2020 started with an existential bang. Catastrophic bushfires, drought, international undiplomatic brinkmanship and now COVID-19. It’s felt like we’ve ticked off the full apocalyptic list. The yellow smoke-filled skies in January made us realise how interconnected planetary systems are when things go bad. Images of burned koalas and kangaroos and other eclectic and iconic Australian species emphasised how anthropogenic activities (human activities that damage the environment), such as bush clearance, interact with other forces such as climate change, impacting animals we know and love. Harmless and vulnerable life forms are already in trouble but big events, like Australia’s summer fires, can tip fragile species over the edge. But we seem unable to change our ways – koala and kangaroo culls still occur, deforestation continues and motorways are expanded through remaining habitat.
A 2019 study by The Nature Conservancy and Conservation Science Partners showed that only 5 per cent of the Earth’s land surface is unaffected by human impact. They found 13 human-caused stressors across all terrestrial lands, biomes (naturally occurring flora and fauna) and ecological regions. Stressors included agriculture, human settlement, transportation (including railroads and minor roads) mining, energy production and electrical infrastructure (including power lines). Fifty-two percent of ecological regions and 49 per cent of countries are considered moderately modified. Only 30 per cent of terrestrial ecological regions and 18 per cent of the world’s countries have a low degree of land modification and retain most of their natural lands. The human reach is broad and deep.
Despite the warnings of ecologists and activists, for too long the inertia of capitalist production and consumption has kept us on a path of incremental but inevitable destruction. But as long as we have had the distractions of TV, Netflix and cheap goods, we have been almost collectively oblivious – like the frog in the warming pot of water. Last year, we lost iconic individual animals like vootrekker, one of last the great tusker elephants, and Wolverine, a rare Northern Atlantic right whale. Mistreatment of whole species is ongoing, including jaguars, lions and pangolins. Habitat fragmentation and ecosystem loss is the price we pay for farming, commodity extraction and “progress”. We see alterations to whole planetary systems, but still we have kept on with business as usual.
But the damage done – in the last fifty years of “the great acceleration” especially, means we have less resilience for random events. The damage done to koala habitat for roads and urbanisation, for example, means they’re more vulnerable to fires. The harm done to Maui and Hector’s dolphins through fishing, means they’re more vulnerable to disease.
Urbanisation and mistreatment of wild and farmed animals unleashes disease that transfers from animal to human, such as Ebola, SARS, MERS and COVID-19. We’ve sliced and diced nature, and now she’s fighting back. It’s time for us to take stock. As economies shut down and nature responds with cleaner air and seas, we need to learn lessons and do better by nature in the future.