COVID-19 and Anthropocene Anxiety

The world we knew mere weeks ago is no longer. With the breakneck speed of the transformation, we are all scrambling to make sense of this bleaker reality, to narrate its causes and consequences within our broader stories of what ails the world.

The environmental community, for its part, has been hastily figuring out how to reconcile coronavirus with its grand narratives. At the margins, we’ve seen the predictably misanthropic takes — that the virus is nature’s revenge and so forth — but more mainstream environmental narrations of COVID-19 have also betrayed, if not misanthropy, then at least an underlying Anthropocene anxiety.

There’s no doubt that human activity is implicated in the COVID-19 pandemic, nor that expanding human contact with wildlife increases the risk of zoonotic diseases more generally. We are not hapless victims of Nature. At the same time, we should beware of nebulous Anthropocene anxiety, as it works against our ability to understand and prevent the wreckage of pandemics like COVID-19, first by framing the cause so broadly that it has no remedy, and second by fueling anti-modernity sentiment — prevalent in the environmental movement — that is at odds with precisely what the developing world needs to reduce the risk of zoonotic disease.

The problem with such grand environmental narrations of the pandemic is that they don’t point in any useful direction when it comes to mitigating risk.

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic is a potent trigger for what Paul Robbins and Sarah Moore have termed “ecological anxiety disorder” (EAD), among whose defining symptoms is a deep unease about the extent of human’s influence on the planet. Showing suggestive signs of EAD, ecologist Kate Jones, recently quoted in Ensia, called zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 “a hidden cost of human economic development.” After all, she says, “There are just so many more of us, in every environment.”

This view is not without merit, of course. The more we encroach upon ecosystems, the more we give a leg up to species with hardy immune systems that act as potent disease vectors, and the more contact we have with them. And there is truth to the expansive claim that “[d] largely an environmental issue,” as Jim Robbins wrote in the New York Times.

But viewing the pandemic through the lens of Anthropocene anxiety risks sliding into the notion that all environmental problems meaningfully contribute to the risk of zoonotic diseases. This contribution could be material — for example, the baseless claim that climate change is linked to COVID-19. Or it could be spiritual, that COVID-19 and all other environmental problems share a root cause, invariably one of the usual suspects: capitalism, culture, or human nature. Responding to reports that the EPA would be relaxing pollution rules for factories, power plants, and other facilities to ease their economic hardship, journalist Jimmy Tobias tweeted, “Environmental degradation and destruction is what unleashes novel diseases like COVID-19, and yet full speed ahead,” and that it’s “a culture of heedless destruction of the natural world that is at the root of the problem.”

The problem with such grand environmental narrations of the pandemic is that they don’t point in any useful direction when it comes to mitigating the risk of future pandemics. To the contrary, they’re paralyzing. Their logical entailment is that any hope of preventing the next pandemic rests on the creation of a new sustainable world order. If all our environmental problems are fundamentally one, we have a really big problem on our hands.

Achieving some form of higher consciousness across the globe — some profound and fundamental reversal of our basic values — is our only chance. “Our species must take advantage of this virus to rethink itself and retune with the ecosystem of our mother Gaia,” openDemocracy informs us.

But what exactly would we do once we achieved this retunement? Grand narratives of the pandemic can’t distinguish between distal and proximate causes, and so offer very little guidance on what actions would have the biggest impact on the risk of new zoonotic viruses. The fact of the matter is that the Chinese wet markets from which the novel coronavirus emerged could scarcely be better designed to facilitate the transit of a virus across species. Thankfully, ending the Chinese wildlife trade — thought it would entail a confrontation with cultural forces — wouldn’t require a humanity-wide revolution in our ontological relationship with nature.

But when the ecological truism of “everything is connected” is fused with the anxious clarion call of “danger is everywhere,” the cause of the pandemic grows in scale and scope. Not only are humans responsible for creating environments conducive to zoonotic diseases, but the fundamental problem is human activity writ large.

The story of coronavirus as a disease of the Anthropocene also tends to reflect and reinforce the current of anti-modernity that is so pervasive in mainstream environmentalism. Economic development, in other words, is the real culprit.

But while economic development entails environmental impacts that can increase disease risk, such a view can’t make sense of the fact that poverty is also centrally implicated in zoonotic disease, as we recently pointed out. China’s wildlife farming industry is rooted in mass food shortages and starvation following the Second World War, and communities’ reliance on bushmeat in parts of Africa is likewise born of necessity. And yet, in an attempt to shoehorn this fact into pre-existing narratives, some have even insinuated that reliance on wildlife for food is the result of communities being “marginalized by the narrow profit-oriented economic globalization.”

Environmentalists need to wrap their minds around the fact that economic development needs to be part of the solution. Developing countries need support in modernizing animal agriculture, which can vastly lower the risk of zoonotic disease. Further, they need the social services and safety nets that are buttressing the developed world from the worst possible outcomes of the pandemic.

Before COVID-19 eventually retreats from the world, it will likely claim hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of human lives. And while the death toll has so far been greatest in China, Europe, and the United States, the body count is poised to soar in the poorest parts of the world — in rural India, Africa, and South America — where a large portion of the population lives in concentrated urban poverty without access to quality health care, and where survivors will have yet harder lives to lead amidst the economic devastation. There is no social distancing in a slum.

The world is unquestionably a more frightening place than it was a short time ago, and we are all struggling to make sense of how this happened, what is happening, what kind of world we will be living in a year from now, and how we can avoid another such nightmare. In our search, it is inevitable that we would look to our cherished narratives about how humans have let nature and ourselves down, as these stories offer a hope that things — indeed, everything — can get better.

But the environmental stories we tell ourselves matter, and there is too much at stake for us to confuse solace with solutions.