We are not the virus

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An unexpected beneficiary of the COVID-19 pandemic, as some outlets have been so quick to suggest, may well be the environment. Global state-mandated lockdowns have shuttered factories and grounded flights worldwide, leading to falling air pollution figures. As virus mitigation measures intensify across Europe, people have taken to social media to share snapshots of socially-distant city life. Images of unusually clear Venetian canals attracted some notable, if slightly unwarranted, attention last week. Relentless boat traffic on the city's waterways normally churns up sediment, leaving the water permanently murky. In recent pictures, fish can be seen swimming below the surface, while swans paddle above – not a tourist gondola in sight.

Yet, as idyllic as it seems, scientists have pointed out that the water in Venice’s canals isn't necessarily cleaner, it's just clearer. And while air pollution may, for a time, decline, the world’s national economies are built on and sustained by the massive burning of fossil fuels to generate energy.

Undeterred by these facts, a newly cooped-up online commentariat was quick to use the pictures of deserted cities and crystal clear canals to bolster some dubious environmental claims. One Twitter user claimed that waterways and ecosystems are "recovering" in the absence of human activity. "Coronavirus is Earth's vaccine," he concluded. "We're the virus." In just a few short lines, he managed to invoke some of the more persistent, misanthropic narratives about the causes of the climate crisis. Among them, the belief that "we" are collectively and equally responsible for environmental degradation. The conflation of humanity with the coronavirus, which is replicating and spreading uncontrollably, also brings to mind thorny debates around overpopulation and resource scarcity. 

When it comes to assigning blame, not all climate criminals are created equal. Activists are fond of citing a 2017 study which found that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions. More recently, climate discourse has zeroed in on the energy-intensive lifestyles of people in the industrialised global north.  It takes someone in the UK just five days to emit the same amount of carbon dioxide that someone in Rwanda does in a year. Greater personal wealth is plainly and indisputably correlated with a larger carbon footprint.

Analysis published in the journal Nature Energy earlier this month threw the issue of energy inequality into sharp relief, and nowhere is this gulf more obvious than in the transport sector. The top 10% of consumers use more than half the energy globally related to mobility. It's not difficult to understand why: As incomes increase, people buy cars and start taking vacations abroad. But the super-rich don’t take packed budget flights to their nearest warm coastline. They charter private jets – which emit as much as 20 times more carbon dioxide per passenger mile than a commercial airliner by some estimates. Given that some 80% of people alive today have never set foot on a plane, and roughly 10% don't have access to electricity, it seems wildly unfair to conclude that humans in general are a plague unto the planet. Some of us are significantly more toxic than others.

Despite everything we know about the unsustainable concentration of wealth and resources in the hands of an elite minority, some environmentalists still identify population growth as a pre-eminent threat to the natural world. Earth, so the logic goes, has finite resources and thus cannot support many more human lives. This strain of population anxiety has been lingering for centuries. In 1798, Thomas Malthus famously predicted that uncontrolled population growth would come to outpace agricultural production. In the late 1960s, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb rehashed the same idea – forecasting decades of famine in the latter part of the 20th century as a consequence of unchecked human reproduction.

Modern Malthusianism, however, is inherently concerned with who is reproducing, and the rate that they are reproducing at. Appeals for population control either implicitly or explicitly point to rising birthrates and living standards in the global south as harbingers of a coming catastrophe. These arguments bear a rhetorical resemblance to the anti-immigrant dog whistles so frequently deployed by today’s ruling populists. Groups of migrants are labelled “swarms” or “hordes” – and they’re out to poach jobs in our scarce labour markets or fleece our strained welfare states.

It’s not only right-wing politicians that have used this idea. Some respected conservationists have given credence to the idea of overpopulation as an environmental calamity. In a 2013 interview with the Daily Telegraph, David Attenborough blamed famines in Ethiopia on “too many people for too little land.” At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, primatologist Jane Goodall said sustainability “wouldn’t be a problem if there was the size of population that there was 500 years ago.” At best, these arguments accurately identify the existence of a societal ailment (resource scarcity), yet arrive at the wrong diagnosis (too many people). At worst, they form a cornerstone of ecofascist ideologies.

Like Malthusianism, environmentalism on the far right is nothing new. Many commentators tracing the link have recalled that the Nazi slogan “blood and soil” invoked a mystical connection between German racial stock and German land. In the era of the climate crisis, ecofascists don’t deny that ecosystems are breaking down, as many less-extreme conservatives do. Instead, they embrace collapse as a chance to build a new social order that reflects their authoritarian, white nationalist worldviews. For the most part, ecofascist ideas only seem to hold sway in fringe alt-right web forums today. But there are notorious outliers. The far-right extremist responsible for the 2019 mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand was a self-described ecofascist.

Given the nature of the climate justice movement, campaigners and activists are understandably quick to call out any perceived encroachment by far-right environmentalism. The "we're the virus" line has been comprehensively unpicked and denounced. Another dubious (and hugely popular) tweet claims that, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, people in Wuhan could hear birds chirping for the first time in years. It concludes: "This isn't an apocalypse. It's an awakening". During a crisis that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, to call it an "awakening" implies human disposability – and that large-scale death and suffering are necessary to restore nature. While lacking the movement’s overt ethnonationalism, this rhetoric is undeniably congruent with an ecofascist worldview.

Of course, vulnerable bodies are also denigrated and devalued under capitalism. Sure, these tedious "we are the virus" takes could signal creeping ecofascism. But they hardly mark a radical departure from prevailing assessments of human worth. Take Donald Trump's current approach to managing the coronavirus, which amounts to "some of you must die for the US economy to live."

Now is an obvious moment for anyone invested in building a more equitable world to set out their vision, and their plan for realising it. The cracks in free-market systems begin to show most clearly in times of crisis. The planet is now in the midst of the most significant economic and public health crisis in living memory. Some of the biggest names in climate science, policy and activism recently published an open letter calling for a Green Stimulus of $2trn to safeguard US lives and livelihoods in the wake of the pandemic, and the result economic slowdown that has been produced by it. The plan would create millions of jobs in the green economy, accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels and, its architects say, "make our society and economy stronger and more resilient in the face of pandemic, recession, and climate emergency in the years ahead."

The epic scale of the reponse to the pandemic has shown the kind of tools that states have available to them. Many in the climate movement have inevitably asked whether if countries can grounding flights and suspending industrial activity to fight a pandemic, surely they could do the same to protect the planet for future generations? Yet, despite bringing to the fore some useful points of comparison, too hasty a judgement seems to miss as much as it clarifies. At the risk of leaning too heavily on pathological metaphors, one problem is acute. It requires swift and dramatic, though ultimately predictable, action: self-isolation, social distancing, restrictions on travel. The other problem is chronic. Many would-be cures are purely theoretical (like geoengineering), while others have only been subject to small-scale trials (carbon capture technologies). While other options again are either too risky or unpopular.

The Covid-19 crisis has yet to reach its peak. As the world settles into an era of uneasy stagnation, it’s crucial that we resist the temptation to praise the virus’s carbon-cutting credentials. Any “progress” on emissions reduction could be rapidly undone if new fossil fuel projects become central features of government stimulus plans. Today, policymakers must deal with the catastrophe at hand. Those of us lucky enough to escape the worst impacts of the virus – physical, financial or psychological – can set about remaking the future.

Jennifer Johnson is a journalist focused on energy policy and climate justice.