets, the Left tends to emphasize the bungling of government responses, the need for Medicare for All, or perhaps the rare critique of factory farming. Too often, however, these debates assume that zoonoses are unavoidable events, the causes of which needn’t concern us.

While there are indeed urgent problems that need addressing now, broader understanding of where SARS-CoV-2 has come from is also required. To understand it, we need to address the environmental crisis as a whole, because every facet of it — from extinction to climate change — has the potential to produce more diseases. Despite faddish use of concepts like the “Anthropocene,” the Left’s engagement with the natural sciences remains limited. This disjuncture is especially jarring considering the close ties between scientists and socialists during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. If one were to follow scientific developments now, it soon would become clear that the deteriorating condition of the biosphere necessitates an entirely new form of socialism where the politics of food and energy are not marginal, but rather lie at its heart.

The New Stone Age

Epidemiologists divide the history of infectious disease into three great epochs. The first begins ten thousand years ago with the start of neolithic agriculture. Domesticated herds kept in close contact with humans created conditions for new diseases to jump between species with a frequency impossible in hunter-gatherer societies. The second is the brief modern era of rapid scientific progress spanning from the 1850s to the 1970s. The epidemiologist Rudolf Virchow, working in the scientific tradition begun by Jenner, coined the term “zoonosis” and argued that human and veterinary health should be studied together as one medicine or, as it is called today, “planetary medicine” and “one health.” Medical advances in the twentieth century led to new vaccines and miraculous antibiotics, which saved millions of lives. But modernity didn’t last. The third zoonotic era began in the 1980s, the dark age in which we currently languish, marked by the unprecedented emergence of new disease.

It is not mere coincidence that this latest period coincides with the forces that define postmodernity: globalized commodity chains, the ascendancy of neoliberalism, exhaustion of metropolitan natural resources, the rise of monopolistic multinational firms, deindustrialization in the Global North, and the rapid but uneven development in the South.

Trade in exotic animals — whether in Wuhan or West Africa — cannot be understood in isolation from these trends. SARS-CoV-2 could have originally been a bat or pangolin disease that crossed over to an intermediary animal, where it recombined and became infectious to humans. The exotic animal trade is central, because it puts not only humans in close contact with wild animals, but also varied species that would never keep company in nature. How did this happen, given that China had been famous for its millenia-old sustainable farming practices until as recently as the 1970s? Everything began to shift in the 1990s, when the country adopted an industrial meat-centric food system. Small farmers couldn’t compete with factory farms, so the government has encouraged them to enter the wild animal trade, even though this has led to outbreaks like SARS in 2003, a coronavirus that jumped from bats to civets to humans.

Similar stories unfold all over the world, where poor people are forced into desperate circumstances by market forces and state policy, leading to the rapid destabilization of local ecological systems. When European trawlers invaded the fishing grounds off the coast of West Africa, locals turned to “bushmeat” for cheap protein. Such transnational and unequal food systems have contributed not only to mass extinction, with vertebrate species disappearing more than a thousand times faster than normal, but also new zoonoses like Ebola and HIV. Roads built to expand the reach of mining, oil, and timber firms have allowed hunters to reach previously inaccessible forested regions, putting humans into close contact with wildlife. In the Congo Basin alone, more than half a billion animals are caught every year, often to feed miners. Of course, the trade in wild animals includes the Global North, too. “Ecotourists,” when they travel, have given primates measles, polio, and tuberculosis. Zookeepers and lab workers are disproportionately likely to carry simian foamy virus. The exotic pet trade likely gave the West Nile virus passage into North America, where it has devastated indigenous bird species and killed more than 2,300 people.

A narrow critique of the exotic animal trade ignores how it is tied up with the fate of the world’s peasantry, a class that has been ravaged by industrial agriculture. Even a cursory glance at the economics of bushmeat shows that we cannot protect wildlife without getting rid of factory farms, too, which means no more cheap meat.

Perhaps the most important insight socialists can glean from planetary health is that the challenge of new zoonoses is inseparable from the broader environmental crisis. That is to say, there is a single, unified environmental crisis. It is a failure of the imagination to artificially divvy it up into discrete problems like climate change, urban sprawl, mass extinction, fertilizer runoff, noncommunicable diseases, and epidemics.

