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  • Sofia Pineda Ochoa, MD

From extinctions to pandemics: how humanity's land-grab is coming back to bite us

In 2019, a virus jumped from animals to humans. The disease it causes was coined “COVID-19” because, while not new to wild animals, there were no documented cases in humans until the year 2019. It’s not the first time a virus jumped from animals to humans, and it will almost certainly not be the last.

HIV also jumped from wild animals to humans some decades ago. Our interactions with primates (by hunting them, eating them, or simply intruding into their habitats) somehow led to that virus jumping over to humans. And, of course, HIV causes a devastating disease that attacks our immune system. But, unlike COVID19, its transmission routes (unprotected sexual intercourse, blood transfusions, sharing needles, etc.) are relatively easy to avoid. In other words, you don’t get HIV from going to the grocery store or a dinner party.

But that’s exactly how easily COVID-19 is transmitted. You can get it simply from doing your groceries, going out to dinner, hugging a friend, sitting on bus or a plane, going to a yoga class, or sharing an elevator. This is why it has fundamentally transformed (at least for now) how we humans interact with each other. I say “at least for now” with hope that this situation will pass relatively soon, but there are no guarantees the pandemic will resolve itself completely - or that everything will go back to normal 100% as it was before.

For one thing, some studies have indicated that people who had the disease may lose their immunity after a number of months, which would not bode well for a vaccine to produce unequivocal and unwavering immunity (given that vaccines usually elicit a weaker immune response than the infection itself). Also, the way in which viruses sometimes mutate can complicate achieving widespread immunity. And while I have my fingers crossed in hopes of an effective vaccine that will make COVID-19 go away, I acknowledge that may or may not ultimately be the case. Certainly, there are other viruses that have been with us for decades and for which we have still not developed an effective vaccine.

So while hoping for the best, I fear that humanity could be facing a new unpleasant reality that COVID-19 might be here to stay. Of course, with or without an effective vaccine, advances in testing and treatment will hopefully reduce the toll wrought by this disease. But, regardless, it is a new reality in which we find ourselves – and potentially for the long-haul.

But is any of this a surprise, humans?

With the current pandemic, there has been a lot of focus about wet markets. And, certainly, the extensive contact with wild animals that occurs at wet markets is definitely an easy and concerning way for viruses to jump from animals to humans. But it's important to note that these wet markets are actually not at all necessary for viruses to jump over to humans. In fact, all we have to do is intrude into wildlife habitats.

According to scientists, more than 30% of all emergent infectious diseases have originated through the process of land use change. And what does “land use change” mean? Well, exactly what you think it means – that natural landscapes are converted into agriculture, plantations, grazing land for livestock, or the like.

And different wild animals have lots of different viruses circulating inside their bodies. And forests filled with biodiversity all around the world are home to thousands of viruses that we humans have never come into contact with.

So, the moment we start disrupting these forests and the wild animals who live there – by building roads, rails, farms, or anything else – we can start getting exposed. Deforestation always involves bringing humans into closer contact to wildlife and their viruses.

And, unfortunately, I find most conversations about deforestation fail to discuss the interconnectedness with emergent diseases or otherwise reflect the massive severity of the problem. I don't think the general public grasps the true scale of the unsustainable pressures we are placing on the planet and the urgent need to quickly decrease our collective impact on ecosystems.

Humanity's increasing pressure on the planet

When agriculture began around 11,000 years ago, you may be surprised to know that there were estimated to be only about one million humans living on the planet. That’s it – a mere million or so humans scattered all around the globe.

Now? Well, now there are a lot more of us of course. Our population is almost eight billion people, and we continue to grow our numbers by about one million every five days.

Just one of our activities – agriculture – already uses about half of all the habitable land on the planet.

Let’s be clear, agriculture is not the only way we impact the planet. But, just that one activity alone already uses up half of the habitable land available on the planet. Yet, unfazed and unafraid, we continue to grow our numbers by more than 80 million more people per year.

A football field of forest destroyed every two seconds

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), we are leveling, on average, one football field of forests every two seconds. Think about that for a second (or two!). One football field worth of forest destroyed every two seconds. How long do you think that can continue? This is not abstract or academic. Do you seriously believe we can destroy the natural world that relentlessly and massively, year after year, and that our civilization will be okay?

