The causal link between environmental damage and pandemics during the Anthropocene is a recurring topic in books published in the last decade.

But what is the Anthropocene? Asking this in his climate change fable The Living Mountain, Amitav Ghosh calls it a “made-up word” with “horrible” pronunciation and unclear meaning.

Coined in the early 2000s, the term went mainstream over the last decade. So, despite his qualms, the Indian novelist proceeds to use it, imagining a group of arrogant characters known as Anthropoi, whose overreaching destroys the living mountain of his title.

It should thus not surprise us that geologists use ‘Anthropocene’ to denote our current age, when humans are transforming the planet beyond repair.

As John Green says in The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centred Planet: “Nothing is more human than aggrandising humans, but we are a hugely powerful force on Earth in the 21st century.”

Humankind’s power to reshape the planet and its biodiversity is undeniable. This power has led to the current era’s Anthropocene name. Yet, the sense of power also leads to an all too human exceptionalism.

This is relevant to public health. Contextualising the Covid-19 pandemic, in Preventable: How a Pandemic Changed the World and How to Stop the Next One, Devi Sridhar writes that the current uptick in spillover viruses is because of “increasingly closer contact of humans with wild animals, particularly bats, through deforestation and … wet markets, as well as intensive farming of animals in crowded conditions.”

Destruction of habitats is causing greater proximation between animals and humans. Also, rising affluence and meat-eating makes a new virus’s animal-to-human jump more likely.

From an animal rights perspective, professor of bioethics Jeff Sebo argues that “animals are central to pandemics and climate change, both as causes and as victims.” So we have “a responsibility to centre them in our mitigation and adaptation efforts, both by harming them less and by helping them more.”

Sebo submits that humans are responsible for prioritising animal well-being in efforts to address global challenges. One potential way to do this is through more humane and sustainable farming practices.

During Covid-19, just as minority communities were stigmatised, certain animals were demonised, too, leading to cases of mass culling. In the chapter ‘Of Minks and Men’ from Sebo’s book Saving Animals, Saving Ourselves: Why Animals Matter for Pandemics, Climate Change and Other Catastrophes, the spotlight moves to the fur industry. Fears around mink variants of Covid passing from these animals to humans led to culls in Denmark.

Earlier, during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, pigs were blamed and slaughtered in countries as different as Egypt, Canada and Norway. Small wonder that, in 2015, the World Health Organisation recommended that not only should new viruses not be named after countries, but also “species of animal or food” should be avoided so as not to “trigger needless slaughtering of food animals.”

This WHO press release had a positive impact on people and xenophobia. New Covid variants, initially associated with particular parts of the world, were changed to such Greek letters as Alpha, Delta and Omicron.

However, bats and pangolins continue to be associated with Covid and the latest public health emergency of monkeypox was only belatedly renamed ‘mpox’.

This was despite the fact that many scientists viewed the original name as “inaccurate and discriminatory” both in relation to animals and the continent of Africa, where the disease was first detected.

One of postcolonial studies’ big debates concerned alterity. This led to a simultaneous focus on recognising and not flattening out difference, while also refusing to exaggerate or demonise the other. Such an idea applies to animals, too. People often anthropomorphise animals and animalise humans, but what’s needed is to listen to the actual voices of both human and nonhuman others.

‘Slow violence’ was an idea unveiled in Rob Nixon’s classic book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. It is defined as gradual and barely visible, but doing real harm. Like state terror, it is often not recognised as violence.

“Incremental and accretive”, environmental slow violence can be seen in “climate change, the thawing cryosphere, toxic drift, biomagnification, deforestation … and a host of other slowly unfolding environmental catastrophes.” Like racism, it is structural and can be intergenerational.

To Nixon’s ecological list from 2011 could be added (neo)colonialism, systemic inequality and a lack of access to healthcare and vaccines. Recent nonfiction shows what happens when the Anthropocene’s slow violence starts to speed up, in the form of deadly disease and climatic disaster.

From the 1950s and ‘60s onwards, humanity drastically reduced Earth’s biodiversity. The Green Revolution aimed to increase grain production to feed a growing global population.

Yet, as Dan Saladino shows in Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them, despite the initiative’s scientific prowess and ambitions to eradicate hunger, “it attempted to oversimplify nature, and this is starting to backfire on us. In creating fields of identical wheat, we abandoned thousands of highly adapted and resilient varieties. Far too often their valuable traits were lost forever. We’re starting to see our mistake — there was wisdom in what went before.”

Thus, despite the human and animal destruction all around, we should also spare a thought for plants amid the heatwaves killing them and monoculture putting them at risk from disease.

Pandemics, being manmade, are entirely predictable. Catastrophe results from humans’ hubris in not recognising that, like animals and plants, they’re part of nature.

As Green observes, “For humans, there is ultimately no way out of the obligations and limitations of nature. We are nature. And so, like history, the climate is both something that happens to us and something we make.” It is thinking we are somehow exceptional that has led to the climate emergency, reduction of biodiversity and increased threat from pandemics.

New writing shows the deadly consequences of the Anthropocene’s slow violence accelerating in the form of pandemics. Human actions such as the Green Revolution and animal husbandry are securing our own extinction.

We must realise that we, like flora and fauna, do not stand apart from nature. Disaster comes from blindness in not understanding our obligations and limitations.

Facing new crises, we must value nature’s welfare and implement more humane and sustainable food practices. Our future depends on it.

The columnist is Professor of Global Literature at the University of York and author of three books

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 18th, 2022

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