The science behind each of these phenomena is complicated, but the overall message is simple: the less room humanity leaves to nature, the more environmental problems — including new, deadly zoonoses — there will be. Making reference to the “Anthropocene” is one way to encapsulate the scale of the problem, but it is too descriptive when we need analytical concepts to understand why we have entered a new geological era. Here is one area where the Left can usefully intervene, providing scientists and broader society with the concepts able to frame the unitary environmental crisis. Rather than talking about the “Anthropocene,” we can dust off an old Marxist chestnut: the humanization of nature.

The World Spirit and Wood Sprites

The “humanization of nature” is an idea originating with Hegel, who considered humanity’s alienation from nature the crux of world history. Labor was understood to be the process that reconciled the two, instilling nature with human consciousness. Rather than taking our food directly from nature, as animals do, humans use tools to guide natural flows to produce crops and livestock (admittedly a gross simplification). We might extend Hegel’s logic to say that much of the humanization of nature, then, is the history of “land-use change,” as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change might say.

Karl Marx made use of Hegel’s concept, recognizing the process as an expression of human nature (i.e., our “species-being”). Unlike Hegel, however, Marx sensed that the humanization of nature had become distorted under capitalism because of the divorce between the unconsciousness of capital and human consciousness. For Marx, capital sought only to expand itself. The capitalist individual was “capital personified”; though “endowed with consciousness and a will,” he argued, her freedom was limited, bent to achieve the sole goal of capital accumulation. We see this today: the CEO of a company may be a nature lover, but she cannot invest in expensive, environmentally friendly technology without her firm being crushed if she fails to make the going rate of profit. The concept of the humanization of nature, adapted by Marx, explains why society can be aware that it is nearing the precipice but remains unable to change course, why planned fossil-fuel extraction dramatically exceeds Paris Agreement limits. Politicians might say one thing, and even write it up in a treaty, but “leaving it in the ground” is unconscionable within our current economic system.

As a concept, the “humanization of nature” is useful — more so than the “Anthropocene” — because it highlights that capitalism is fundamentally a project of reorganizing nature that is distinct from other historical periods, and that it will ultimately lead to catastrophe because capital is an insensate force, unaware that it is destroying the biosphere. In the face of such a process, then, we need conscious control over the economy at the same time as we give nature the space it needs to function.

As socialists, we not only need to resist the capitalization of nature wherever possible, be it the burning of the Amazon rainforest by cattle ranchers or laying new pipelines in Canada to ship nonconventional oil. We should also be wary of a socialist humanization of nature: the will to dominate nature for left-wing ends. The fantasy of Promethean control retains a strong hold on the Left, especially among the adherents of “fully automated luxury communism” (Aaron Bastani, who supports lab meat and rewilding, is a partial exception within this current).

Socialists too rarely apply their vaunted skills of critique and scientific nous at the dinner table. To be sure, Marx was not an environmentalist, and therefore we are forced to sometimes think against him to imagine what socialism could be. Marx may have been right that history began with the birth of farming, but he overlooked the appearance of its twin — the epidemic.

The Birth of Tragedy and Tuberculosis

Scientists think that a majority, perhaps all, of human pathogens are ultimately zoonoses, originating not at the dawn of the human species but in the relatively recent past. Measles likely evolved from the bovine disease rinderpest 7,000 years ago. Influenza may have started about 4,500 years ago with the domestication of waterfowl. Jenner’s own specialty, smallpox, probably originated 4,000 years ago in eastern Africa when a gerbil virus jumped to the newly domesticated camel and then to humans. In the New World, agriculture was widely practiced, but few animals were domesticated, which is why indigenous peoples lived relatively free of disease. With colonization, however, animal husbandry gave European invaders an epidemiological edge, and indigenous people were rapidly exposed to measles, typhus, tuberculosis, and smallpox. The population of the New World numbered between 50 and 100 million people in 1492, but fell by 90 percent over the following centuries, in large part because of Old World zoonoses.

For a while, it seemed that new drugs would eventually contain pathogens just as the welfare state had tamed capitalism. In 1972, the authors of a textbook on infectious disease believed that “the most likely forecast about the future of infectious disease is that it will be very dull.” In 1975, the dean of Yale’s medical school predicted that there were “no new diseases to be discovered.”

