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The Death of Nature & the War On Ukraine are Part of the Same Thing
If we don’t start listening to our screaming planet, Covid and Ukraine may be the least of our worries
Our planet is screaming a message at us, and Covid is part of that communication. The death of nature and the appearance of Covid are all part of the same thing. And it also ties into Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine.
I’ll never forget the day the trucker called into my radio show. It was at least a decade ago, and he identified himself as a long-haul trucker who regularly ran a coast-to-coast route from the southeast to the Pacific Northwest dozens of times a year.
“Used to be when I was driving through the southern part of the Midwest like I am right now,” he said, “I’d have to stop every few hours to clean the bugs off my windshield. It’s been three days since I’ve had to clean bugs off my windshield on this trip. There’s something spooky going on out here.”
The phone lines lit up. People from Maine to California, from Florida to Washington state shared their stories of the vanishing insects where they lived. Multiple long-haul truckers listening on SiriusXM had similar stories.
We had just moved to Portland at that time, living on a floating home in the Willamette River, and the air was often filled with bugs and swallows, small insect-eating birds that fly as fast and sometimes as erratically as bats. A neighbor had a “swallow house,” a box on a pole by the side of her home with a dozen small holes in it where the swallows made their nests.
A bit more than a decade later, now living on the Columbia River in Portland, I haven’t seen a swallow in at least two years. The swarms of gnats, the mosquitoes, butterflies, beetles and moths that marked spring and summer for most of my 70 years, from Michigan to Vermont to Georgia to Oregon, all seem to have largely vanished.
But that’s only part of the story.
The insect apocalypse that the world is now experiencing and the Covid pandemic are all of one cloth. And part of our behavior that’s driving it is also funding Putin’s war against the democracy of Ukraine. We humans have exceeded the capacity of this planet that we have risen up and conquered, and it is beginning to bite us back.
For the first several hundred thousand years of human history, our population slowly grew to around 5 million people at the dawn of the agricultural revolution 15,000 years ago. From that moment to 1800, our population crept up to 1 billion. The 2nd billion only took 130 years: 1930. The third billion took only 30 years: 1960. The fourth billion we hit in 14 years in 1974, and the fifth billion took only 13 years: 1987. Today we stand on the verge of 8 billion people.
As I point out in my book The Last Hours Of Ancient Sunlight, in the process of all this population growth we have consumed virtually all of the world’s wild spaces. We’ve harvested the oceans, razed the forests, and are burning thousands of acres of the planet’s jungles every hour.
And during the past two centuries, we’ve powered almost all of that activity by using fossil fuels, which are simply a vehicle for storing ancient sunlight locked up by plants millions of years ago in hydrocarbons; we release that ancient sunlight energy when we burn them.
That gas-powered car you see going down the road is running on sunlight that was captured by plants hundreds of millions of years ago. That sunlight energy turned into plant carbohydrates that then became compressed like peat bogs today, then pushed deeper underground where, over aeons, it became oil, coal and natural gas.
When we burn these ancient fossilized plants, we’re releasing the sunlight energy they collected and stored 200 million or more years ago. And not only is it polluting and changing our atmosphere, it’s making a few autocrats around the world richer than Midas.
This dependence on ancient sunlight-containing fossil fuels has empowered some of the world’s most brutal dictators who control many of the world’s largest stores of ancient fossil fuels, powering Middle Eastern elites in their brutal oligarchies and Russia’s Putin in his invasion of Ukraine, largely paid for by hydrocarbon sales.
Putin has become one of the richest men in the world on revenue from fossil fuels, and, with 40% of his economy based on exporting them, is using that cash to attack his neighboring democracy, Ukraine.
Saudi Arabia is bombing the hell out of Yemen, creating famine. From little West Virginia to giant Texas, fossil fuel money has turned those states’ US Members of Congress and Senators into shills for extractive industries. The wealth that comes from massive fossil fuel reserves has been corrupting nations and distorting world politics for two centuries.
In addition to fueling cancers and climate change, dependence on fossil fuels also drives wars, both to acquire more fossil fuels and to use the great wealth they produce to dominate nearby nations.
