|"The Triumph of Death" - Pieter Bruegel the Elder|
Let’s begin this story some 2 million years ago when Homo Habilis began roaming the Earth, followed by Homo Erectus around 1/2 million years later.
Our direct ancestors (Homo Sapiens) appeared around 200,000 years ago.
For most of that 2 million year history we lived in cooperation with nature. We were nomadic or semi-nomadic, living as part of nature – not separate from nature.
Then, around 10,000 years ago we began domesticating plants and animals. This led to settlements, rising population, inter-tribal rivalry, and, most significantly, the beginnings of our (western) disconnect from nature.
As time went on that disconnect widened and the rift between us, as humans, and nature was made deeper with the scientific and industrial revolutions, both of which shifted our understanding of the Earth to one of linear, mechanistic causality.
We can see the result of this disconnect all over the earth: deforestation, soil loss, habitat loss, species extinction, water pollution.
Mother Earth Warns Us
Since we began that disconnect Mother Earth has been warning us that our path was in error.
We have seen the effects of our disconnect from nature in the way we treat each other - wars, racism, sexism, colonialism, violence.
We have seen the effects in our own lives – anxiety, depression, addictions, suicide, consumerism.
The warning shots have been there from soon after we began our disconnect 10,000 years ago.
Evidence from Sweden suggests an early plague was responsible for a decline in Neolithic populations in western Eurasia.1
The first recorded instance of a pandemic was during the Peloponnesian Wars in the 5th century BC. Thought to have been typhoid fever, the virus passed over the Athenian Wall whilst Spartans lay siege and ended up killing 2/3rds of the Athenian population.
Since then there have been the Antonine Plague, the Cyprian Plague, and the Justinian Plague in the first millenium of the Current Era.
We listened to none of these. Instead, we continued to build more and more, and attempted to “rule the world” through various empires.
Black Death (a bubonic plague) in 1350 killed approximately 1/3rd of Europe’s population. We know too of pandemics such as Smallpox, the Great Plague of London, Cholera, the Russian, Spanish, and Asian Flus.
Did we listen to any of these? No, we went blithely ahead with the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and other disconnecting ventures.
More recently we have witnessed HIV/AIDS, H1N1, and Ebola.
Still no heed did we pay. We continued along a path that was now highly fixated upon technology. If there was a problem (such as a pandemic) then our techno-fix abilities would solve it. And in the solving of perceived problems, all we did was create more (and often bigger) problems.
All of these, apart from Ebola, are thought to have started in Eurasia – the crucible of western civilisation and the place where we began our disconnect from nature.
Is Gaia sending us warnings? Yes, she is, and she has been for thousands of years.
There is mounting evidence to show that environmental degradation (deforestation, wetland loss, biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse …)and exploitation are major contributing factors in the outbreak of these pandemics.2, 3
Perhaps COVID-19 is the latest warning shot across our human bows.
Will we listen and take heed this time?
Notes:1. Rascovan et al, Emergence and Spread of Basal Lineages of Yersinia pestis during the Neolithic Decline, in Cell, December, 2018.
2. World Health Organisation, https://www.who.int/globalchange/environment/en/ accessed 17 March 2020
3. Nava et al. The Impact of Global Environmental Changes on Infectious Disease Emergence with a Focus on Risks for Brazil, ILAR Journal, Vol 58 Issue 3, 2017.