It was only a year later that the Ebola virus was identified. Shortly thereafter, the editor of the first authoritative compendium on the new zoonosis warned, “The larger the scale of man-made environmental changes, the greater must be the probability of emergence of a zoonosis, old or new.” HIV made the problem even more urgent. By the 1990s, the field of “emerging infectious diseases” transitioned from being a “mere curiosity” to an extensive discipline. After the 2005 H5N1 avian flu scare, the US government started the PREDICT program, which detected nearly a thousand new viruses in a decade, including novel strains of Ebola and coronavirus. The Trump administration shut down PREDICT last year.

Any facet of the humanization of nature will cause what scientists call “pathogen pollution,” the spread of disease between different species of animals. Diseases like Lyme and West Nile proliferated because declining biodiversity resulted in the lopsided growth of some carrier species, like white-footed mice or robins. Deforestation and climate change expand the habitat of mosquitoes, so that dengue, Zika, malaria, and other illnesses have become more common. The current eruption of new diseases is a problem not only for humans, but for animals, too. New coral diseases are linked to algal blooms and climate change. Cats have given toxoplasmosis to spinner dolphins and belugas.

Industrialized animal husbandry has done the most to return us to the stone age of public health. Even Antarctic emperor penguins are not exempt from this epochal shift. They are now plagued by infectious bursal disease, an illness that emerged in the 1980s from the bowels of vast poultry factories on the US eastern seaboard. The livestock industry’s expanse, some 4 billion hectares, encompasses 40 percent of the world’s inhabitable surface, making it the greatest interface between humanity and nature, and thus the primary portal for new diseases.

Agriculture has changed qualitatively, too. Capital induces incredible pressures to increase efficiency of food production at the expense of health. Marx himself criticized Robert Bakewell, a famous capitalist eighteenth-century breeder, for reducing “the skeleton of sheep to the minimum required for their existence.” Bakewell actually bred animals to have fewer bones so as to increase their bulky flesh. Unlike many of his epigones, Marx realized that one does not need a separate theory to analyze capitalism’s environmental aspects, for capital’s blind gaze saw no difference between animals and machines.

Present-day Bakewells manipulate animal genetics to encourage traits like more egg production or breast meat, even at the cost of weakened immune systems. Firms raise genetically similar animals — even clones — in overcrowded facilities vulnerable to outbreaks. Widespread use of antibiotics may help keep disease at bay (and quicken animals’ growth rates), though at the cost of creating “superbugs” like MRSA, a flesh-eating bacteria that has become common in hospitals worldwide. Even common bacterial diseases like urinary tract infections are increasingly resistant to treatments that would have worked just a decade ago; each year, some 35,000 Americans die from antibiotic-resistant infections. It is estimated that 71 percent of pork chops sold at US supermarkets contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria; the rate for ground turkey is even higher, at 79 percent.

The Nipah virus, first identified in a Malyasian town in 1998, reveals how the various strands of the environmental crisis converge to create epidemics. To increase profits, farmers had placed mango orchards next to pig herds so that manure could be easily applied to the trees. Slash-and-burn deforestation had forced fruit bats from their natural habitat, leading them to take up residence in newly planted trees, where they could pass on the disease to pig herds, and then to people. Bats, too, have become more vulnerable to virulent disease; as their populations fragment, they have only sporadic exposure to the disease pool. What had once been a harmless virus in bats caused severe neurological problems in pigs and humans. The virus killed approximately a third of its victims in Malaysia, but seven-tenths during a later outbreak in South Asia. Its spread was only arrested after strict quarantine and the slaughter of a million pigs; it was no coincidence that the outbreak began at the country’s largest hog operation.

Liberate the Lentil

Epidemiologists working in the planetary health tradition are clear about what needs to be done. An emerging body of research suggests that land-use change is the “most significant driver of wildlife, domestic animal, and human EIDs [emerging infectious disease].” More specifically, the “increasing demand for meat and meat products by human population has made human contact with animals unprecedented.” Part of the solution must be to “conserve areas rich in wildlife diversity by reducing anthropogenic activity.”

