Our planet has entered the Anthropocene – a new geological epoch when humanity’s influence is causing global climate change, the loss of wild spaces, and a drastic decline in the richness of life. Microbes are not exempt. Whether on coral reefs or in human guts, we are disrupting the relationships between microbes and their hosts, often pulling apart species that have been together for millions of years. Ed Yong.
In just a matter of a few weeks our world has been turned up-side-down. Many businesses have ground to a halt, schools and universities closed, travel severely restricted, while the medical profession has gone into overdrive, battling a disease the spread of which seems extremely difficult to halt. Governments scramble to contain a crisis that defies much of their power and wisdom. And the scientific community scurries around for any clue that might lead to a vaccine and a cure.
Faith communities have shut down churches, mosques, and temples. Television stations, and other multi-media channels are beaming out religious services, for those who feel the need to fulfil such duties. Millions around the world are turning to popular devotions, bombarding God, or their favourite saint, for safety and protection.
Co-incidentally, Germany's Aachen Cathedral has dug out the relics of the little-known Saint Corona, having already planned even before the coronavirus outbreak to display her relics during the Summer of 2020 as part of an exhibition on gold craftsmanship.
According to legend, Corona was a young sixteen year old girl who suffered a gruesome death, martyred for her faith around 177 CE. Some traditions associate her with Syria, other with Marseilles in France, while some claim that she began to be honoured in northern and central Italy.
Because her name is so closely associated with thevcovid-19 virus (which is named because of its crown-like shape), she has gained a popular repute as a patron saint for infectious diseases but, actually, that honor belongs to the British, St. Edmund, who died around 869 CE.
When Humanity is Overcome by a Virus
The coronavirus has dramatically changed the rhythm and run of human life. Several disturbing questions are floating around in the human ecosphere. The powers that have been run off their feet doing what they think they are best at doing, and what most of us expect them to be doing, namely controlling and resolving the problem through the power of rational reason.
However, so many people now suspect that there is more to this crisis than just a rational scientific explanation. A few fundamentalist religionists have their own version of rationalization: this is God punishing us for our sins. Most religions however, striving to be politically correct, are just trying to be nicely reassuring to everybody. Nobody has even hinted at the fact that what we have been enduring in the health crisis of 2020 is one of the most vivid articulations of the Paschal Journey (Death-cum-Resurrection) that we have seen in a long time.
The disease appears to have originated from a Wuhan seafood market where wild animals, including marmots, birds, rabbits, bats and snakes, are traded illegally. Bats are a possible source of the coronavirus, but it appears that it is humans who are to blame for the spread of the disease.
Bats are the only mammal that can fly, allowing them to spread in large numbers from one community over a wide area. When bats fly they have a peak body temperature that mimics a fever. It happens at least twice a day, namely, when they fly out to feed and when they return to roost. And the kind of pathogens they carry have evolved to withstand these peaks of body temperature."
This means they can harbour a large number of pathogens, or diseases. Flying also requires a tremendous amount of activity for bats, which has caused their immune systems to become very specialized. In other words, bats can cope with this pathogen in a way humans cannot. We just don’t have the resilience to withstand the virus which other mammals do.
Why does the disease transfer in the first place? One response from the scientists is that of zoonotic spillover (https://en.wikipedia.org/
wiki/Spillover_infection), and this is where human interference comes into play. When a bat is stressed -- by being hunted, or having its habitat damaged by deforestation -- its immune system is challenged and it finds it harder to cope with pathogens than it would otherwise do in a natural way. As the infection becomes more activated in the host (mammal or animal), it gets more readily transmitted to other creatures, including humans.
It seems that the covid-19 virus originated in the so-called wet-markets of Wuhan, China where wild animals are held in captivity, alienated from their natural habitats, and often held in appalling conditions, extremely stressful for the animals and the birds. Consequently, there is a high probability that viruses are being shed in large numbers. Additionally, the mass transportation of such animals increases the risk of spreading such viruses.
The problem, it would seem, is not the bats (or other animals and birds) but money-driven human exploitation, and an appalling ignorance of the ecological equilibrium upon which all life flourishes. Therefore the most cost-effective way to protect humans is not by discovering new vaccines but by humans themselves learning to protect all life-forms within their authentic ecological niches.
