International Center for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW)

Coronavirus and Human-Nature Relations

A plea, why we must change our relationship with nature

by Lena Schlegel

11. Apr 2020 · „Nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis” stated UN nature chief Inger Andersen in the Guardian at the 25th of march 2020. What is nature trying to tell us, though? What does the Coronavirus pandemic have in common with climate change, and what can we take away from it for human-nature relations? The coronavirus crisis draws our attention to the existential entanglements we share with the nonhuman world. I argue that in order to deal with contemporary environmental crises, we need to move away from the contemporary understanding of the human-nature relationship as one of essential difference and instead assume responsibility for the unbounded consequences of our actions on the natural world.

Four decades of climate inaction alert us to acknowledge that we live in a fundamental imbalance with nature. Modern industrialised societies reinforce the very practices of nature appropriation which are responsible for the destruction of the conditions for all life. This is reflected in the ongoing exploitation of natural resources, other living beings, and eco-systems, in our strive for development. Most exemplary for this paradox is the continuous combustion of fossil fuels which is the single most important cause for high CO2 levels in the atmosphere and thereby driving climate change. Based on the (post-)enlightenment idea of nature as passive material, animated only by autonomous human subjects, the modern world is built on a resource-intensive lifestyle reliant on the exploitation of nature.

Much points to the significance of environmental degradation for the spread of viral pandemics. Wildlife trading, industrial animal farming, large-scale destruction of eco-systems, and the loss of biodiversity, have enabled perfect grounds for new viruses to transcend from nonhuman animals to humans. The mutation and spread of pathogens is much more likely in impaired habitats with reduced biodiversity, than in healthy eco systems. Boundaries between previously separate habitats become increasingly blurred and enable transmission of diseases across species. Put bluntly, the likelihood for viral pandemics increases with the destruction of eco systems and biodiversity. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is assumed to have been transmitted from bats to humans via an intermediate host species. This has most likely taken place at a Chinese “wet market” where live wildlife is offered for sale and slaughtered on the spot, often in poor hygienic conditions. The problem, however, lies not within the animals but in our relationship with nature. The pandemic, thus, brings home a fundamental ill in the human-nature relationship:  “We pay too little attention to the fact, that a wrong human-nature relationship is fuelling, and even causing, many of our problems”, states Johannes Vogel, professor for biodiversity (own translation). Climate change, biodiversity loss, and the spread of viral pandemics, are in this sense all expressions of the same underlying problem in our relationship with nature.

And yet, our approaches to deal with these phenomena differ vastly. While climate change has been subjected to denial, marginalisation and the externalisation of its effects into the future and the Global South for almost half a century now, in the case of the coronavirus outbreak, we were able to swiftly mobilise massive political and economic aid and to completely transform societal life. All that with reference to the existential character of the crisis and appealing to cross-societal responsibility – claims that could just as well appear in a mission statement by Fridays for Future. How come, that we acknowledge one existential crisis as such and treat it accordingly on all levels of society, and another is continuously denied, dismissed and postponed? (What) Can we learn from the coronavirus pandemic for climate response?

In its immediate potential to physically harm us and its pervasive dominance in our everyday, the coronavirus pandemic poses a more tangible threat to human lives than climate change, which is still discussed predominantly as an ecological, and thereby rather abstract, problem, as French sociologist Bruno Latour criticises. In his recent book “Terrestrial Manifesto”, he argues that by prompting the frightening perspective of losing the very conditions for our living, the climate crisis provokes existential questions of life and death, identity and territory. So actually, not unlike the Covid-19 crisis! Climate change, however, causes more radical discomfort, because we fail to imagine how our lives would need to change, if we were to take measures appropriate to the extent of the problem. In a 2011 study on climate denial in Norway, Kari Norgaard found how feelings like guilt, helplessness and existential fear for one´s own position in the broader world and the stability of one´s surroundings added to the exclusion of climate change from people´s everyday lives.

The climate crisis is thus exemplary for a more fundamental paradox of the modern world, where everything is simultaneously disconnected and entangled. Entangled insofar as our lives are fundamentally connected with others. In multiple ways, we rely on micro-organisms, biological processes, and material artifacts. Disconnected, because often the consequences of our actions come to play at distant places, or in the far future, and affect the lives of strangers to whom we do not feel immediately morally committed. The conceptual separation underlying this disconnect, is so deeply embedded in the institutions of our social order that it remains largely invisible in our everyday lives, stressed, for example, by John Dryzek about governing in the age of the Anthropocene. With the coronavirus crisis, however, the existential entanglement of the social and the natural world has suddenly (re-)gained our attention. The pandemic has shown us with renewed sincerity, that we need to understand ecological problems as social problems, and that by destroying nature, we will destroy parts of ourselves. It has also shown, that we cannot contain effects of the natural world onto our bodies by drawing territorial borders, identity politics, or simply denial. The coronavirus crisis, hence, holds up the very mirror to us we have been so anxious to ignore for the past 40 years of climate science:

We are part of nature and vitally depend on it. The project of modernity is built on a dualist worldview that legitimises the ongoing exploitation of nature and obscures the ethico-political consequences of our actions. People in different parts of the world are thereby differently affected by, and to different degrees responsible for, the consequences of environmental degradation. The ideals of modernity are in this sense – even though well-intentioned in their emancipatory goal – part of the problem, themselves. We must change our relation with nature in order to come to terms with the effects of unbounded human action. And we must bring home the temporally and spatially outsourced consequences of our impacts on nature to our immediate awareness, into our daily lives, our realms of responsibility. We should see the Covid-19 pandemic as a momentum to reconfigure human-nature relations. In this respect, we need a worldview of the human not as separate from nature, and an ethical framework that attributes moral responsibility to us based on those very relationships we share. And finally, we will also need a good deal of courage and imagination to shape sustainable futures along unknown parameters.

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