Do yourself a favor and read this stunning article by Kay Sather. There is more life-changing wisdom packed into these paragraphs than you’ll find almost anywhere else. And please share it.
Now Nature is Really Pissed
by Kay Sather
What if Covid-19 were to die out, just to be closely followed by another globally contagious virus—or resistant bacterial infection—and then another, and another, until social distancing and lockdowns became the new normal for our species? Could this happen? Is there a way to insure it doesn’t?
About twenty years ago at an anarchist book fair I bought a bumper sticker that read, “Nature is Pissed.” I actually had a use for bumper stickers back then, when I still had a car, and I thought it was funny, besides being true—though we hadn’t seen anywhere near as many clear examples of Nature’s anger as we have since. I remember watching a PBS documentary about what could happen if New Orleans got hit by a category five hurricane. A whole U.S. city under water! Now, that would be an end-of-the-world sort of event, I thought. People would have to pay attention. Change some habits. Notice the frightening breakdown of the natural world.
Turns out if the disaster is local, and you don’t happen to live there, It’s no big deal.
Our Covid virus crisis, however, is global. People around the world have been touched by it in personal ways, if not painfully or fatally, at least in the sense that their lives have changed. Have been forced to change. This lethal virus has our attention. And if we are paying attention, we’re feeling the big ship of humanity take a sharp turn. We can dream of going back to “normal.” But our next normal will be a new one, and we don’t know yet what it will look like.
Today it still looks like it will be something very different from honoring Nature. It seems climate change has been almost forgotten. What we’re focused on now is our screens and the faces they bear, the beloved faces we can’t see in person. Or our cars, the safe bubbles that take us away from the cabin fever. Or the streamed distractions—movies, music, podcasts—we can tune into like we used to, in the old normal. I’m grateful for these things, too. And that we still have electricity, water on tap, and a relatively safe context (at least where I live) for walking and biking through the neighborhood. Also that my garden is producing and I know what’s edible in the landscape.
I’ve heard that people with yards, or who live near parks or wild (wild-ish) places are getting into Nature now, more than they used to. Here, we’ve had some mourning doves who built a nest insanely close to our front door and barely six feet off the ground. The nest was a surprisingly small, haphazardly built little thing—you could see through it like lace. We couldn’t help but observe the quiet process that unfolded there. One of the birds was always sitting on the nest. Supposedly the male and female birds switch off sitting on the eggs, but we never saw the changing of the guard, and couldn’t tell the parents apart. One or the other was always there, sitting in perfect silence for what seemed a very boring eternity. According to someone’s backyard video, we wouldn’t hear the young when they hatched; these dove babies don’t open their mouths and peep for food like most birds. Instead, their parents keep half-digested seeds in their mouths and the little ones pound their beaks into the parental throat, almost violently, to tap into their “baby food.” So we didn’t know the eggs had hatched until we saw the two fluffball heads, on very wobbly necks, emerge above the nest. For the next week they grew (like a virus!) exponentially. After just a handful of days I started to mistake them for their full-grown parents. Only their short baby tails gave them away. They began to explore the nest-branch by foot, then flap their dinosaur wing feathers, and finally take to the air for the smallest of trips, not more than a few feet. Oh, I thought, they’ve fledged!—believing that when you left the nest you said goodbye to it forever. But no. The two siblings continued to meet back at the nest daily, to hang out together, even—we witnessed this—to meet their mom (or dad?) there at home and snuggle with her, both babies leaning into her, like kids listening to a bedtime story.
Nature scrambles my assumptions regularly.
Is this the kind of natural-world encounter that some quarantined humans are said to be experiencing more often these days, as they spend more time at home, outside? I hope so. It’s a life-and-death matter.
Of course, birdwatching and other interactions aren’t enough. The intimate experience has to lead to a shift, a new awareness of the nest’s planetary context. Because humans—as animals—share that context. We build human nests with walls that make us feel separate from what we call “the environment,” but this is a delusion.
