“We’re under some gross misconception that we’re a good species, going somewhere important, and that at the last minute we’ll correct our errors and God will smile on us. It’s delusion.” Farley Mowat
“We fear,” an Innuit Shaman once answered to a question posed by Knud Rasmussen, the great Greenlandic explorer, “We fear the cold and the things we do not understand. But most of all we fear the doings of the heedless ones among ourselves.” The heedless ones among us in the technological society that have done so much to destabilize, and destroy ancient traditions are those who do not understand that this virus is the tip of the iceberg of other possible pandemics to come.
As habitat disappears in South Papua for palm plantations, what will emerge? Palm oil giant Olam is looking to do the same in Gabon, one of the most important countries left in Africa for the diminishing rainforest elephant. Our civilization’s relationship to the soil, the 3 billion more people we will need to feed in two generations, is almost exhausted. Witness the exorbitant strains agriculture has imposed on the world; the pesticides that are wreaking havoc on insects worldwide. How many of us think of the abject pain industrial farmed animals feel?
This situation was compassionately described by Joaquin Phoenix in his Academy Award speech, when he reminded us of the suffering a single mother cow feels deprived of her calf. And we as a society don’t even think twice as we pour her milk into our coffee or cereal. Never mind the tens of thousands of wild mammal, bird, amphibian, fish and reptile species on the endangered species list forced to live on the bare minimum of what was once a paradise.
We have to wake up. The coronavirus is the first lesson of its kind at this magnitude to make inroads into our psyche and blood. It will not be the last, but if we don’t change the way we behave, by then it will be too late. Worse viruses like cousins of Ebola may well ensue. Our food resources and ability to care for the environment will become increasingly challenged over the next generation. All of which will depend on climate. Once the worst of the coronavirus is past can we not forget the overwhelming immunological danger that comes from the pronounced heat of the world? The heedless ones are the bureaucrats who can pour 2 trillion in immediate aid, which the country needs but who willfully neglect the less obvious trillions needed to combat global warming. Their eyes are on corporate profits. Their vision is myopic and heedless. We need to care for the body but we cannot neglect our house, the Earth. They are the Scylla and Charybdis of our time, the climate and the coronavirus.
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While we battle for ventilators for tens of thousands impacted by the virus, keeping within our self-imposed isolation, the larger climatic regime change we have imposed on the planet should continue to concern us. Long term, we cannot let the pandemic overtake the urgency of climate action and other viruses that will ensue from habitat destruction. For too many bioregions, we may well have reached the point of no return. The tipping point is now and the climate within the human spirit, the resolve to transcend our greed, arrogance and immorality towards the natural world will determine how we survive. We are still operating with Paleolithic spirit, using 18th century economic models, with 20th century technology. It does not work. We unleashed coronavirus and we made it possible. There will be no way to put the genie back in the bottle. This is the largest planetary wake-up call in civilization’s history. We should not need an asteroid to wake up from our comatose state vis a vis the environment.
When the snow of winter dies away, the furies of summer will hold sway. Between the virus world and the gigantic 2 million square kilometers of melting Greenlandic ice, there is nowhere to run. The coronavirus will eventually mutate and is forcing us to do the same but into a more solvent species. An economic depression will only ensue if we can’t become morally solvent. The ecological depression is already underway.
Years ago, when we first beheld hundreds of millions of gallons of water cascading down the ice sheet in Kangerlussuaq, a guide in Western Greenland showed us a strange new species he had discovered under the melting ice. It was a hybrid between a snail and a spider, or a spider with a shell. He hinted that other creatures were sure to be found over the years with the melting glaciers. Some of which might be viruses for which we have no immunity. The Inuit had very specific rules that respected the leaders of each species. If these leaders were disturbed the weather would turn bad.
In light of the enormous destruction the technological society has imposed on the Arctic and its species, it is time we restrained ourselves from mining and upsetting the roof of the world. If we do not it will come back to haunt us. The coronavirus is forcing us to retreat from the mindless prospecting Farley Mowat (author of “Never Cry Wolf”) warned us about generations ago. On his 70thbirthday Mowat was asked about humankind’s prospects. He answered, “We are behaving like yeasts in a brewer’s vat, multiplying mindlessly while greedily consuming the substance of the finite world. If we continue to imitate the yeasts, we will perish as they perish, having exhausted our resources and poisoned ourselves in the lethal brew of our own wastes. Unlike the yeasts we have a choice. What will it be?”
A word of warning comes from a remarkable true story as told from the great life of Peter Freuchen, the comrade and best friend of the remarkable Knud Rasmussen, the Greenlandic explorer, over a century ago. According to his book “Ice Floes and Flaming Water,” Peter, his native wife Navarana and his village were once visited by foreigners over a century ago in northern Greenland. The Europeans came to northern Greenland on a ship looking for gold. One of the crewmen, Gogol, met Peter’s daughter Arona but showed only interest in the yellow metal that formed part of her doll. Peter describes Gogol who became transfixed by the gold. “His mouth hung open, he was breathing heavily, and although he had neither eaten much nor worked hard sweat-pearls stood out on his forehead.” The strange behavior of the foreigner was “madness” “caused by the insignificant little toy.” Later the foreigners burned all the wooden crates on their ship to melt the glacial ice where they thought they could find more gold (flaming water the Inuit called it), rare wood that the Inuit could have used for heating in the winter. “All the houses had been searched and every single piece of yellow stone had been stolen from the children. And the worst was yet to come: our oil was gone. Our lard, our entire fat supplies! That was how the white man had made more bonfires.” “….all of them built bonfires and watched with greedy eyes as the ice melted. They did not seem to be our friends anymore, they would not even listen when we told them how much wood would mean to us. We spoke to deaf ears. They kept burning the wood without shame and without apology. They found yellow stones, as we had told them they would, and they danced like madmen, screaming and shouting as if they had caught a narwhal or knew how to turn the stones into food.”
“It was hard to remain calm as I told my friends that I felt we could no longer live close by men who were so obsessed by their desires that they stooped to robbing us of our food and light and heat — and even to stealing from children.” Eventually one of the crewmen tried to take Arona’s doll away from her for the gold it contained. Naturally she protested and resisted. “Arona was just a little girl and she was in her right — but her action had terrible results.” “He tore the doll from her hand and hurled her far out on the ice. Arona lay still, she never moved again. The fall had broken her neck.”
All in the name of gold! This is what we are as a society. What we have become. And what we could all inherit if we are not very careful. The virus of gold, diamonds, uranium, palm oil, and the nonrenewable resources of Earth commands our will, and our minds. If we don’t listen to the melting ice, the carbon-asphyxiated oceans, and the poor polar bear trying to hold on to dear life, the climate will ultimately have its way with us as the neophyte species we are. The coronavirus is literally the tip of the iceberg.
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Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson’s work at their website.