A Coronavirus Perspective
on a Sick Planet
By Zhiwa Woodbury, M.A. J.D.
“Grief is how we love in the face of loss, remorse is how we love when we’ve caused harm.
How could they not be part of the work of this time?” Roshi Joan Sutherland
Earth Day is 50 – a number that signifies middle age for most of us. As a life-long eco-activist, I am marking ED50 in isolation. A Puget Sound lockdown filled mostly, for me, with solastasia and grief.
Numbers, like words, have meaning in the exquisitely ordered universe we inhabit. In Revelations, 666 is the number of the beast and, by some strange coincidence, Jared Kushner’s NYC Address. By contrast, 777 is the number of heaven, representing the trinity, and is said to be a ‘perfect’ number.
Isn’t it ironic, then, that the first Earth Day A.C. (After Coronavirus) happens to coincide with our species passing the population threshold of 7,777,777,777? We are hardly a perfect species, and for us that is an ominous number, not an auspicious one.
The human world has more than doubled since the first Earth Day, and it is fully five times the world population in 1918, when the last global pandemic swept across the planet from its inception on a pig farm in Kansas.
We’ve multiplied five times over in the span of one ripe human lifetime!
It’s easier for many people to deny reality and truth than it is to understand the scale of the crisis we face. It’s even hard to appreciate just how big a billion is. If you were charged with counting all the humans on Earth right now, walking by you at the rate of one per second, it would take you 246 years to count us all. Nobody wants that job!
Similarly, you wouldn’t want to count all the cows or cars on the land right now (about 1.5B each), which are our main waste products from Earth’s perspective. Cars wasting CO2, and cows wasting land and methane. Together, snuffing out Mother Nature, our life source.
Exponential growth, like the idea of infinite space, is almost unfathomable to our habitual, literal minds. It took over 200,000 years for our species to reach a billion, that monolithic number, and only 200 years more to reach seven billion! And yet, precisely because it’s exponential, those who project that we’ll reach 10B by 2050 are fooling themselves.
With the world slowed to a crawl by the first of what promises to be multiple surges of COVID-19 over the next year or two, all the veils have been lifted for any who are willing to look up from their smartphone screens. That’s the original meaning of the word apocalypse, after all: to uncover; to reveal. Just what is being revealed by the sudden onset of the coronavirus pandemic?
In spite of our best intentions in throwing Earth a party every year since 1970 (was that the high point of our good intentions?), our grossly inflated, highly interdependent, and pervasively interconnected population is a still-growing menace to the life of Earth, the largest and most beautiful living organism we’ve ever beheld.
In all likelihood, that means this it the first of many pandemics to come, since that’s how an intelligent, self-regulating organism defends itself. One is required to complete the entire course of antibiotics if one wants to get well, after all.
It also makes sense that before the global ecology completely unravels, the global economy would begin to melt down, since the ecological system is, in the final analysis, much more stable than our house-of-cards global economy. Some economists are already calling this the beginning of the “Greater Depression.”
And so, with the overheated engine of the global economy up on blocks in the front yard now, and with distant mountain ranges coming into view, and deep blue skies the likes of which some of us have never seen, we’ve suddenly all been initiated into a death-aware culture. That’s quite a remarkable shift for a death-phobic culture like America. As one learns in hospice, death-awareness permits the kind of clear seeing and humane thinking that has been sorely missing here since the last great depression.
It’s imperative, therefore, that we take advantage of this collectively cleared vision, amidst the extended pause of this global reboot, to rethink our relationship to the world at large and to ourselves. Now is the time to take stock, as they used to say back in the day, and to ask ourselves what it means to be human, or humane, in a world so obviously in turmoil. We are facing into the storm, an existential threat the likes of which no society has ever had to face. Clearly, then, a return to ‘business as lethal’ under the neoliberal world order would be quite insane.
So, of course, that’s precisely what our overlords are so desperate to do. They are congenitally incapable of expressing anything other than the hubris gene by which humans think they are the superior species, somehow able to overcome natural forces and overturn the laws of nature.
Our political overlords are due for a reckoning. Nature will humble them soon enough. And we, of course, will suffer the pain of their neolithic hubris.
Many human beings are actually quite sane, I have found. Millions of us, in fact. Considered collectively, however, the human race is quite mad. Perhaps it has always been so, but never more evident than now. Even “MAD” (Mutually Assured Destruction”) had a certain logic to it. In view of the climate crisis, by contrast, it is clear that our civilization has lost its collective mind.
