Amid the flurry of think pieces about the significance of the coronavirus and its implications for the future, it is often forgotten that the virus has no meaning in itself. Its significance lies only in how we react to it; its implications are imputed by us. Sadly, many have drawn highly negative lessons from the crisis, motivated by an anti-modern—and, in some cases, anti-human—environmentalist outlook.
When Inger Andersen, director of the United Nations Environment Programme, says that “nature is sending us a message,” what she really means is that she has a message and wants to use the global outbreak to promote it. Her message, as reported by the Guardian, is that “humanity [is] placing too many pressures on the natural world” and that “both global heating and the destruction of the natural world for farming, mining and housing have to end.” One can only wonder what message nature might have been sending to pre-industrial fourteenth-century civilisation via the Black Death.
Of course, many commentators are inclined to see the virus as adding the weight of inevitability to whatever it was they already thought. Pondering the question of “How COVID-19 is like climate change,” for example, Ben Santer writes in Scientific American that there are four key “lessons” to learn from the crisis, all of which are essentially the same: that Donald Trump is a bad president. One suspects that Santer may have already learned this lesson some time ago.
Yet, while environmentalists are not alone in finding confirmation of their ideas in the current pandemic, they do seem particularly attuned to hearing what the Guardian‘s George Monbiot describes as “nature’s wake-up call to complacent civilisation.” With barely concealed glee, Monbiot notes that the pandemic has punctured our “bubble of false comfort and denial” and dispelled our “illusion of security.” Similarly, radical journalist John Wight detects “a whiff of poetic justice about the way COVID-19 has placed the world on notice,” claiming that “coronavirus reminds us that humanity has been a blight on this planet.”
One French magazine, lundimatin, has published an article in the imagined voice of COVID-19 itself: the virus tells readers that it has “come to shut down the machine whose emergency brake you couldn’t find.” Under the headline “What the Virus Said,” the magazine vents its own disgust with contemporary society—a “vast desert for the monoculture of the Same and the More,” populated by “redundant copies of a single, untenable form of life” who are now “preparing to die like flies abandoned in the water of [their] sugary civilization.”
The message consistently heard by environmentalists is that industrial civilisation is bad and that humanity needs to change its ways. As Andrew Norton, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, puts it, “Acceptance of the need to make sacrifices and accept restraints” in response to coronavirus might carry over to the “huge shifts in regulation and behaviour that are needed to address the climate crisis.” While Norton presents this as good news, its implications are ominous: he envisages an extension of current sacrifices and restraints into the indefinite future.
Others have drawn out the dystopian aspects of such green fantasies more directly. According to the East Midlands branch of Extinction Rebellion (XR), the great benefit of the pandemic is that “Earth is healing. The air and water is clearing. Corona is the cure. Humans are the disease!” Their message has been denounced by many as eco-fascism, and was quickly disowned by XR’s UK organisers, who claimed it was a hoax. Yet the idea is hardly exceptional: Twitter has been peppered with posts enthusing that reduced human activity means cleaner air and water. “This isn’t an apocalypse. It’s an awakening,” says one of the Twitterati; “Coronavirus is Earth’s vaccine. We’re the virus,” adds another.
Many greens have always thought about humanity this way. Popular TV naturalist David Attenborough, for example, said in 2013 that “humans are a plague on the Earth,” and argued that “Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us.” Indeed, ecology’s eminence grise, James Lovelock, writes in his 1991 book Healing Gaia that “Humans on the Earth behave in some ways like a pathogenic organism, or like the cells of a tumour … Gaia is suffering from … a plague of people.” Academic papers have asked whether humanity is “a cancer on the planet,” and have weighed up whether humanity is best described as “cancer or parasite.” Just a few years ago, New Scientist was debating whether a “killer plague” would “save the planet from us.”
Although green-hued misanthropy is nothing new, its current expression highlights an important feature of today’s intellectual landscape: the way that our view of human agency has become degraded and pathologised. This is evident in the pleasure that many commentators seem to take in the thought that the virus has cut humanity down to size. For Monbiot, “this could be the moment when we begin to see ourselves, once more, as governed by biology and physics.” We are ruled by natural forces, in other words, and should not seek to master them. To the lundimatin ventriloquists, it seems that the virus is telling them that “One doesn’t need to be a subject … One doesn’t have to be a sovereign to decide. Bacteria and viruses can also call the shots.” Similarly, Wight sees in the current pandemic “a timely reminder that humanity has not been divinely chosen to own this planet or control it.” If the virus “teaches us anything,” he claims, “it’s that for all our conceited belief to the contrary, we are masters of nothing.”
This is a damaging, dispiriting outlook, inviting us to glory in victimhood and vulnerability; to see human ambition to control the natural world as dangerous and deluded. But the green doom-mongers are hearing voices in their own heads. To most of us, thankfully, the response to the pandemic looks different. From the selfless efforts of health workers, through the previously unappreciated labour of new key workers like supermarket staff and delivery drivers, to the spontaneous self-organisation of volunteer community support groups, what is gloriously on display is a human spirit of defiance, strength and solidarity.