Just from an infectious disease perspective – epidemics and pandemics have (not surprisingly) been on the rise. But, as bad as the pandemics are, they might be the least of our worries when it comes to the consequences of deforestation. Because, the fact is, we require the ecosystem services that other species provide in order to have a habitable planet. We need biodiversity, and biodiversity needs the forests and natural habitats that we are relentlessly decimating.

Are we so obtuse?

While we have made amazing strides as a species, from going to the moon to inventing smart phones, we seem to still struggle to sometimes see the big picture, even when it's obvious. In this case, the fact that we are vastly overpopulated and it’s hitting us everywhere.

How to deal with that problem may be complex, yet the problem itself is really quite simple: there are too many people consuming too many resources. I know that may be an uncomfortable thing to think about, but denying reality is not helpful.

We need to take action to stop destroying nature and the other species with whom we share this world. We need to do it, not only because it is the most important moral imperative of our time, but also for the survival of our own civilization.

So, what can we all do?

At a very basic level, impact depends on consumption multiplied by the number of consumers.

Our Consumption

When it comes to our consumption, diets play a huge role. According to scientists from Oxford University, if we stopped eating animal foods and ate plant foods instead, we could feed the entire world while, at the same time, reducing total global farmlands by more than 75% – an area of land equivalent to the U.S., E.U., China and Australia combined. Eating a plant-based (vegan) diet is healthy, it doesn’t require any new technologies and investments, and it’s something you as an individual can start doing with your very next meal.

This is a change that could be done very quickly too, and it would relieve an enormous amount of pressure we are currently exerting on the planet with regard to land use. It is also a critical action needed to address other existential environmental crises such as climate change, as vegan diets have a significantly lower greenhouse gas emission footprint compared to diets that include animal foods.

Number of Consumers

When it comes to consumers (i.e., our population size), please support in whatever ways you can gender equality and women’s rights around the world, the abolition of horrid practices like child marriages, and access to family planning. All these issues are fundamental human rights that are critically important for their own sake, but they also happen to be some of the most impactful actions we can take to slow and stabilize our population growth.

Also, please keep the planet in mind when planning your own family size. Remember we are in a severe environmental overshoot, and having a small family (or better yet no children or adopting) is one of the most significant ways to reduce your environmental footprint, particularly in Western countries that have such a high per capita environmental footprint (but, of course, everywhere generally as well). To state the obvious directly, the natural world would benefit enormously if we had less children. I think this is pretty undeniable and self-evident.

The ultimate "inconvenient truth"?

I do realize that this is a topic that can be uncomfortable, and a lot of organizations and environmental leaders don’t like to talk about population size despite its undeniable impact.

Al Gore says that talking about our greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuels is “inconvenient” (and of course he made his film called an “Inconvenient Truth”). And I’ve also heard people say that talking about the unsustainable impact of animal agriculture is even more inconvenient than talking about fossil fuels (and that animal agriculture is too inconvenient for even Al Gore to talk about). Well, if that’s the case, then talking about overpopulation is probably the "king" of inconvenient. Maybe we need a new word for inconvenient.

So, I understand. POPULATION IS NOT a popular topic. But, this is not a popularity contest, is it?

The environment and other animals surely DO NOT care about how unpopular the topic is, because they are paying the ultimate price for our unsustainable impact. From the orangutans who are burned when we torch their forests to make room for more palm oil plantations, to the animals who die with stomachs filled with plastic waste, to the others who die in increasingly severe forest fires because our CO2 emissions have skyrocketed and show no sign of abating – the animals do not care about our sensitivities or our discomfort talking about our unsustainable population growth. It’s about time that we understand it’s not just about us. It’s about not destroying the planet and the other inhabitants with whom we share it.

But, as COVID-19 has made abundantly clear, it turns out the human animal is also vulnerable to the consequences of what we do to nature. And, yes, to make another obvious statement, the human animal, like all other animals, also needs a livable planet to survive.

So, will we change our behavior?

Do we have it in our large brains to have foresight, or are we doomed to just care about today and therefore ruin everyone’s (our own and other species’) chance for a future? Time, of which we are running out, will surely tell.

That’s why the tagline of my environmental documentary (Endgame 2050) is “Humanity’s Last Chance is Now.” It’s meant to be literal.

Watch the full ENDGAME 2050 documentary below:

(or click here for more viewing options)


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