It is as if we worship the God Nero, who fiddles atop the burning world below, sipping wine made from the grapes of wrath. “All Hail Nero!” World Destroyers like Trump, Bolsonaro, and Australia’s Scott Morrison are master manipulators of collective trauma. They thrive in the traumasphere that has resulted from unchecked climate chaos.
To be sitting here sane in the midst of all this incendiary madness is a bitter curse, as millions just like me will surely attest. The sane among us have been experiencing climate grief for some time now. The mind seizes, the heart jumps — whenever we consider the immensity of so much unnatural suffering.
Human suffering is front and center this Earth Day, with daily body counts dominating the news. But elephants, whales and songbirds have been bearing the burden of our mindless hubris for decades now. A thousand million animals – including cute and cuddly koala bears, kangaroos, wallabies – burned alive in the most recent Australian wildfire season alone. It’s obscene, really.
How does one even grieve that?!
So let us be clear now, with no contrails or smog to cloud our vision, and no excess pollution and noise to impair our thinking. Thanks to the miracle of mirror neurons, we can all empathize with the grievous toll of human suffering in the world right now, whether it has hit us personally or not. As a long-time hospice caregiver, it is breaking my heart that so many people are dying alone every day, their loved ones barred from their deathbeds in hospitals and nursing homes. This is every bit as traumatic as the Trade Tower attacks were in 2001, only it’s happening to every culture around the world.
And yet, the human suffering of this global pandemic is a mere trifle compared to the ongoing horrific toll on all non-human species, and the planet herself, from biospheric trauma – the global trauma we humans are inflicting on Gaia through our collective actions and inaction.
Global Reset: A Time For Truth & Reconciliation
“Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality’, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
As it turned out, the objective of Extinction Rebellion to disrupt business as usual in the developed world anticipated the natural world’s own measured response to our continuing assault. And now we’re directly feeling Gaia’s pain. She has sent us to our room to think about what we’re doing to the world.
The Great (ecological) Unravelling predicted back in the 1990’s is now giving way to the Great Dying of the 21st Century. The worst of the five previous great extinctions, ominously referred to simply as the “Great Dying,” resulted in the loss of 95% of all marine species and 70% of all land and airborne species. It required about ten million years before Earth started showing signs of vibrant life again.
Here is what the human-triggered Great Dying looks like in my lifetime so far: 90% of big fish in the oceans – gone; 85% of all wildlife – gone; and, more recently, along with the colony collapse of bats and bees, up to 75% of all insects. Gone. INSECTS, for goodness sake! Meaning birds are next to crash, of course, which is already well underway – a decline of three billion birds on Turtle Island since the first Earth Day in 1970. That’s 30%, or 60,000,000 birds a year. In much the same way many children in Chinese cities have never seen the stars, I doubt most American children alive today have even heard a songbird.
That’s how pervasive the devastation we’ve wrought on the planet has been – from whales and elephants all the way down to insects and plankton.
Why? We’ve effectively traded all that amazing, documentary-worthy wildlife, and all the wild places we inherited from the 108 Billion human beings who preceded us, for the convenience of 70 billion factory farmed animals slaughtered annually to feed our obscenely obese, thoughtless appetites.
That is, to put it bluntly, not ‘humane.’ It calls our humanity into question in much the same way World War II did before most of us were born.
And now, something unthinkable to most of us even 20 years ago. The vast and unfathomably deep oceans are dying. The original source of all life on Earth is quickly being rendered a global graveyard.
Ocean trawling has turned once biodiverse ocean floors into silted deserts. Factory fishing has vacuumed out most of the smaller fish to feed factory farms and 100 million cats (who, in turn, kill many of those missing songbirds). We’ve even changed the friggin’ chemistry of the oceans, such that starfish dissolve and coral reefs – marine life’s nurseries – are bone-dead or dying.
There is so much plastic in the oceans that whales literally starve now because their plastic intake displaces the food they need to survive. And while people continue, inexplicably, buying water in plastic bottles, the plastic we’ve disposed of in the oceans is now in our blood, too, because our circulatory system is umbilically connected to Gaia’s, after all.
So if I may be excused for channeling my “inner Greta” here:
How DARE you celebrate Earth Day 2020?!
As one climate scientist, pointing to the fact that during almost 30 years of climate talks and IPCC reports our carbon emissions have soared, told the NY Times: “We need to recognize our failure, bow our heads in shame and take a short time for reflection before starting anew.”
