The pandemic and different aspects of the global ecological crisis
This contribution was submitted to the IC by the Ecology Commission.
As the IC report states: "The pandemic exacerbates the multidimensional crisis of the capitalist system and has opened a moment of imbrication of long-term phenomena, which were developing relatively autonomously and which are converging in an explosive way.”
This contribution aims to highlight the link between the pandemic and different aspects of the global ecological crisis.
SARS-Cov2 is a virus that is transmitted from animals to humans and causes a respiratory disease, COVID19 , a zoonosis. These zoonoses have multiplied AIDS, Ebola, Zika, Chikungunya, Nipah and SARS-Cov1 .
If we want to get to the root of the problem, we need to understand why and how these diseases emerge and spread very rapidly throughout the world.
The pandemic highlights the relationship of dependence of humans on the nature of which they are a part and the dangerous alteration of this relationship by capitalism. Health lies within ecosystems, and these ecosystems themselves are subject to rapid change.
The last 50 years have seen a radical transformation and today by far the largest part, by far, of the global biomass of vertebrates is livestock, followed by humans. Wildlife represents only a very small part of this (expressed as a mass of carbon, the biomass of livestock and humans is more than 20 times greater than that of all other mammals). It is in wildlife, where there is the greatest genetic diversity, that the entire gene pool of viruses and pathogens is found. However, the pressure of selection pushes pathogens towards livestock (the largest biomass) and then towards humans.
The demand for animal proteins (meat, eggs and milk) has exploded. There has been a strong incentive for people to change their diets to feed the extra profit from investing in livestock. The industrialisation of livestock production led to the expansion of farms and standardisation. But these farms remain living systems, with pathogens. Raising animals in large numbers and under very crowded conditions changes the conditions under which pathogens operate.
From the point of view of a pathogen, there is a compromise between being virulent and being transmissible. Too virulent, the risk is to kill the host before being transmitted. This is an evolutionary dead end for a virus. This is the case of Ebola. Not virulent enough, the viral load in the host may be insufficient to transmit itself. This compromise is always present for all pathogens that have an evolutionary capacity. Viruses, and in particular RNA viruses, are the most dangerous because they have a great capacity for mutation and therefore adaptation.
In a very intensive factory farming system, with many animals very close together, the virus encounters virtually no obstacles to spread from one animal to another. There is a total evolutionary interest in being very virulent. Increasing density reduces the cost of virulence.
In these farms, everything is standardised, the important genetic similarities between individuals facilitate the evolution towards great virulence because a virus that emerges from an individual will more easily infect its genetically similar neighbours
Batch management -all-in/all-out - where thousands of identical animals are reared and then killed at the same time, before being replaced by the next batch, does not build and transmit resistance. In a system organised differently and with a genetic variety, there is a strong likelihood that some individuals will be resistant to the virus and it is they who will be favoured for reproduction, offering the possibility of transmitting resistance genes locally.
An examination of the conditions that make the multiplication of zoonoses possible and increasingly likely reveals the need to consider human health, animal health and ecosystem health simultaneously.
The trend of increasing zoonoses over the last 30-40 years is due to a cocktail of interrelated causes, all of which have to do with the way capitalism locks humanity into an increasingly predatory relationship with nature.
- The meat industry is at the heart of the emergence process of zoonoses "the use of genetic monocultures of domestic animals removes the immune firewalls available to slow transmission. Larger and denser populations promote higher transmission rates while crowded conditions reduce the immune response. High throughput, inherent in all industrial production, provides a continually replenished supply of susceptible individuals, providing a form of fuel for the evolution of virulence". (Rob Wallace). In addition to industrial livestock production, there is also the trade and trafficking in wild species or their meat, which may have played a determining role in the Covis pandemic19.
- More generally, industrial agriculture imposes forest or agricultural monocultures with chemical inputs that destroy ecosystems. "Capitalist agriculture, by replacing natural ecologies, provides the exact means by which pathogens can develop the most virulent and infectious phenotypes. We could not conceive of a better system for producing deadly diseases". (Rob Wallace)
- Changes in land use and the destruction/penetration of wild environments: deforestation, dried-up wetlands, artificialisation and extractivism are causing the disappearance or fragmentation of natural wildlife habitats, forcing the pathogen's traditional host (e.g. the bat) to move, to come into direct and new contact with human populations and livestock.
- The collapse of biodiversity: the link between biodiversity and disease is complex, partly because of the paradox that most of our diseases also have an origin in biodiversity. But the issue is actually that of the interface and not of direct transmission from a wild carrier to a human population, which is rather reassuring for the coexistence of great biodiversity with humans! On the other hand, the circulation of pathogens can be promoted by the reduction or disappearance of species that regulate these pathogens, but also by altering species richness (10 species instead of 100 in an ecosystem) and equitability (some species become dominant while others are reduced to the margins).
- Climate change. There is no direct evidence that it directly promotes zoonoses, but it could do so, as animals migrate towards the poles and come into contact with others they would not normally encounter. This allows pathogens to find new hosts. In addition, the melting of the permafrost may release unknown pathogens.
Our demands must include:
- A halt to habitat destruction including deforestation, the drying up of wetlands, new drilling/mining activities and the pollution of the oceans.
- An end to industrialised and intensified agriculture and industrial fishing. Sixty per cent of global biodiversity loss is directly due to agribusiness and big fisheries. The cattle sector of Brazilian Amazon agriculture, driven by the international beef and leather trades, has been responsible for about 80% of all deforestation in the region, or roughly 14% of the world’s total annual deforestation.
- An end to ‘wet markets’ trading in wild animals and endangered species.
- Food sovereignty and a big reduction in meat consumption. Today, 70 billion animals are slaughtered every year for human consumption. This is set to double by 2050. The industrial breeding consumes vast quantities of resources (soil, energy, agricultural products) that could otherwise be used (or not), far more effectively, by the human population.
- Population density. The drive towards urbanisation needs to go into reverse and cities need to be redesigned to reduce population density.
- A massive reduction of transportation. The quick spreading of the virus is also due to the unsustainable global mobility system. No return to mass air travel.
- A comprehensive changeover to renewable energy – wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal, with no nuclear component.
All these demands also contribute to the fight against global warming, they must be implemented in full respect of the social and climate justice, taking into account the differentiated responsibilities.
The overarching demand must be a completely new relationship between human beings and nature. This means both major structural changes in the way human society is organised alongside big changes in the way we all live our individual lives and manage our personal impact on the planet.