Science

This Is Not the Last—or Worst—Pandemic We Are Likely to See

We must change the way we inhabit the planet, or otherwise face self-destruction caused by our own negligence.

Five people in masks and protective suits are seen inside and in front of a vehicle.
French medics wait for a German ambulance in Nordhausen, Germany, on Thursday.
Jens Schlueter/AFP via Getty Images

This story was originally published by High Country News and has been republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

By now, it’s clear the coronavirus pandemic is one of the most serious collective events most of us alive today have ever faced. The spread of the virus has been a massive wake-up call for humankind, and not just in a scientific, logistical, or even personal sense. It has also shown us that the way we live on the planet is fatally out of balance. We should think of COVID-19 as a warning.

We must change the way we inhabit the planet, or otherwise face self-destruction caused by our own negligence, if not by the pandemic then by environmental destruction (or both). The changes we need to make are not just economic and scientific; they are philosophical and practical, and they concern the things we value. We need to seriously reexamine and revise the philosophical frameworks that undergird modern society. Indigenous peoples who have lived sustainably in the same territories for thousands of years have important knowledge systems that can productively intervene in the destructive social structures currently orchestrating our downfall. But first, societies need to listen.

The world as we know it—shaped by centuries of technological advancement, aggressive migration, and colossal population growth—is the result of particular beliefs about how humans should live on the earth. Perhaps most recognizable to us would be the belief that the Earth’s resources are there for unrestrained human taking. So deep-seated is this view that entire populations of Indigenous peoples were considered expendable by way of germs and warfare in order to give way to more “advanced” societies that would use the land “properly.” As Indigenous peoples, we know all about foreign diseases.

A 2015 white paper produced by the Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission, which gave birth to the budding field of planetary health, concluded that not only do failures at the governmental and implementation level contribute to many of our current problems but so too do failures of imagination and knowledge, including the overreliance on economics as a measure of human progress. Altogether, these reveal that societies based primarily on a utilitarian and extractive orientation are results of a worldview that has gone horribly wrong.

Mushrooming social movements and a huge body of academic literature have for decades criticized unquestioned, unlimited capitalist economic growth, including its impacts on planetary health—the study of the ways commercial development affects the environment and its consequences to human health. Recent media stories, for instance, have highlighted the ways zoonotic diseases and pathogens cross from animals to humans, unleashing hellish illnesses as a result of our unending exploitation of the natural world. Ebola, SARS, MERS, Lyme disease, the ever-mutating avian influenza viruses, and our most recent coronavirus, COVID-19, are perfect examples.

Indigenous societies, on the other hand, are based on worldviews where human needs are balanced with the needs of other life forms. This worldview inherently acknowledges the constraints of an ecosystem, the essence of sustainability. When the integrity of an ecosystem is guarded, the integrity and very existence of human communities are guarded as well. In a philosophical system that respects other life forms as relatives, an ethic of respect, responsibility, and reciprocity automatically follows, mediated by reverence. This is the opposite of the vulgar, endless extraction of resources for short-term economic gain.

Just as scientists are finally waking up to the ways Indigenous knowledge can inform climate science, so planetary health scientists should also look to Indigenous knowledge to fill in the gaps of the failures of imagination, knowledge, and implementation.

As Indigenous peoples, we have always understood that ecocide—the killing of an ecosystem—is commensurate with genocide. In the U.S., this socially acceptable form of genocide continues in the way our lands and resources are still targeted for toxic development, as the Dakota Access Pipeline and countless other fossil fuel projects make clear. Now, the coronavirus shows that the entire human race faces the ramifications of ecocide and biodiversity loss. But applying Indigenous thought patterns today presents a challenge.

Indigenous knowledge involves the application of particular knowledge in particular contexts. It is not universal like universalist religious and capitalist value systems. Before Indigenous knowledge can be incorporated into research and policy toolboxes, powerful entities will need to learn how to partner with local Indigenous communities in ways that are respectful, equitable, and nonextractive.

It might, at first, sound like lunacy: expecting societies to begin valuing the knowledge of the peoples they have systematically been trying to eradicate for centuries. I am not naïve about that. But as a teacher and an “almost elder,” it is not the older generation I place my faith in. Instead, I look to the youth. Historically, it has always been the younger generations who fought the hardest for change. With their futures at stake, now will be no different. It is up to us as elders to help lay a transformative philosophical foundation for them. And the sooner the better, because as scientists tell us, this will not be the last—or the worst—pandemic we are likely to see.