It truly is, for some, a Silent Spring. As I write this from my home, the streets outside are still, the skies are populated by white clouds and minimal flight patterns. Squirrels chase each other on the lightly budding oak trees I see outside my window.
In the floor below, my college daughter is keeping up with friends across the world and the uneven schedule of remote learning. My son is trying to rouse himself for his first live classroom-by-computer session of the day. We are cocooned, irregularly interacting, individually calling my mother to check-in as she adjusts to my dad’s death just over a month ago. She went out solo a few weeks ago to pick up his ashes, which now sit, waiting for the day we can breathe together again in a Celebration of Life.
There are some who believe that survival of the fittest requires us to engage again in the economics of our pre-COVID-19 world. Others see this as a time to evolve our inequitable systems and emerge with a stronger sense of community.
Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring” in 1962, to focus on the inevitable chemical destruction we were bringing on ourselves by not respecting the natural intersection of the tiniest details that impact our lives. “The balance of nature is not the same today as in Pleistocene times, but it is still there: a complex, precise, and highly integrated system of relationships between living things, which cannot safely be ignored any more than the law of gravity can be defied by a man perched on the edge of a cliff.”
I find in the microscopic and macroscopic wisdom of Rachel Carson in 1962 great insight for what our society consists of today.
One theory is that in December 2019, COVID-19 first mutated into human form in Wuhan, China, perhaps from a wet market. Many people at the market developed viral pneumonia thought to be caused by the new coronavirus. However, as a Science magazine article revealed, the first case might have happened earlier, outside the market. Wherever it originated, it is clear that one virus in one person has led, as of April 16, to: 2,119,303 affected and 141,945 dead so far.
In the case of the 1918 pandemic, the earliest cases of flu in the U.S. were seen in March, in 100 soldiers based in Kansas. By October, 195,000 people in the U.S. died that month alone. Infected soldiers were increasingly deployed overseas for world war, spreading the disease. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an estimated one-third of the world’s population was infected, and 50 million died.
Minnesota-based environmental magazine Ensia wrote in mid-March about COVID-19 as an indicator of the impact of reversing biodiversity on our human and economic health. Outbreaks of infectious diseases caused by new coronavirus mutations — Ebola, SARS, avian flu — are happening more frequently, and the CDC estimates three-quarters of human contagions start in animals. The emerging field of planetary health is focusing on “the increasingly visible connections among the well-being of humans, other living things, and entire ecosystems.”
Ensia featured Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at University College London, who is a leading cross-disciplinary expert on biodiversity and global change. Her team had identified 335 diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004 — at least 60 percent of them “zoonotic,” coming from non-human animals — and found an increasing number are linked to environmental change and human behavior. Logging, mining, transportation route building, rapid urbanization, and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species. The transmission of disease from wildlife to humans, she told Ensia, is now “a hidden cost of human economic development. We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.”
Lesson #1: The ecosystem does not erect border walls between species.
A Wuhan wet market that sells fresh produce and meat, often from wildlife stored without drainage or refrigeration, is not much different in potential impact than caging thousands of unhealthy chickens in factory farms before they reach our grocery stores, or putting pesticides on our food crops to kill insects. All introduce new microbial elements into our biology.
A VOX Future Perfect interview with Sonia Shah, author of the 2017 book “Pandemic,” says we need to understand why a microbe that has long existed turns into a pandemic-causing pathogen. She has studied outbreaks including cholera, West Nile virus, and Ebola. “Ebola doesn’t cause disease in bats. Neither does coronavirus. They cause disease in our bodies because they are new to us. They are exploiting a new habitat. We know that with Ebola, there was a single spillover event. The first case was a two-year-old child in West Africa who was playing near a tree where bats live.
“West Nile virus is a virus of migratory birds from Africa. They have been landing in North America for hundreds of years, but we never had West Nile virus here until 1999. Why is that?” Shah explained to VOX that over the last 20 years, we lost avian biodiversity, leaving more birds that are good carriers of West Nile virus. “The more robins and crows you have around, the more West Nile virus you have. And the more likely it becomes that a mosquito is going to bite an infected bird and then bite a human.”
