THOUGHT LEADERSHIP | Llewellyn van Wyk, B.Arch; MSc. (Applied), Urban Analyst
An additional pleasure to watching a good movie with my son is the thoughtful and usually, animated discussion that follows on the drive home. That did not happen with Blade Runner 2049. That late-night drive home was unusually quiet, and I could not tell whether the silence was caused by the bittersweet narrative or the dark imagery.
Thinking about I realised that it was neither: the silence was caused by the realisation that those images were not sci-fi – I had seen them before, many times, in actual cities. Dark, colourless urban streetscapes; the night sky dominated by bright neon signs; advertising boards selling their wares through the sexualisation of women; mountainous waste disposal sites; thick orange skies saturated with pollutants; the displacement of nature – these are all familiar urban images.
During the film, I became more and more desperate for a sign – any sign – that some semblance of nature still survived somewhere. At one point in the movie, there is a flash of the yellow and green of a dying flower against a ghostly-grey tree only kept standing with the help of stabilising cables. Then, suddenly, at the midpoint of the film, there is this green explosion on the screen, and you find yourself in the middle of a forest. My relief that there was still some nature left was enormous. But it is short-lived: the forest is no more than a recreation of a memory.
Tom van der Linden, in a commentary about the film titled ‘In search of the distinctly human: the philosophy of Blade Runner 2049’, observes that, in the movie, “ecosystems have collapsed. Green fields turned to dirt, metal, and plastic. Trees are but a distant memory. A long time ago man lost his spiritual connection to nature, replaced it with a physical one. And now, finally, she has been conquered. Reduced to her basic elements, the last artifacts of her existence.”[i] In this ‘ecology without nature’, as he puts it, we are placing ever more distance between ourselves and the rest of nature.
As Kate Jones, Chair of Ecology at University College London, has noted, pandemics are now “a hidden cost of human economic development…We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.”[ii]
The state of the environment, disease, and viruses
Many natural scientists are emphasising the correlation between ecological degradation and disease outbreaks. The UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen, pleads that “nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis.”[iii] Essentially humanity is placing too many pressures on the natural environment with damaging consequences. Other scientists too suggest that the Covid-19 outbreak is a “clear warning shot”, given that far more deadly diseases exist in wildlife, and that today’s civilisation was “playing with fire”.[iv] They note it is almost always human behaviour that causes diseases to spill over into humans. As Quammen argues, “Our relationship with the rest of the natural world, which is consumptive, and intrusive, and disruptive, is at the heart of the matter. Those things shake loose viruses from their natural hosts. All these wild animals carry their own unique viruses. When we go into a tropical forest with its great diversity, and we start cutting down trees and capturing animals or killing animals for food, then we offer those viruses the opportunity to become our viruses, to jump into us and find a new host, a much more abundant host. And when a virus moves from an infected animal into a human, it’s won the sweepstakes. It can now spread around the world and become one of the world’s most successful viruses, which this coronavirus now is.”[v]
The continued depletion of natural resources has, in turn, put pressure on the world’s most fragile ecosystems, and we now experiencing an extreme biodiversity crisis in which over a million species of plants, insects, and other animals are on the brink of extinction, while other species, stressed by displacement, are increasingly brought into contact with expanding areas of human habitation and agriculture. This encroachment on wilderness space has increased human exposure to the movement of pathogens from animal hosts, previously contained within wild ecosystems.
“Preserving intact ecosystems and biodiversity will help us reduce the prevalence of some of these diseases. So the way we farm, the way we use the soils, the way we protect coastal ecosystems, and the way we treat our forests will either wreck the future or help us live longer[vi],” Andersen argues. “We know in the late 1990s in Malaysia with the outbreak of Nipah virus, it is believed that the virus was a result of forest fires, deforestation, and drought which had caused fruit bats, the natural carriers of the virus, to move from the forests into the peat farms. It infected the farmers, which infected other humans, and that led to the spread of disease.” Biodiversity loss is a significant driver in the emergence of some of these viruses. Large-scale deforestation, habitat degradation, and fragmentation, agriculture intensification, our food system, trade in species and plants, anthropogenic climate change – all these are drivers of biodiversity loss and drivers of new diseases” he concludes.
A study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, agrees that the underlying cause of the present pandemic is likely to be increased human contact with wildlife. Scientists from Australia and the US traced which animals were most likely to share pathogens with humans taking 142 viruses known to have been transmitted from animals to humans over many years and matching them to the IUCN’s red list of threatened species.
They found that domesticated animals like cattle, sheep, dogs, and goats shared the highest number of viruses with humans, with eight times more animal-borne viruses than wild mammal species. Wild animals that have adapted well to human-dominated environments also share more viruses with people. Rodents, bats, and primates – which often live among people, and close to houses and farms – together were implicated as hosts for nearly 75% of all viruses[vii]. However, the spillover risk was highest from threatened and endangered wild animals whose populations had declined largely due to hunting, wildlife trade, and loss of habitat.
