Thinking like a human

COVID-19 and Conservation

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These are strange, scary and fascinating times. Watching the COVID-19 pandemic grow throws us into the fantastical world of films or games. It brings disaster close to home, and to the people we know and love. Courage, altruism, ignorance and fear are all on show on our screens and in our hearts.

COVID-19 has temporarily come to dominate many other concerns, especially for those (like me) who were previously largely insulated from the life-threatening challenges of war, hunger, poverty and disease.  Reflecting on the evolving crisis, I find myself wondering whether it might change our thinking about the things we were worrying about before it hit, and if so how? When we get back to them, will we see them differently? What, for example, might the crisis have to say about conservation?   Here are some first thoughts.

First, COVID-19 shows us the importance of the microbiome as an element of biodiversity. It is a virus, a microbe, a tangle of DNA and RNA in a protective protein coat. It is alive, although only able to multiply inside the cells of their host. Viruses are fully part of the variety of life on Earth, which governments that have signed the Convention on Biological Diversity commit themselves to protect. Like it or not, COVID-19 is an element of biodiversity. It is, in fact, a form of wild life, if not the kind of “wildlife” we are used to thinking about. Conservation is best at thinking about the big species that are easily counted and seen – especially the charismatic species like mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and the larger insects, all of which can easily be identified, photographed and presented to the general public. The microbiome – in terrestrial ecosystems, the oceans, atmosphere, and inside other species, is known to be important but not high on anyone’s agenda. COVID-19 reminds us how much microbial diversity should matter to us,

Second, COVID-19 reminds us that nature is not caring or kind, and that under the right (or wrong) circumstances people may well not feel a ‘natural’ love for non-human life. COVID-19 is effectively an invasive species that is bringing great harm to human society. It evolved in the socio-ecological system of a market in China, a co-production of nature’s relentless capacity to innovate, and human ingenuity and choices in the form of consumption and trade. Some conservation organizations have been quick to make the link between COVID-19’s emergence and international wildlife trade. But the implication of the COVID-19 virus as wild life goes beyond this. Many are happy to make claims for biodiversity when it seems to support human welfare, or provide useful ‘ecosystem services’. COVID-19 is a reminder that in its diversity, nature knows no friends. It does not acknowledge our comfortable stories about its benign support for human aspirations. Nature does not care. Moreover, we need to recognize that when human welfare and interests are threatened, another and darker framing of non-human life is just waiting to be deployed. The language of disease and pests awakens quickly, and sweeps away all those conservation tales of how lovely nature is. We saw this in the avian flu H5N1 outbreak, with migratory birds suddenly seen as a threat to human health and not an ecosystem service as a source of pleasure. Pathogenic viruses are part of nature’s dark side. Disease changes all bets on how much space people will give non-human nature in their lives. Conservationists need to be realistic about humanity’s true thoughts about other species.

Third, the COVID-19 outbreak shows us that science matters. It is to scientists that we look for information on the genome of COVID-19, for the development of vaccines and anti-viral drugs, and for advice on how to respond to the virus. In the UK at least, the public appears to trust scientists much more than the politicians they advise. This should please conservation scientists who have argued so passionately that conservation should be based on scientific evidence. Yet while science (both natural and economic) can tell us what COVID-19 is likely to do, who is most likely to die, the cost of saving lives, or the costs and benefits of different kinds of action (or inaction), it cannot tell us everything we need to know. It cannot not tell us what kind of people we would like to be (on a continuum between ruthlessness and caring for example), nor what kind of country we want to live in. It therefore cannot tell us how to behave. For these insights, we have to look beyond science and economics. The same is true of conservation. We need science for the information it provides. But moral conviction is needed if we are to be willing to curb our consumption and to reshape the economic systems in which we are enmeshed. Conservation action reflects the people we wish to be, and the world we wish to create. Science simply tells us the choices we face.

Fourth, COVID-19 shows us that the state matters. It is still governments that set the rules about how we should live, how business may operate. They tell us how to interact, when to self-isolate, when not to travel. They issue directives that will make and break businesses (perhaps actually helping private medicine and pharmaceuticals, but hurting small enterprises dependent on passing trade, and any transport business). Government decisions may not always be clever, or timely, but they are powerful. Moreover in a time of crisis, it is to the state we look to work for the common good. This has long been true of conservation. I have been re-reading my colleague Fiona Reynolds’s book on the history of countryside conservation in Britain, The Fight for Beauty. It was the government that finally stopped urban sprawl after the Second World War, by giving local authorities the power to control urban development, and it was the government that created national parks, National Nature Reserves, and the array of other conservation measures that followed them over the years. For all the promise of private sector and market-based initiatives today, conservationists need to remember the power and vision of governments. It is through elected governments that we come together to control our worst instincts and support our best.

Fifth, COVID-19 reveals that the global economic system is not immutable. In our neoliberal era, capitalism seems to throw a shroud of inevitability over human futures. Awkward visionaries like Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion (and countless other environmentalists and organizations) argue that alternatives are necessary and possible. The idea of ‘degrowth’ is widely discussed. Yet the routes from ‘here’ (globalized production and consumption, faceless corporations and incurious investors) to ‘there’ (localized production and consumption, face-to face commerce and full social responsibility) are uncharted and to politicians they look beset with hazards. COVID-19 has done what governments and international organisations think impossible. Air pollution in China has been drastically reduced, the financial bottom has fallen out of the oil industry, the brittleness of extended ‘just in time’ delivery chains has been cruelly revealed. The thought that keeps surfacing for me is ‘how far does degrowth look like the aftermath of COVID-19?’ Conservationists recognize that to stop biodiversity loss, the metabolism of the world economy needs to change. Has this crisis brought about, in tragic circumstances, some of the changes needed, and if so, how do we respond? Will we speak for alternatives, an economy of care, the reclaiming of commons, and new ways to live and work (for example cooperatives, basic minimum income or work-sharing)? After the 2008 economic crash (which also flattened the growth curve of global carbon consumption), governments could only think about restarting the economic growth that had momentarily faltered, in all the exactly same destructive forms. Will we allow the same to happen again, or join a search for something different?

Sixth, COVID-19 reveals starkly that a conservation model based on global travel is not sustainable. One immediate thought is that it is likely to derail 2020 as a ‘super year for biodiversity’. With global travel widely on hold and major events being canceled, there may be no World Conservation Congress in France in June, perhaps no meeting of the parties to the Conventional on Biological Diversity in China in October, or United Nations Climate Change Conference in Scotland in November. Even if these events run, all the negotiations and pre-meetings will be disrupted, hitting hopes for an ambitious ‘post 2020 agreement’. COVID-19 reveals conservation’s perverse dependence on global mass diplomacy as a way of making ‘progress’. But that is not the only weakness revealed by COVID-19. It also shows up the tension between an environmental movement committed to a shift away from fossil fuels, and a model of conservation (especially in the developing world) that is built around global tourist industry.   As planes are grounded and cruise ships hang offshore seeking permission to land, and as the ageing baby-boom generation self-isolates and cancels holidays, the balloon of conservation tourism must inevitably deflate. Wildlife tourism businesses will surely be among those damaged and destroyed by COVID-19. How will conservation respond in the aftermath? Build it all back up again, bigger and better than ever? Or start to imagine a new financial model for conservation in a post-carbon world?

COVID-19 is a wake-up call. Certainly it is making me reconsider many things, and entertain many uncomfortable and troubling thoughts. But there is a value in being forced to think, and even in having the time to do so. Someone reminded me last week the old business-school adage ‘never waste a good crisis’. So today I am thinking this: how should conservation use the growing crisis that is COVID-19?

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