Today, 22nd April, is International Mother Earth Day but this is an Earth Day unlike any other. With events moving online due to the coronavirus, this year’s 50th anniversary event is the first-ever Digital Earth Day. This Mother Earth Day also coincides with the Super Year of Biodiversity, begging the question – are we really taking care of our Earth?
Mother Earth is a delicately balanced ecosystem supporting a diverse array of species, including our own. While biological diversity is an indicator of the Earth’s health, its loss is “a benchmark of humanity’s current failure to understand that we are an inextricable part of Nature”, according to the UN Harmony with Nature initiative.
The UN’s environment chief, Inger Anderson, recently said that coronavirus is nature ‘sending us a message’ and that, while short-term efforts need to prevent the virus’s spread, the long-term response must tackle habitat and biodiversity loss. Otherwise, it is feared that the coronavirus outbreak may just be the beginning of mass pandemics.
We are living in the ‘Anthropocene’ – the so-called age of man; a human-influenced age defined by our massive impact on the planet. Biodiversity loss in the 21st century has been termed the “sixth extinction” as humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970.
Now, research is emerging that humanity’s destruction of biodiversity actually creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19 to arise. This is because zoonotic diseases (diseases which spread from animals to humans) emerge from “biodiversity hot-spots” like tropical rainforests and bushmeat markets. Our destruction and disruption of complex ecosystems through human activities like mining, logging, and road-building causes us to come into contact with animals (some of which we also trap or eat), shaking the virus loose from its natural hosts. Our globalised world, with its constant movement of goods and people, then provides the perfect conditions for the virus to travel further and faster than ever before.
Thus, while coronavirus is a human tragedy on a massive scale, it is not an unpredictable event but a reflection of our failure to care for our planetary home. In the same way that coronavirus is exposing the fact that we have a global public health emergency, it highlights how we have a planetary health emergency, too.
Like any healthcare system, planetary health depends on its ‘health care workers’, including environmental human rights defenders who are at the frontline of environmental protection. Many are indigenous peoples, frequently women, struggling to protect their lands, environment and rights from corporate interests. This is often at great risk to their lives as governments turn a blind eye to the violence and intimidation they face; even despite research showing that protecting the land and rights of indigenous peoples is the best way to keep forests standing, and thereby reduce biodiversity loss and habitat loss.
Ironically, in Brazil, the coronavirus is weakening protection for the rainforest and the people living there, despite it being exactly this destruction and loss of habitat that allows zoonotic diseases to escape. This example illustrates just how much we, as a species, have become disconnected from nature, and from the reality that we depend on Mother Earth for our collective survival.
Asking if coronavirus is ‘good or bad’ for biodiversity and habitat loss or for climate change is perhaps the wrong question. But this doesn’t mean that there is no right answer. We need to pay attention to the connection between the wellbeing of humans, other living beings, and Mother Earth – and to imagine how we can rebuild a post-coronavirus society that is safe for everyone and for our planet.
For suggestions on how you can join the call to action on International Mother Earth Day, see https://www.stand.ie/earth-day-celebration-activities/. There are loads of different events to get involved in, including virtual panel discussions on women and the environment, and global conversations with indigenous people who are on the frontlines of environmental protection.
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