The Indigenous perspective on ED50 was nicely summed up by Ilarion “Kuuyux” Merculieff, an Alaskan Unangan leader (from Reuters News):
“The world is looking in the wrong directions for answers. We have thousands more environmental organizations in existence today than we had 30 years ago and yet Mother Earth’s life support systems are coming to the edge, and no one is asking why. The elders are saying that we must look inside, rather than outside, for the answers.”
To be clear. Climate science is not rocket science. The solutions to this existential crisis are at readily hand, if we would just collectively wake up and remember our roots.
Exponential population growth begets exponential wastelands, where rainforests once breathed, and exponential consumption begets exponential emissions and petrochemical waste. Which, in turn, begets exponential unravelling of ecosystems and breakdown of bioregions.
And, yes, exponential unravelling of nature begets, as we were warned as early as 2008, mass migrations and mass mortality events. These are no longer “predictions,” as they were when the International Energy Agency – of all scientific institutions – warned us sternly on the eve of Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address. This is our new reality. And it is heart-attack serious.
Coronavirus and COVID-19 are initiating us into a new world of our choosing, signaling to us that humanity itself has now joined the funereal procession of the Great Dying, that mournful march into the barren future we are wittingly and unwittingly creating for our children’s children.
Happy Coronavirus Earth Day 2020!
Life expectancies started declining in the U.S. in 2014. And now this feedback loop, a novel virus that brings the world economy to its knees, stealthily stealing our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, forcing us to shelter in place, to put our planes down and, for millions over the next couple of years, to die in isolation from the love that every human being deserves in the final chapter of their lives.
This is not natural.
These kinds of pandemics have already been experienced at smaller scales, such as the swine flue and SARS, and they’re predicted to become much more frequent with increasing climate chaos, due to the twin pressures of anti-nature factory farming and habitat destruction. Many more exotic viruses and bacteria are stored in the thawing permafrost, like ticking time bombs waiting to explode onto the global stage. Even smallpox and the bubonic plague are likely to be resurrected. We may even catch a virus from a long-extinct Neanderthal!
How’s that for progress?
So it would be a grave error to treat the coronavirus as a one-off event, to think that the next one will not be more deadly, more contagious, or both, or to think that we can ever ‘return to normal.’
9000 B.C. – 2020 A.C.
There is very little that is linear about climate chaos. Seas rise in surges, driven by steroidal storms, ice shelves slough off in giant kerplunks, and populations fall off Malthusian cliffs. The cliff that we are perched atop looks like surges of migration driven by unprecedented droughts and flooding, bushmeat sold in wet markets, factory farms and huge dead zones in coastal areas like the Gulf, endless resource wars, endemic health crises in both the developed and undeveloped regions, frequent global pandemics, and plagues like cholera and who knows what other black swan plagues and surprising events to come.
More than half those 108 Billion humans that culminated in us, by the way, were killed by mosquitoes. And we’re heating up the whole damned planet? How will we defend ourselves from our top predator when all the birds are gone, or we’ve killed all the bats?
And please, I don’t EVER want to hear anyone whine again: “IS THERE NOTHING TO BE DONE?” Or “We have no say in the matter.”
Look around — WE’RE DOING WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE RIGHT NOW!
Amazing how quickly we can radically change our lifestyle when our own lives are imminently threatened, isn’t it?
And the lives of our grandchildren? Do they matter to us? Or the Life of our Mother? How are these also not motivating us to change our ways?
The solutions to our crisis can be found right here on Earth, with nature herself as our best teacher and ally – not our enemy or threat.
But, of course, in order for any of that to happen at the scale we need it to, I’m afraid we’re going to have to eat the rich first. Not to worry – I’m only talking about .1% of us. Oh, and then we’ll need to jail the politicians (not you, AOC!). For crimes against humanity, obviously, and crimes against nature.
For crimes against all future generations. And raping our Mother. In broad daylight. Just grabbed Her by the pussy!
Right before our disbelieving, traumatized eyes.
The people of the lockdown have spoken: LOCK THEM UP!
That’s what Earth Liberation Day would look like now, and we’d have real reason to celebrate future Earth Days.
Time’s up. Lock them up.
Zhiwa Woodbury is a long time advocate for wildlife and wild places, as an eco-activist and attorney, who for his second act in life became an ecopscyhologist and full-time advocate for Gaia. He is author of Climate Sense: Changing the Way We Think & Feel About our Climate in Crisis (2016), and is currently writing a book based loosely on “Planetary Hospice: Rebirthing Planet Earth” (2014). He blogs at EcopsychologyNow! and lives car-free in a tiny house near Puget Sound.