And beyond the realm of other creatures who share the planet with us is the well being of the planet itself. When we transform vast tracks of forest into agricultural land, as has happened extensively in the Amazon region, we impact negatively on climate, carbon storage, water-tables, and thousands of indigenous plant and tree species that have been extensively used to produce medicines for human use. Or when we strip mountains bare for mineral resources, as in the Philippines, and several African countries, not merely do we expose people to environmental disasters like mud-slides, destroying homes, we once more severely disturb the ecological balances so necessary for wholesome living, for human, animal, and plant alike.
On top of all that, as the virus raged in Wuhan province in China, severe restrictions for travel were put in place. In a matter of a few weeks, the smog lifted and people could see the blue sky again; birds returned to favoured habitats, and fishes to old streams. Now that humans had to recede from their anthropocentric driven-ness, earth could once more reclaim its innate organicity!
Are we getting the message? We had better wake up and we better do so quickly!
The Death of Viral Humans
In the 1970s, chemist James Lovelock (in collaboration with the microbiologist, Lynn Margulis) developed the Gaia hypothesis; the theory that all organic and inorganic components on the planet are part of one self-regulating system, working to maintain and perpetuate life on earth. The Gaia hypothesis states that the atmosphere and surface sediments of the planet Earth form a self- regulating physiological system — Earth's surface is alive.
One aspect of Gaia that's crucially important and backed by evidence is that life is not just a passenger on this planet. Living things are active participants, capable of causing massive changes in the oceans and atmosphere. This leads to a range of feedback loops. Sometimes the feedbacks are negative, keeping conditions to stabilize, and sometimes they are positive, accelerating change.
At the moment, the biggest threats to the delicate balance that makes this planet habitable are human-caused climate change and the destruction of biodiversity. Scientists agree that if individuals, businesses, and governments don't take significant action within the next decade to curb emissions, the damage will be catastrophic. Already, the effects to the natural world are massive and deadly, including infectious disease transmission patterns. But where scientists and popular movements have thus far failed to convince the world to act, it seems that Mother Earth may have succeeded, with the never-before-seen Covid-19 virus.
Right now, we are certainly a threatened species, and the main threat is coming from our own reckless behaviour. Going beyond our compulsive drive for control and domination, we are now acting ever more like a voracious virus, consuming and destroying its own organism. We have become a kind of self-created cancer, with a collective virulence that may already be out of our control.
For Homo Sapiens, this is undoubtedly a Calvary moment. The long history of the universe suggests that indeed there can be an ensuing Resurrection, but never without a big price to pay. Look at the major extinctions that have occurred over the previous several million years, the most recent involving the demise of the dinosaurs, approximately 66 million years ago.
It is widely agreed that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by an asteroid - 10 kilometers across – that struck just off the coast of the Yucatan peninsula. Dense clouds of dust blocked the sun's rays, darkening and chilling the earth to deadly levels for most plants and, in turn, many animals. Then, when the dust finally settled, greenhouse gases created by the impact caused temperatures to skyrocket above pre-impact levels. Such climate extremes led not merely to the extinction of the dinosaurs, but to the demise of 70 percent of all plants and animals living at the time.
I accept that the asteroid was the external mechanism that brought about such destruction, but I am not convinced that it is the complete explanation. In fact, there are several other suggestions, all verging around the notion that the dinosaurs had become a powerful species, trampling over several other life-forms, and within themselves developing bodily features that began to undermine their own health and well-being. Although we cannot at this time muster the objective rigorous data required by science, there are several indications that had the asteroid not hit, the dinosaurs would have become extinct anyhow through a process of self-destruct. Hence, the oft-cited popular statement, “going the way of the dinosaurs.”
Metaphorically, it is no mere wild fantasy to ask: “Did Mother Earth choose to get rid of the dinosaurs, precisely because they had become so overbearing and destructively powerful?” Which brings to mind the sardonic quip from the controversial microbiologist, Lynn Margulis: “Gaia is a tough bitch — a system that has worked for over three billion years without people. This planet's surface and its atmosphere and environment will continue to evolve long after people and prejudice are gone.”