She said Lyme disease played out in a similar way. Losing opossums and chipmunks because of suburban development led to an imbalance in the animals that normally control the tick population.
“When dengue broke out in South Florida in 2009, we coated the environment with insecticide and staged a military-style assault on these mosquitoes,” Shah continued. “But it turns out the mosquitoes that carry dengue have been in South Florida for a long time. That wasn’t new. What was new was the foreclosure crisis. … With all these homes closed, [their] swimming pools were vacant. It starts to rain and these empty pools fill up with water and create pockets that mosquitoes can breed in.
“Nobody thought to address the housing crisis as a possible driver of the outbreak.”
Shah pointed out that we have not been seeing the bigger picture — the connections between social, political, and environmental health. “Moving forward, what we have to see is that pandemics and climate disasters are related to our huge footprint. We’ve been using up a lot of natural resources and now the bill is coming due. We’re going to lurch from disaster to disaster to disaster until we start to really change the fundamental relationship between us and nature.” (Read the full Vox story here.)
In a 2008 Scientific American article, the author wrote about viruses being live, vital members of the web of life. Although smaller than bacteria, the particles that cause disease are not able to replicate on their own, but can do so once they are hosted by living cells. Viral genes and proteins “invent” new genes, travel into other organisms, and contribute to evolutionary change.
Lesson #2: Discounting the invisible is narrow vision. A small active agent can grow into a powerful entity.
Rachel Carson wrote about the elm tree that once lined towns across the U.S. Even by 1962, when she wrote her book, they had already become noticeably decimated by disease. The beetle that killed them, she wrote, would not have reproduced as plentifully, traveling from one to the adjacent next, had the streets been more diversified.
Lesson #3: Lack of diversification is harmful.
A YES! Magazine article with economic experts suggested that recovery from COVID-19 should involve investments in transitioning the global energy system. Helen Mountford, vice president for climate and economics at the World Resources Institute, said that “we have a great opportunity now to transition more quickly. This is a moment when we can implement measures to help boost the economy, create jobs, and build climate resilience.”
She warned that returning to fossil fuel projects that were halted over environmental concerns would be a huge risk. “That’s coming out of one health crisis and trying to boost the economy by leading us into another health crisis.”
As Winona LaDuke has written in the pages of Minnesota Women’s Press, and talked about at our Changemaker Gala in December 2019, it is time to “rematriate” society and become doulas to the next economy.
“Why waste 57 percent of our energy that is lost between point of origin and point of consumption? It’s time to retool our economy if we are going to survive. European countries like Germany and Scandinavia have about 50 to 60 percent more efficiency than we do in the United States. How long are we going to compete if we remain stuck in the old ways?,” she wrote in our June 2019 issue on War & Peace.
“The next economy needs to be restorative and regenerative,” LaDuke continues. “It needs to not poison people and land. It needs to be compassionate and maternal — looking out for relatives, whether they have hands, paws, roots, claws, or fins. The next economy has efficiency, organic food, electric trains, restorative justice, renewable energy, and quality support for women and children. That’s the economy I want. Infrastructure for people, not corporations.”
In Quaranzine 1.3, we look at some of the transformational changes that women are proposing in a post-COVID-19 world, including the concepts of ecofeminism.
Resource: The One Health movement, an interdisciplinary way of thinking about global health, emphasizes the connections between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment.
Tapestry — Annie Hejny: In Nature
Ecosystem — Silent Spring: Ecology and Economics
Health & Healing — Kyoko Katayama: Urgency and Timelessness
Art of Living — Beaudelaine Pierre: La Régle des Trois Unités
Perspective — Siena Iwasaki Milbauer: This is Personal
Action = Change — SeeDo: 50th Anniversary of Earth Day
WomensPress.com — Stories You Might Have Missed
Cover Artwork: “Growing Community,” 48’ x 60’, Alison Price, alisonpricestudios.com