The use of these hydrocarbons to power tractors and transport food have also facilitated a human population explosion, while their pollutants and the products (particularly hormone-bending plastics and cancer-causing pesticides and herbicides) made from them are overwhelming and poisoning the rest of the natural world.
In my lifetime, more than 80% of all the wild animals on Earth have vanished, and today over a million species are on the verge of extinction. Just since 1970, North America has lost about a third of all our birds. Scientists have declared an insect apocalypse; as that “bottom of our food chain” vanishes, and it’s pollinators with it, it threatens the entire web of life on this planet.
Humans, and animals raised by humans for food, are now the dominant species on Earth; fully 96% of all mammals left on this planet are now us and our livestock, and our bloated population’s need for food has driven us to search places that historically weren’t subject to human predation. This set us up for Covid and other “rare” animal (zoonotic) diseases.
As we drive deeper and deeper into the wild spaces of Earth and simplify formerly complex ecosystems, we’re encountering diseases that were only small annoyances to the animals that co-evolved with them over millions of years. Now they plague us.
AIDS, SARS, Zika, dengue, West Nile, Ebola, Marburg, Lyme disease: all have jumped from the wild into large portions of humanity in my lifetime. And now we have Covid.
Our single species is wiping out other species at a rate not seen since the last great extinction when the dinosaurs vanished. This is absolutely unsustainable.
Our climate, which supports human civilization as well as the diversity of life on this planet, is also collapsing purely as the result of humans burning fossil fuels.
Our democracies are under assault from petrostates and petrobillionaires across the world, most recently and visibly in Ukraine.
At the same time, the industrial activity we use to support this population explosion is, itself, threatening to wipe out humanity. Human sperm counts are collapsing around the world, presumably because of human-made chemicals in our processed foods and packaging. It’s so bad that in many nations human “sperm counts are set to reach zero in 2045.”
There are things we can do.
Eating dramatically less meat and dairy will significantly lessen our burden on the Earth — in terms of energy, water and arable land — as well as improving the health of the human species.
Shifting from fossil-fuel energy sources to renewables will slow down both the way we’re altering the atmosphere and cut the trillions of tons of poison we’re pouring into our biosphere every year.
It will also reduce the wealth and power of the petrobillionaires distorting American politics and the oligarchic petrostates driving conflict and crushing democracy movements from the Middle East to Ukraine to Venezuela.
We must practice the respect for non-human life and the environment that indigenous people around the world have been trying to tell us about for thousands of years. Our religions and culture must adapt, as theirs did thousands of years ago when they encountered their own biological and environmental limits.
We must work fiercely to protect what is left of the natural world now, and mobilize the world to stop the trade in wild animals, the fourth-most-trafficked product on earth behind drugs, weapons and people.
And we must empower women; gender equality is another dimension of advanced democracies like we see in Europe and, particularly, Scandinavia, that petrobillionaires funding anti-woman laws in America and repressive petro-oligarchies like Saudi Arabia and Putin’s Russia currently abhor.
In societies where women have equal political and economic power with men, populations stabilize and, over time, tend to slowly reduce to levels in balance with their immediate ecosystems.
But in societies where women are treated as men’s property, populations explode. Widely available birth control technology is essential, but without cultural and religious shifts, become relatively meaningless.
Most important, we must reform our politics to incorporate notions of sustainability and compatibility with the ecosystems from which we evolved. Policy can become our most potent tool.
Covid is just the last in a long line of diseases that were warning signals to humanity that we’ve pushed beyond our natural limits, just like the war against Ukraine is the most recent outrage provoked by a petro-oligarch, showing us the insanity of a world dependent on burning fossils.
We now have the technology to imitate plants and take energy directly from the sun, eliminating most of the need for fossil fuels. Sustainable energy sources are now less expensive than fossil fuels in almost every part of the world.
Our energy and political systems must go all “Marshall Plan,” dedicating wartime-levels of money and resources to end our addiction to ancient sunlight.
If we don’t start listening and acting immediately, the loss of insects, Covid and the war in Ukraine may soon be the least of our worries.