The World Is Alive
I began thinking about this essay in a very different time. In February, to be exact—just a few months ago, but belonging to another existence entirely.
I was also in a very different place from southern Oregon—Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean, one of the most remote and pristine islands in the world. I had just experienced an amazing snorkeling experience, drifting into the lagoon on the incoming tide, marveling at the huge groupers and parrotfish, the sea turtles, and all the inexpressibly complex and intertwined life of the reef. As I dried off in the sun, gleaming white terns and tropicbirds flew overhead, and on the nearby shore, a giant tortoise lumbered out of the undergrowth and onto the beach. Surrounded by such abundance, what else could I think but—THE WORLD IS ALIVE!
From that moment of epiphany came the idea for an essay. In a time when I and so many others are grieving at the losses that climate change will bring – is now bringing – to the natural world that we love so deeply, I would choose to celebrate all the life that remains, that can still be saved, and that can never be entirely extinguished.
It is now all too clear that the Earth’s continued benevolence is something that we must earn by our mindful care.
Well. That was then, this is now. Since I returned, it seems that all our lives have been turned inside out by the coronavirus. We are social-distancing or locked down. We are out of school, or out of work, or out of money—or all three. No movies, no plays, no dinners out, no gatherings with friends.
In mid-March, our son in San Francisco came down with COVID-19 symptoms: a dry cough, a low fever, aches and fatigue. There were no tests to be had, so he self-quarantined in his tiny Mission district apartment. It was an anxious, helpless week, but by the end of it, he recovered, and we will probably never know if he actually was infected by the virus.
I have no idea what the situation will be by the time you read this in May. I hope we are all doing much, much better. But this pandemic has only reinforced the lesson that THE WORLD IS ALIVE—while turning it from a rather glib platitude into a deeper and less comforting truth.
While more research remains to be done, it is well established that this coronavirus is a zoonosis—a disease transmitted to humans from animals. It is believed to have originated in bats, and made the jump to humans through the consumption of wildlife sold at a market in China. This is the same route followed by the earlier SARS outbreak, which transferred to humans from civets sold in wildlife markets. Worldwide, the consumption of wildlife is still occurring at an immense scale—everything from snakes and turtles to bats, civets, and monkeys. Much of this trade is illegal, but it continues unabated, and involves billions of dollars per year.
The global human population is approaching 8 billion. Almost every acre of arable land on the planet is under cultivation, and human domination of the world’s biosphere is so complete that we are generally considered to have entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene. And yet, somehow we still believe that we can take everything we desire from nature, as if we were hunter-gatherers clinging to a precarious existence.
We would do well to remember this: THE WORLD IS ALIVE. If we try to kill it (and to an objective extraterrestrial, surely it would look like that’s what we’re trying to do) the world will not submit quietly. This COVID-19 pandemic, for all its immense devastation, is relatively mild. It has a mortality rate, at the time of this writing, of “only” about 3%. Can we doubt that there are more zoonoses out there, waiting to jump from animals to humans? As population density increases, as environmental contamination, unhealthy diets, and stress weaken our immune systems, there could be more, and worse, pandemics to come. To protect ourselves from such predictable catastrophes, there needs to be an immediate ban on the sale of wild-caught mammals, adopted and enforced by every country in the world.
That, of course, will just be a first step. Even if we are able to prevent future zoonotic pandemics, unchecked destruction of the world’s diversity through climate change and the conversion of wild ecosystems would eventually collapse the global bounty of “nature’s services.” These include the planetary water cycle, the fertility of the soil, and the pollination of our crops—all absolutely essential for human survival. These processes reflect the working of a healthy biosphere. We have long taken them for granted as permanent features of a benevolent planet. It is now all too clear that the Earth’s continued benevolence is something that we must earn by our mindful care.
This is not the hopeful essay that I set out to write in February. And yet, it is far from hopeless—that is, if we see this pandemic for what it is, a long-overdue wake-up call. Throughout human history, the natural world has too often been viewed as something separate from ourselves—as both a relentless adversary and an inexhaustible treasure house. That must change. If we are to survive, we need to enter into an entirely different relationship with the Earth. No relationship can be based only on the desires of one partner. Respect must be given. Consequences must be considered. The world is not a thing to be used. It is our indispensible partner in human survival.
It is alive.