Its noteworthy that every pandemic-threatening new virus that we have seen emerge in recent decades — avian flu, SARS, MERS, Zika and Ebola — has developed in this way. The opportunities currently existing for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people is unprecedented.[viii] The continued erosion of ecosystems is forcing an uncomfortably proximity to animals and plants that harbour diseases that can jump to humans.
The state of the environment and food supply
Not only are we dependent on nature for our health, we also overlook the contribution of nature and its ecosystem services in our food production systems. Our current rate of biodiversity loss is having a substantial impact on what we eat and how we feed the world’s populations. And this impact is set to increase. As reported by the World Economic Forum, research undertaken by them together with PWC, $44 trillion of economic value generation – more than half of the world’s total GDP – is moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services, and therefore exposed to risks from nature loss. Agriculture and the food and beverage industries are the second- and third-largest sectors most dependent on nature, after the construction industry.
Climate change, soil erosion, pollinators extinction, and deforestation are all threatening food supplies. The decline of insects and other animals that pollinate crops is also impacting on agriculture production. More than three-quarters of the world’s food crops rely at least partially on pollination. In other words, global crop production with an annual market value of between $235 billion and $577 billion is at risk. Outbreaks of invasive pests and diseases are another common cause of nature loss that threatens the survival of commercially important crop species with low genetic diversity. More than half of the world’s food comes from just three staples – rice, wheat, and maize – which already suffer annual losses of up to 16% of total production (valued at $96 billion) due to invasive species.[ix]
However, scientists have long abandoned the idea of there being a “balance of nature,” and favour more dynamic ecological frameworks. Both the delicate and stalwart interpretations of “balance” imply that nature should be left to its own devices; that human interference ought to be minimal. But as Matt Palmer an ecologist at Columbia University notes, the updated view is that “change is constant.”[x] The importance of this paradigm is that as the new approach takes hold, conservation and management policies must also be adapted. “In some ways, it argues for a stronger hand in managing ecosystems or natural resources,” Palmer states. “It’s going to take human intervention.”
To prevent further outbreaks both global warming and the destruction of the natural world must end, as both drive wildlife into contact with people. Covid-19 and nature are linked. So should be the recovery.
 “Big Yellow Taxi” is a song written, composed, and recorded by Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell in 1970, and originally released on her album Ladies of the Canyon.
[ii] Hill, K., 2020. “Biodiversity and pandemic disease (or how we came to know our world in 2020).” Available from: https://dirt.asla.org/2020/04/23/biodiversity-and-pandemic-diseases-or-how-we-came-to-know-our-world-in-2020/. Downloaded: Thursday, 07 May 2020
[iii]Carrington, D. 2020. “Coronavirus: ‘Nature is sending us a message’ says UN environment chief”. Available from: https://amp-theguardian-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/amp.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/25/coronavirus-nature-is-sending-us-a-message-says-un-environment-chief. Downloaded: Thursday, 02 April 2020
[v] Cohn, R. 2020. “Spillover warning: How we can prevent the next pandemic.” Available from: https://e360.yale.edu/features/spillover-warning-how-we-can-prevent-the-next-pandemic-david-quammen. Downloaded: Friday, 10 April 2020
[vi]Greenfield, P. 2020. “Ban wildlife markets to avert pandemics, says UN Biodiversity chief.” Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/06/ban-live-animal-markets-pandemics-un-biodiversity-chief-age-of-extinction?utm_term=RWRpdG9yaWFsX0dyZWVuTGlnaHQtMjAwNDA4&utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&CMP=greenlight_email&utm_campaign=GreenLight. Downloaded: Thursday, 09 April 2020
[vii] Vidal, J. 2020. “Human impact on wildlife to blame for spread of viruses, says study.” Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/08/human-impact-on-wildlife-to-blame-for-spread-of-viruses-says-study-aoe?utm_term=RWRpdG9yaWFsX0dyZWVuTGlnaHQtMjAwNDA4&utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&CMP=greenlight_email&utm_campaign=GreenLight. Downloaded: Thursday, 09 April 2020
[viii] Carrington, D. 2020. “Coronavirus: ‘Nature is sending us a message’ says UN environment chief.” Available from: https://amp-theguardian-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/amp.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/25/coronavirus-nature-is-sending-us-a-message-says-un-environment-chief. Downloaded: Thursday, 02 April 2020.
[x] Root, T. 2020. “The ‘balance of nature’ is an enduring concept. But it’s wrong.” Available from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/balance-of-nature-explained/. Downloaded: Thursday, 09 April 2020
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