Rising to New Life
When it comes to how we are treating the earth, from which we draw all life and sustenance, we humans face a grim death-infested future. Planet Earth certainly flourishes on extensive heterotrophy. A heterotroph is an organism that cannot produce its own food, instead taking nutrition from other sources of organic carbon, mainly plant or animal matter. In the food chain, heterotrophs are primary, secondary and tertiary consumers, but not producers. In other words, ours is a planet where creatures live off each other, a process that often looks cruel and barbaric to the human eye, oblivious as we are to the fact that we live within a paradoxical creation, of which this is a central feature. Despite its apparent barbarity, heterotrophy operates on a delicate organic balance, a simple example being that of the lion(ess) who kills for need, but not for greed as we humans do. We, humans, are unique in the reckless killing of planetary life that we pursue.
And that is our crucifixion today, whether manifested through the coronavirus, or the other kick-backs from our suffering, tortured earth. If we want to opt for a more wholesome and sustainable future, if we want a share in some kind of “resurrection” hope then the following changes would seem to be non-negotiable.
1. We need to revisit our origins and come to terms with the fact that we are born of the earth – we do not come into the world, we come out of it – and it is our status as Earthlings that define all we are and all we are meant to be.
2. We must learn to treat our earth as an alive organism, and not merely as a material object which we thoughtlessly and ruthlessly use for our benefit and usufruct.
3. We must face our anthropocentric arrogance, and come to realise that we too are just another organic species, unique to be sure, but not superior to any of the other creatures who share the web of life with us.
4. We must come to terms with the fact that our role is to be egalitarian co-operators and not brutal competitors, and our educational systems need to change urgently to make that shift in value-orientation.
5. In so far as we consume from, and of, other organic creatures, we must learn to do so in a much more informed and collaborative way. For instance, do we need to be meat-eaters to flourish and survive as a human species?
6. We need to evolve an economics – and accompanying social and political structures – that treats all earth’s resources as gifts (a gift-economy), to be shared sustainably for the good of all. For instance as we strip thousands of hectares of Amazonian forest to provide more meat, we don’t seem to realize that over 50% of our medicines are gifted to us by the plants and tress of that same source.
7. For those of us following mainline religions, we need to come to terms with the fact that all the major religions carry a dark shadow of imperial power and control, that no longer makes any spiritual sense. An empowering spirituality for the future needs to be much more earth-centred and collaborative.
8. We need to learn and appropriate anew our true human story of seven million years during which time we lived in a much more convivial relationship with the living earth, thus opting to outgrow the petrified, reductionistic anthropology of the past few thousand years.
These are some of the non-negotiable elements we need to wrestle with as a human species, if we stand any hope of living meaningfully as Earthlings from here on. The critical issue now facing us is not the damage we will do to the earth and its resources. It is becoming persuasively clear, despite the fact that few scientists want to look reality in the eye, that we have transgressed our human-earth boundaries, and that the intelligent alive earth is not going to tolerate us beyond a certain point.
Survival or Flourishing?
Our earth will survive – she has done so through several major crises throughout the past 3-4 billion years. Survival on its own is not just what we humans are meant to be about. Flourishing is our default position, but that we cannot do with a flourishing earth as well. It would seem that our current role as Earthlings is to become creation growing into deeper consciousness. We have this unique gift of being self-reflexive beings, creatures who can think about the fact that we can think. Currently, we are using that unique propensity to lord it over everything else in creation, dismissing creation as a mere material object, instead of realising that our capacity for self-reflexivity was actually given to us by the evolving creation of which we are an integral part.
It is that call to Earth/Cosmic integration that now echoes across our world. We must transcend our maverick belligerence, our imperial posturing, our reckless exploitation of natural resources. Creation will have an evolving future, with or without us. Now is the perennial time in which we have to face what is probably the most crucial choice, we humans have ever had to make. Will we make it through? Time alone will tell.
Can St. Corona offers us any help or guidance (if she ever actually lived)? She was probably a utopian legend of her time, enabling people to make some sense of the pain and suffering of persecution, much of which was religious in nature. St. Corona might never have existed, but St. Corona(virus) most certainly does exist, as a signal, or icon, of a different kind of persecution, one which we humans have drawn on ourselves.
This persecution is no longer religious in nature. It is cultural and humanly-induced, and it will take more than a vaccine to remedy the ensuing crisis. The phrase so widely used “it is in our hands” has a great deal more to it than initially meets the eye.