Can We Stop Acting Like Frogs?

The origins of viruses, like life itself, is still a mystery. There are a lot of ideas about how viruses evolved but what is not a mystery is how viruses are impacting humanity, how humanity is threatening the biosphere, and what we should be doing during and after this COVID-19 pandemic.

The entire planet has been affected by a viral disease that is easily transmitted from person to person with a death rate severe enough to threaten hundreds of millions of people. From Wall Street to Market Street, the financial impact has been catastrophic, and real human lives and families are being altered, torn apart or destroyed in many cases. Countries are struggling to contain the spread of the contagion, some doing a more effective job than others. Resources for medical personnel are rarely stockpiled to prepare for such catastrophes although international and national epidemiologists and planners have warned about such an eventuality for years.

Viruses that have existed in a tenuous symbiosis with life for billions of years are becoming an increasing threat to humankind, more than just an "inconvenient truth". Viruses have done their cell-hijacking since the first time they successfully replicated themselves in a bacterial host countless eons ago. They spread to multi-cellular animals and plants which in addition to using the cell's replication machinery to their reproductive advantage, injected new genetic material into the organism's genome providing additional variation for natural selection to work upon. We, humans, are, in part, the product of genes (~8%) naturally inserted into our DNA by viruses over millions of years. 

But humans can be seen as the agent unleashing the latest spate of epidemics, not the viruses themselves. For the viruses, this is not personal. They are just doing what viruses do. We humans, on the other hand, understand how our actions are tipping the ecological scales in a way that can lead to our own demise. With global climate change as the ecological tapestry backdrop, we already have known our increasing population, unbridled free-market economy, rapid global travel, and the types of lifestyles we exalt and amplify through our all-connected media and data streams are collectively becoming an existential threat. Planetary boundaries are being strained and challenged as never before- fisheries are being depleted, ice caps are melting, forests are being razed, and the list goes on. Dire warnings from scientific studies, international conferences, and the global youth have failed to move national leaders to take appropriate action.  It has taken an unseen enemy: a 200-nanometer spiked, lipid sphere filled with RNA, to galvanize the world to fight for their immediate survival as millions of our own species could perish before the end of this year. Slowly warming waters will not get the frogs to jump out of the pot, even when they know it will come to a boil someday. But a descending bunch of forks stabbing at their comrades will. Immediacy trumps eventuality. 

If we recognize that our burgeoning population nearing 8 billion does pose an ecological threat to a stable but dynamic ecosphere, wouldn't we want to mitigate the next set of catastrophes that will descend upon us, like the forks with the frogs? Shouldn't we take swift and measured responses to ensure we can live more harmoniously within the ecological limits of the only planet we know can support us? We already cerebrally understand what we should be doing, starting with avoiding behaviors that increase the probability that natural viral hosts emerge from their natural ecosystems and unleash the next zoonotic pandemic. Bats, pangolins, snakes, rodents, and birds, are all well-known reservoirs of viruses and other pathogenic microbes. Opening up and fragmenting rainforests, increasing human populations at the perimeter, capturing and eating bushmeat and wildlife, all bring viruses and humans in close proximity of each other. We also know that the guts of domestic livestock can become the laboratory of viral evolution where birds and pigs serve as intermediate hosts to gene-shifting, ever-evolving viruses. Inevitably, human beings playing the game of viral roulette will suffer another pandemic from the next virulent and lethal strains that will escape from a wet market, a pig farm, or an unsuspecting traveler carrying the virus undetected.

What other ecological lessons can we learn from this pandemic that might apply to the larger existential threat we both create and face?

Several come to mind: Protecting and expanding biodiversity-rich ecosystems like rainforests and coral reefs, living more simply using less energy and material, reducing our carbon and waste footprint, purchasing conflict-free commodities, eating closer to the ground on existing farmland (i.e., a more vegetarian diet)  are just some lifestyle changes that would allow the current population to move towards our sustainability goals. Caring about others, including marginalized humans and animals, would also help create a more just world. 

A recent article in Politico was written about how this pandemic will change the world permanently.  Among the many suggestions from dozens of experts, included our new appreciation for personal distances and hygiene, an expansion of examples of patriotism to include service providers as much as firefighters, an evolution of new reforms in healthcare, and the emergence of healthier digital lifestyles. What I found most relevant to my argument is the suggestion that there will be more restraints of global consumption. This was suggested by Sonia Shah, author of “Pandemic: Tracking Contagions From Cholera to Ebola and Beyond” In the article she says, “For decades, we’ve sated our outsized appetites by encroaching on an ever-expanding swath of the planet with our industrial activities, forcing wild species to cram into remaining fragments of habitat in closer proximity to ours. That’s what has allowed animal microbes such as SARS-COV2—not to mention hundreds of others from Ebola to Zika—to cross over into human bodies, causing epidemics. In theory, we could decide to shrink our industrial footprint and conserve wildlife habitat, so that animal microbes stay in animals’ bodies, instead.”  I bolded the important suggestion. But she further predicts that humanity likely makes less directly relevant transformations by adopting societal support measures such as adopting universal basic income and online education. 

Once the industrialized nations crank up the engines of free-market enterprise again, there will be less attention to the wild places and their important role for our physical and mental well-being.  So enjoy the clean air, the time to reflect, and the acts of kindness being shown while we still can because I am afraid that not long after the end of this pandemic humanity will return to its selfish and greedy nature. There is a good likelihood that the lessons learned will be shortlived. I hope I am wrong, but we will probably go back to ignoring what we know we should do to avoid the boiling water. We still act like entitled frogs.

-submitted by Dr. Gary Shapiro

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