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The COVID-19 pandemic has seemingly brought the world to a standstill. Amidst the shutdown, pain from the growing loss of life and livelihoods has brought with it anticipatory grief — not only for what is happening, but for what may still come. In the immediate, supporting frontline workers is of utmost priority, while quarantines and social distancing have become our new norm.
As we face this crisis, there are important lessons we can learn to build the future we want to see as we recover. One of those lessons should be that transforming our relationship with the natural world may be our best bet for safeguarding our future.
Last week we published a piece examining the link between the emergence of zoonotic viruses like Lyme disease, Ebola, Zika, and now COVID-19, and the increase of human-wildlife interaction due to forest and biodiversity destruction. With one million species currently at risk of extinction, alarming rates of deforestation, and the on-going climate crisis, scientists warn that this may not be the last pandemic to emerge from ecological neglect.
Deforestation, largely driven by the production of industrial agricultural commodities, is the second- largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions. To operate expansive monoculture plantations, forests are felled, peatlands drained, and roads built to facilitate extraction. Now we are learning of yet another consequence of deforestation: diseases — along with greenhouse gas emissions — are being released from this devastation.
But forests and our relationship with them shouldn’t be examined solely as a root cause of these crises. Transforming our relationships with the natural world can lead to more fulfilling lives and healthier societies.
Dr. Neera Singh, professor of geography at the University of Toronto, writes about “affective ecologies” — or how as humans we can begin to care for forests and non-human nature in the same ways one might care for their children or friends.
“We live in such a monochromatic world, where our connection with nature has been lost,” says Dr. Singh. “We try and fill that void with consumption. We consume more because we are trying to substitute the pleasure that comes from connecting with and caring for the farm or forest, with short-lived spikes in dopamine through material consumption. Our consumption is pathological, because we have lost those connections that would otherwise provide meaning and wonder in our lives.”
Dr. Singh’s message may sound indiscreet, but if dominant models of production and consumption are driving unprecedented crises, then transforming them so they are not based on extraction, but instead on regeneration, becomes necessary. It also means reimagining our place in the world with the understanding that as humans we are not in some way detached from the greater web of life. Rather, we rely on a deep interdependence with the larger world, which we are seeing today and will undoubtedly see more tomorrow.
“The idea of affective ecologies is trying get past the idea that nature is somehow separate from humans,” Dr. Singh explains. “We always talk about these things as something external. Words like ‘nature’ and ‘the environment’ don’t recognize the inherent interconnectedness humans have with the non-human world. If there are lessons to be learnt from the current crisis, these relate to how human health is deeply connected to the health of the natural environment.”
If we understand Dr. Singh’s message that the natural world — forests, wildlife, and biodiversity — is not somehow separate from us as humans, but integral to our own survival, then the role the natural world can play in addressing crises becomes a bit clearer.
Forests serve as massive carbon sinks, sequestering CO2 from being released into the atmosphere and heating our planet, thus mitigating the impacts of even greater disasters from wildfires to hurricanes to droughts. It is estimated that around a quarter of all medicines come from forests. Learning from these deep reservoirs of biodiversity and ecological wisdom can allow us to come up with cures to various diseases and ailments.
Dr. Singh’s research is based on her work in the eastern India state of Odisha, where local, often Indigenous, communities have nurtured degraded forests back to health through caring labor. These forests provide sustenance, are the basis for livelihoods, and a source of culture and spirituality. Not only do they provide immediate economic and social benefits, they also form the basis for an ecologically sensitive worldview.
Notably, in territories where Indigenous Peoples and local communities have secure rights to their land and natural resources, forests are protected at considerably higher rates compared to forests in the hands of governments or private entities. A recent report stated that “Indigenous lands experience a rate of tree cover loss less than half of what other lands experience.”
As Naomi Klein aptly points out, great societal shocks allow for choices to be made that can overhaul our current systems of extraction and exploitation. In our current moment of crisis, learning from “ecologies of care” can inform these decisions. Afterall, let’s not forget that the word ‘ecology’ comes from the Greek for ‘knowing our home,’ and the related ‘economy’ means ‘managing our home.’
Instead of continuing further destruction of our home through unfettered extraction and unscrupulous bailouts for polluting industries, lets remember that our individual fates are profoundly intertwined with the greater world we inhabit.