By now most people understand the principle behind social distancing: Viruses can’t jump the physical gap between the infected and potential victims. But at the other end of this principle is the opposite situation–cramming, crowding, and concentrating. Infectious diseases love a dense, cheek-by-jowl crowd, whether of humans, wild animals, or domesticated stock. They adore feedlots where cattle are forced to live on top of each other, making a big stink and producing unmanageable volumes of shit rife with E. coli. (Unmanageable meaning the piles of extra feces get dumped “wherever,” and often leak.) Bird flu, of course, loves the cramped industrial aggregations of chickens where it can hop from one bird to another, easy. And when pigs dosed with antibiotics are penned up, pork shoulder-to-pork shoulder, resistant strains of bacteria can emerge and spread.
These diseases also love it when natural habitat is destroyed, forcing the former inhabitants to concentrate in new places, often where humans are established. Have refugee bats recently invaded your orchard, licking and drooling on the fruit? If you then eat one of those fruits, and become ground zero in an epidemic, it’s not the fault of the displaced bats. Habitat loss forces people and wild species—perhaps including an animal with a virus ready to jump ship and turn virulent—to become freshly intimate. And when various species of live “meat” from diverse environments are caught, caged, and concentrated in a marketplace, they’re brought into contact with other wild species and with humans. When viruses land in these situations, where they can easily mutate and cross over to us, they just can’t believe their luck.
Some people believe the Covid-19 virus was manmade. By this they mean it was created in a lab and intentionally released.
I also believe it was manmade, but not in a lab. It arose from these human-caused conditions—the industrial practices and environment takeovers that cause displacement and the hyper-concentration of life. Nature is pissed, all right. But we could see the Covid virus as a warning. For sure it has brought pain, fatalities, and economic carnage, yet it could be worse. We at least have weapons: social distancing, antibodies, medical care, probable vaccines, and ultimately, herd immunity. Most of our modern world is still intact. Our utility grids still function—water, electricity, garbage pickup, Internet.
And it’s actually not a new message. We already get it that mining, polluting, deforestation, agribusiness, fossil fuel burning, factory farming, hazardous waste, and the thinning of biodiversity all have natural consequences for people.
But this time Nature’s communiqué is going out to all seven-plus billion of us on the planet, and it’s personal. Covid-19’s power to kill has changed some lives forever. Collapsing jobs leave breadwinners in a profound state of uncertainty and panic. Social distancing nibbles at the heart of what it means to be human. Our social urges are so strong that some people have to deny the virus’s existence, or contagiousness, by countering it with close-quartered celebrations and protests—desperate rallies challenging death, it seems to me.
But remarkably, this more aggressive and universal version of Nature’s message is having some real, positive effects. Most importantly, consumer spending is down. This is great news, because every dollar spent on stuff (unless it’s second-hand) takes a bite out of the natural world—and bites us back, of course. I understand the shopping drop, as my own closet suddenly seems packed with clothes I’ll never wear, and also, well into the lockdown I became aware that I hadn’t worn earrings in weeks. Outside, I notice more people walking and biking; supposedly, air quality has improved. And everyone’s seen pictures of the crystal-clear canals in Venice. China has banned the eating of wildlife having ecological and social value. Our carbon-intensive travel has been clipped—a real blow to many people, but not me: Three years ago, on a weekend trip with a ten-hour airport wait both coming and going, I declared air travel not viable, and haven’t set foot on a plane since. Some of us are getting more of our social needs met by neighbors—famously singing, playing live music, and distantly dancing with them, instead of driving places. More people are reading, especially the classics (easy to borrow or find on your own bookshelf, without shopping) instead of choosing high-energy entertainment. And yes, many of us are spending more time observing the nature we have access to, on balconies, in back yards, in open parks, and on hiking trails. It’s difficult, I think, to appreciate nearby nature without learning to advocate for the environment worldwide.
In general, the frantic running-around that’s usually associated with civilization has slowed down, and we’ve been discovering the benefits of the new pace of life.
The question being asked is, will these trends become permanent, once the virus is defeated?
We don’t know the answer yet. Probably some will and some won’t. I’m writing this to cast my vote for a yes. I’m hoping most people would prefer to do what it takes to keep another virus, or resistant bacterial disease, as far in the future as possible.