by William E. Rees (retired UBC professor)
As the pandemic builds, most people, led by government officials and policy wonks, perceive the threat solely in terms of human health and its impact on the national economy. Consistent with the prevailing vision, mainstream media call almost exclusively on physicians and epidemiologists, financiers and economists to assess the consequences of the viral outbreak.
Fair enough — rampant disease and looming recession are genuine immediate concerns; society has to cope with them.
That said, we must see and respond to the more important reality.
However horrific the COVID-19 pandemic may seem, it is merely one symptom of gross human ecological dysfunction. The prospect of economic implosion is directly connected. The overarching reality is that the human enterprise is in a state of overshoot.
We are using nature’s goods and life-support services faster than ecosystems can regenerate. There are simply too many people consuming too much stuff. Even at current global average levels of consumption (about a third of the Canadian average) the human population far exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of Earth. We’d need almost five Earth-like planets to support just the present world population indefinitely at Canadian average material standards. Gaian theory tells us that life continuously creates the conditions necessary for life. Yet humanity has gone rogue, rapidly destroying those conditions.
When will the media call on systems ecologists to explain what’s really going on? If they did, we might learn the following:
That the current pandemic is an inevitable consequence of human populations everywhere expanding into the habitats of other species with which we have had little previous contact (Homosapiens is the most invasive of “invasive species.”)
That the pandemic results from sometimes desperately impoverished people eating bushmeat, the flesh of wild species carrying potentially dangerous pathogens.
That contagious disease is readily propagated because of densification and urbanization — think Wuhan or New York — but particularly (as we may soon see) because of the severe overcrowding of vulnerable people in the burgeoning slums and barrios of the developing world.
That the coronavirus thrives because three billion people still lack basic hand-washing facilities and more than four billion lack adequate sanitation services.
A population ecologist might even dare explain that, even when it comes to human numbers, whatever goes up must come down.
None of this is visible through our current economic lens that assumes a perpetually growing, globalized market economy.
Prevailing myth notwithstanding, nothing in nature can grow forever.
When, under especially favourable conditions any species’ population balloons, it is always deflated by one or several forms of negative feedback — disease, inadequate habitat, self-pollution, food shortages, resource scarcity, conflict over what’s left (war), etc. All of these various countervailing forces are triggered by excess population itself.