The American Public Health Association calls for a moratorium on factory farming. In the wake of the 2003 SARS outbreak, the association’s journal published an editorial advocating for a change to “the way humans treat animals — most basically, ceasing to eat them or, at the very least, radically limiting the quantity of them that are eaten” as a basic measure of public health. “Such a change, if sufficiently adopted or imposed, could still reduce the chances of the much-feared influenza epidemic.”

Right now, the world is relatively fortunate, as life-sustaining food supply chains have so far remained intact. But there is no guarantee that natural disasters will politely space themselves out one after the other, especially in an age of climate change. Imagine the simultaneous emergence of a waterborne zoonotic illness during a major flood event in South Asia, all while the world’s breadbasket regions suffer drought simultaneously. Disaster on this scale, which is becoming more likely with every molecule of CO2 that enters the atmosphere, with every microbe that jumps from animal to human, with every millimeter of sea level rise, would lead to extraordinary suffering.

To limit the impact of future pandemics, while also staving off mass extinction and mitigating climate change, we should fight to restructure our food systems and move away from meat production. The EAT-Lancet report, written by thirty-seven leading public health scholars and environmental scientists on behalf of a leading medical journal, argues for a dramatic increase in consumption of vegetables, fruit, healthy grains, and plant protein, and drastic reductions in meat and dairy.

Those cuts would occur overwhelmingly among the rich in the carnivorous developed world, as they eat two or three times more meat than the average in poor countries. Eventually, though, our political horizon should imagine plant-based diets for nearly everyone. It is unsustainable diets that are driving deforestation to make room for more pasture in some of the most biodiverse places on Earth, like the Amazon rainforest. If most societies were able to adopt the Eat-Lancet diet, an estimated 11 million deaths per year could be prevented. Malnutrition would be averted, while minimizing major noncommunicable diseases like diabetes or heart disease. Giving up meat and rewilding vast swaths of the earth — perhaps even half, as the controversial conservationist E. O. Wilson suggests — must be part of the socialist agenda.

Relying on vaccines, antibiotics, and antivirals to deal with future epidemics is like counting on carbon capture or geoengineering to save our carbon-based society from climate change. PREDICT was never going to catch every new outbreak, even if it hadn’t been sabotaged by the current administration. Capitalism cannot fix problems it creates; Big Pharma underinvests in vaccines and antivirals because the juicy profits are in the diseases of affluence like diabetes and erectile dysfunction. Yet what’s more worrying is that results can prove elusive even in well-funded fields. The HIV/AIDS pandemic, which has killed 32 million people, shows that not all diseases can be solved with a vaccine. After the 2003 SARS outbreak, the World Health Organization debriefed that “while modern science had its modern role, none of the most modern technical tools had an important role in controlling SARS . . . most important in controlling SARS were the 19th-century public health strategies of contact tracing, quarantine, and isolation.” As socialists, we should think structurally and be skeptical of band-aid, technical “solutions” — especially because the efficacy of modern medicine seems to be waning — and instead go directly to the root of the problem.

It should be manifest that the humanization of nature has not led to the reconciliation of humanity and nature, but rather the ruin of both. We must become conscious of the limits of human consciousness — that our well-being is tethered to complex natural systems that we will never fully understand. Instead of the unconsciousness of the market directing nature and society, the Left must strive to consciously manage human affairs, but humbly leave much of nature self-willed. This is not because of some woo-woo mysticism, but a hard-nosed analysis of how we got into this mess.

A new socialism built at a geological scale will help scientists achieve what they cannot on their own. To do so, we need to see how the same toxic economic forces are at the heart of both pandemics and climate change. Socialists cannot put the world back together until they first understand how it came undone. Such understanding arises not only from engagement with science but from reflexive critique, too. As Jenner might have remarked, the Left’s “love of splendour” and “the indulgences of luxury” — be it meat, leather, pets, or animal-tested products — have prevented it from seeing its complicity in the dangerous ruination of nature.

This work has been made possible by the support of the Puffin Foundation.

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Drew Pendergrass is a doctoral student in environmental engineering at Harvard University and the coauthor of Half-Earth Socialism, to be published by Verso in the spring of 2021.

Troy Vettese is an environmental historian and a William Lyon Mackenzie King postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and the coauthor of Half-Earth Socialism, to be published by Verso in the spring of 2021.

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