We live in a bubble of false comfort and denial. We from rich countries have begun to believe that we have transcended the material world. The wealth we accumulated – often to the detriment of others – protected us from reality. Living behind the screen, passing between capsules – our homes, cars, offices and shopping malls – we convinced ourselves that unforeseen situations have receded, that we have reached the point to which all civilizations aspire: isolation from natural dangers.
Now the membrane is falling apart and we are left naked and indignant because the biology we thought was banished has brought a storm into our lives. The temptation, when this pandemic passes, will be to find a new bubble. We cannot afford to succumb to him. From now on, we should expose our minds to a painful reality that we have denied for too long.
The planet has several diseases, and compared to some of them, this coronavirus seems easy to treat. What has haunted me the most in recent years is the question of how we will eat. Ugly battles for toilet paper are enough: I hope we will never have to witness battles for food. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see how we will avoid them.
There is a growing body of evidence showing that climate change is likely to affect our food supply. Agriculture in some parts of the world is already affected by droughts, floods, fires and locusts (whose re-invasion in recent weeks is due to anomalies of tropical cyclones). When we call such dangers “biblical,” we mean things that happened a long time ago to people whose lives are hard to imagine. Now, with increasing frequency, they are happening to us.
In an upcoming book, “Our Final Warning,” Mark Linas explains what is likely to happen to our food supply with each additional degree of global warming. He says the extreme danger occurs somewhere between 3 and 4 ° C above pre-industrial levels. At that moment, a series of intertwined influences threatens catastrophic consequences for food production. Outside temperatures are becoming too high for humans to tolerate, making sustainable agriculture across Africa and South Asia impossible. Cattle die from heat stress. Temperatures are starting to exceed lethal thresholds for plant crops around the world, and major food-producing regions are turning into so-called “dust bowls”. The simultaneous collapse of the harvest on a global scale – something that has never happened in the modern world – is becoming very likely.
Combined with population growth and the loss of irrigation water, land and pollinators, this could push the world into structural famine. Even today, when the world as a whole has a surplus of food, hundreds of millions of people are malnourished due to the unequal distribution of wealth and power. Due to food shortages, billions could starve. Globally, as always, stocks will pile up as powerful people snatch food from the mouths of the poor. However, even if each country keeps its promises under the Paris Agreement, which currently seems unlikely, global warming will reach between 3 and 4 ° C.
Thanks to our illusion of security, we are doing almost nothing to predict this catastrophe, let alone to prevent it. This existential question seems to barely penetrate our consciousness. Each food production sector claims that its current practice is sustainable and that there is no need to change it. When I dispute this, I encounter volleys of anger, attacks and threats that I have not experienced since I opposed the war in Iraq. Sacred cows and lambs are everywhere, and the thinking needed to develop the new food systems we need, like food produced in the laboratory, is almost non-existent.
However, this is just one of the upcoming crises. Antibiotic resistance is potentially deadly, as is any new disease. One of the causes is the astonishing wastefulness in the use of these valuable medicines on many livestock farms. When a huge number of domestic animals are together, antibiotics are administered preventively to prevent, otherwise inevitably, an outbreak of the disease. In some parts of the world, they are also used to stimulate growth. Low doses are routinely added to food: a strategy that could hardly be better devised to achieve antibiotic resistance.
In the U.S., where 27 million people do not have health insurance, some are treated with veterinary antibiotics, including those sold without a prescription to treat fish. Pharmaceutical companies are not investing enough in the search for new drugs. If antibiotics stop being effective, surgery becomes almost impossible. Having children again becomes a mortal danger. Chemotherapy can no longer be safely administered. Infectious diseases that we have lightly forgotten are becoming a deadly threat. We should talk about that issue as often as we talk about football. However, it is barely registered.
Our multiple crises, of which these are only two, have a common root. One example of this problem is seen in the response of the organizers of the Bath Half Marathon, a mass event held on March 15, to many people who begged them to cancel it.
“It is too late to cancel or postpone the event. The space has been built, the infrastructure has been set up, the location and our contractors are ready ”. In other words, it was estimated that the irrecoverable cost of the event outweighed any future consequences – potential disease transmission and possible death – that it could cause.
The time it took the International Olympic Committee to postpone the Games could reflect similar estimates – but in the end they at least made that decision. Irreversible costs in the fossil fuel industry, agriculture, banking, private healthcare and other sectors are preventing the rapid transformations we need. Money becomes more important than life.
There are two ways in which the situation could unfold. We could, as some people do, deny reality even more. Some of those who have dismissed other threats, such as climate collapse, are also trying to underestimate the threat posed by kovid-19. Among them is Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who claims that this virus is nothing more than a “small flu”. The media and opposition politicians calling for isolation measures are apparently part of a conspiracy against him.
Or this could be the moment when we begin to see ourselves again as beings governed by biology and physics, and who are dependent on the planet on which it is possible to live. We should never again listen to those who lie and deny. We should never again allow a comforting lie to outweigh a painful truth. We can no longer afford the dominance of those who put money ahead of life. This coronavirus reminds us that we belong to the material world.