COVID-19: Another consequence of exceeding the limits to growth

Apr 22, 2020

Consumer–capitalist society is blindly committed to limitless growth in production and consumption. This is unsustainable and is generating a range of alarming global problems.  However, little attention has been given to how is a cause of viral pandemics.

It is now widely understood that this economic system is the major cause of ecological destruction.  It involves vast and ever-increasing demands on biological resources and services. Because it must grow the ecological impacts have constantly increased, now to the point where we have caused massive ecological damage.

So far the concern has mainly been about dwindling biological resource access but Carona is confronting us with a new and separate dimension of the limits to growth predicament. The spread of this and related viruses is a consequence of the disturbance and depletion of ecosystems.

With the growth of population and consumption and the reduction in available land, more and more people, often driven by poverty, are moving into and disrupting shrinking forests and harvesting wild animals. Following are notes on the causal mechanisms, most of them from the recent Guardian article by John Vidal. (2020.)

What is happening?

“…a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as COVID-19.” …”We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

Between 10,000 and 600,000 species of mammal virus are estimated to have the potential to spread in human populations.”

“The disruption of pristine forests driven by logging, mining, road building through remote places, rapid urbanisation and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species they may never have been near before.”

“There are just so many more of us, in every environment. We are going into largely undisturbed places and being exposed more and more. We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily…”

“…wildlife everywhere is being put under more stress …Major landscape changes are causing animals to lose habitats, which means species become crowded together and also come into greater contact with humans.” “The more we disturb the forests and habitats the more danger we are in…When we erode biodiversity, we see a proliferation of the species most likely to transmit new diseases to us,”

“What’s more, “…human-caused climate change is making this worse.”

The role of the bush food markets.

Vidal discusses the large scale and increasing emergence of bush-meat markets that have sprung up to provide fresh meat to fast-growing populations. There is “…pressure on wild food operators to dredge further into the forest.”

“…markets in west and central Africa sell monkeys, bats, rats, and dozens of species of bird, mammal, insect and rodent slaughtered and sold close to open refuse dumps and with no drainage.”

“Wet markets make a perfect storm for cross-species transmission of pathogens…”  “These are places which do not have fridges.”

“The wet market in Lagos is notorious. It’s like a nuclear bomb waiting to happen. But it’s not fair to demonise …these traditional markets provide much of the food for Africa and Asia.”

“These markets are essential sources of food for hundreds of millions of poor people, and getting rid of them is impossible … bans force traders underground, where they may pay less attention to hygiene”.

The situation is made worse by the greater concentrations of growing populations in urban centres. This increases the speed at which new infections are spread.  And globalisation with its vast trade and travel networks accelerates the spread.

            Connection with conventional “development”.

Central in the causal analysis must be the dominant and deeply flawed conventional conception of “development’, and the unsustainable resource consumption it has led to.

Development has been equated with growth in business turnover, i.e., GDP growth, and it is driven by the quest for limitless growth, market forces, and profit maximisation. What is developed is determined by what investors think will make more money for them than any other option.

As a result, billions of people in poor countries must wait for trickle-down as they watch their fisheries, soils forests and mines ship out resources to rich world supermarkets while there is little or no development of the simple systems that would meet their basic needs.

It is this taken-for-granted conception of development that is shredding Third World ecosystems, cutting their forests, taking their land for plantations, and driving poor people to increasing reliance on bush food.

Vidal quotes a researcher…” Demand for wood, minerals and resources from the global north leads to the degraded landscapes and ecological disruption that drives disease…”

Had development been conceived in terms of devoting available resources to building highly self-sufficient communities with little or no dependence on trade, loans, exporting, or capital intensive trickle-down development then these people would not need to push into ever-dwindling forests.

Thus the pandemic is one more consequence of having exceeded the limits to growth. Again it should be obvious that a sustainable society cannot be achieved unless rich countries undergo large scale degrowth to far simpler lifestyles and systems which will not have to impact heavily on global ecosystems.

Ted Trainer is a retired lecturer from the School of Social Work, University of New South Wales. He has written numerous books and articles on sustainability and is developing Pigface Point, an alternative lifestyle educational site near Sydney.

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