In 2018, the WWF released a report indicating that 60 per cent of animals have been eradicated since 1970. For freshwater animals, the number is as high as 83 per cent. More recently, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services stated that a million species are at risk of extinction: this includes 40 per cent of amphibians and a third of marine mammals. Another report states that insect populations are declining at a rate of 2.8 per cent a year, and that 40 per cent of insect species may be extinct within the next few decades.
These numbers should bring society to a halt. Instead, we steadily ramp up destructive ways of living. In all of these reports, human activity is identified as the driving force. However, it’s important to note that human activity is not inherently or uniformly damaging to the earth. Instead, particular forms of social organization have driven harmful engagement over the past several centuries, encompassing the most intense and cascading period of decline.
Humanity exists as an interdependent part of the socio-ecological system. Interdependence does not just mean that humanity needs water to drink, food to eat, and air to breathe. It means that systems merge, bridge, and overlap–that nothing is entirely distinct. It means that the destruction of “nature” has a direct impact on humanity. It also means that the logics that allow human relationships to be built upon domination rather than love are the same ones that allow humanity’s relationship to the non-human world to be so destructive.
The severity of the COVID-19 pandemic results from human activity. The IPBES has stated that “the same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on the environment.” It also stated that preventing future pandemics requires behavioral transformation, and that the risk of future pandemics “can be significantly lowered by reducing the human activities that drive the loss of biodiversity.”
Our way of life is driving the eradication of life on earth. The ongoing pandemic highlights the complex and intersecting consequences of our behaviour. To bring it home further, those who have born the brunt of the pandemic are those who have been positioned vulnerably by the structures and practices of normal life.
In June, it was reported that 81 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in Canada were in long-term care homes. The conditions of care homes were not unknown prior to this pandemic. In fact, a few months before the pandemic hit, the government changed laws to prevent care home workers from accessing arbitration rather than addressing their concerns. These concerns included insufficiently staffed care homes, not enough hours of care available to residents, and staff members who are so underpaid that they must rely on food banks to live.
The way that society is structured allowed the pandemic to take hold. Instead of gearing up to return to the status quo, lives can be saved by deciding to use this disruption as an opportunity to transform. This requires accepting responsibility for the damage inflicted–blame which does not lie with isolated people seeking socialization but with the systems in place that have caused it to unfold so destructively.
Over centuries, logics of domination and development have established patterns of behaviour which rely upon extraction and the exploitation of land and life. These patterns have propelled environmental degradation and species eradication to unprecedented levels. A particularly potent concentration of these behaviours and patterns is capitalism, the primary driving force behind ecological degradation.
The ecological crisis results from laws of life constantly structured toward domination and development. Under capitalism, adhering to these laws is unavoidable. For one thing, capitalism requires the dispossession of people from the means of sustenance. This means alienating people from the land and establishing an extractive relationship. In order to gain access to the means of sustenance, people must sell their labour power to those who own the land so that they can participate in the market system and buy what they need to survive. Market imperatives mean that production and capital accumulation must consistently increase, consistently intensifying extraction and exploitation.
The response to COVID-19 has demonstrated that change can occur rapidly. In April 2020, global greenhouse gas emissions dropped between 10 per cent and 30 per cent. This was an unintentional by-product of attempts to slow the pandemic. With intentional effort, permanent change can be made. However, in order to have a real impact, the systems at fault must be actively transformed.
In New Brunswick, as elsewhere, harmful ways of living have become naturalized. People have internalized ways of thinking that cause cycles of destruction to continue. When the province, paradoxically, cannot imagine sustenance without the destruction of nature, the need for change is clear. When Saint John hosts the $10 billion dollar Irving empire but suffers from a child poverty rate of 33 per cent, the need for change is clear. When care homes are a threat to the life of their residents, the need for change is clear.
There has been celebration of New Brunswick’s economic outlook post-pandemic due to predictions of “rebound” and “growth.” In reality, this is no cause for celebration. The growing economic situation is grounded in relationships that are directly harmful.
New Brunswick is a large place with a small population. Here, localized transformation can lead to significant change. For localized transformation to emerge, widespread efforts need to be made. People are willing to drastically alter their habits to save lives. Directing this toward progressive alternatives, rather than reactionary measures, is key.
Luke Beirne is a freelance writer who lives in Saint John.