When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail – including people’s heads, apparently.
An argument, refuted two centuries ago, is resurrecting in a surprisingly bizarre way, in a context that systematically disproves it. Well, I call it an argument but perhaps it’s rather a wish as it is mainly supported by a “common sense” incompatible with logic and facts alike.
As you may have guessed, I am talking about the cocktail of discourses that ping pong between “overpopulation”, “humans are the virus” and “the planet is healing”. This misanthropic cynical propaganda is circulating not only in social networks but also in mainstream media, nowadays.
Proving an argument in various ways is part of mathematical aesthetics, so I couldn’t resist the temptation. The above-mentioned “argument” was a zombie already, but today there is a novelty into it: the new coronavirus provides us with completely fresh ways to disprove it, which, strangely, are referred to as proofs of it.
First of all, I don’t know if you noticed but all the impacts of the pandemic and the public health crisis we have experienced so far happened in a period of few months. That means, the human beings remain the same species throughout the crisis. If the human impact on the environment changed, that cannot possibly be due to biological reasons as human biology remained the same in the meanwhile. In fact, if anything changed, that’s exactly because of social and economic reasons.
Secondly, the end result of the new coronavirus is not less humans on earth. As a matter of fact, the pandemic killed around 30 thousand people but the reduction in air pollution in China for two weeks already saved around 50 thousand lives. If the environmental impact of the human society has anything to do with the number of human beings, then the overpopulation advocate would expect more pollution now, not less.
Thirdly – and this is a lot of fun because I feel like Captain Obvious – , if you think CO2 emissions in China decreased (temporarily) by 25% due a demographic reduction of 3 thousand people (0.0002% of the population), human beings being a virus for the sake of argument, the error is of a factor of 10 thousand. Just to put this in perspective: this error is equivalent to me going to the kitchen now and expecting to see Guernica of Pablo Picasso on the wall (which is in fact in Madrid). If you are comforable with this size of errors, your life can get quite complicated – namely, if you go out for shopping in the supermarket but end up in Libya instead.
The idea that the problem is anthropological and that it has to do with human nature begs the question of why all other – many times curable – diseases that kill thousands of people in the Global South haven’t been reducing the emissions in those places. To be clear, the chronic poverty imposed on the Global South is directly connected to extractivist activities by the multinationals (and before that, to European colonialism). That is: when indigenous peoples were slaughtered, the colonially medical cure of killing human beings increased (and guaranteed) ecological destruction in the Global South. But if humans are the virus, “eliminating” these people would improve the environmental conditions, right?
One layer below all this confusion lies the belief that social questions can be explained biologically – a simplified version of positivism.
This is very convenient, because it hides the real virus: capitalism, the parasite sucking the planet and the societies at the same time.
The way in which we will respond to the public health crisis will determine the future of the planet. Injecting money into “the markets” and bailing out multinational corporations (starting with the aviation and oil industries) would feed the capitalist parasite that is pushing us off the cliff into climate chaos. Instead, we need to organize the societies in a radically different way. We need to invest in public services and commons, we need to take care of each other and the planet. As a matter of fact, this will imply more human activities, not less: we will need to repair natural and social cycles broken by capitalism. Besides stopping destruction, we will have to create new cycle which will also require repairing social relations, substituting relations based on domination with relations anchored to solidarity and cooperation.
This is a social question.
Treating it as a technical, biological, anthropological question is to feed the monster of neo-liberal ethics. It not only justifies the status quo but also permits inaction by the people in the face of the climate and social crises.
The new coronavirus pandemic points toward the opposite direction: it liberates imagination and shows the possibilities in the political and economic spheres, at the national and international levels, available at the hands of the governments. The choice is social and political. No virus will save the climate, no virus will take of the most vulnerable in our societies, no virus will recover the ecosystems. All these are our choices to win through political and social struggle. We are the ones we have been waiting for.