Earth to Humans: “Wake Up!”

Fifty years ago today, my U.S. senator at the time, Gaylord Nelson, designated April 22 as Earth Day, a day for Americans to speak out about environmental crises. The “conservation governor” of Wisconsin for two terms and U.S. senator for 18 years, Nelson struggled at putting environmental issues in a prominent place in politics, but eventually succeeded. Besides authoring legislation that created a national hiking trails system and the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail System, he was deeply involved in important bedrock environmental laws including the Wilderness Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Acts, Federal Pesticides Act, and National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Although Nelson came up with the idea, it was ordinary citizens who made Earth Day what it was and what it has become, through grassroots political action. The first Earth Day in 1970 was, to date, the largest demonstration of any kind in the country. The goal was an “environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.” Clearly, he believed in a better future for the planet and all its residents.

Which brings me to the strange times that could become the new ‘normal.’ While it’s very difficult these days not to focus on how the pandemic affects us, climate chaos and widespread exploitation of animals continues unabated. The link between animal and human health is clear; we must remember the other gentler members of the planet with which we are connected—for both their sakes and ours. Although we are just one species on Earth, we have — by far — the biggest impact. 

I’ve always known that wildlife ought to be left alone, to live the natural life that they evolved to live. Wild animals fear us, don’t want us around, and certainly don’t need us. And when we invade and destroy their habitat, the harm that can come to them — and us — is appalling, to say the least. As if we need proof, one study demonstrates that as humans encroach into species-rich habitats — for development, road building, hunting, mining, etc. — biodiversity declines, wild landscapes disappear, and exposure to ‘new’ microbes increases. Many diseases, like Ebola, SARS, HIV, Lyme disease and others, arose that way. Scientists tell us that around 70 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans are of zoonotic origin, and nearly 1.7 million undiscovered viruses may exist in wildlife.

Our current pandemic is similar to other unknown viruses that have come about under similar circumstances — that is, when humans steal various innocent wild animals from their natural homes and cruelly toss them together in horrendous markets. It’s almost as if the uncontrollable pathogens are responding to human actions that have put harrowing pressure on the natural world, leading to damaging and widespread consequences that put all life — human and non-human animals, and even plants — at risk. Failure to take care of our home and other species’ natural homes also means a failure to take care of ourselves.  

The media has mostly focused on the connection between pandemics and “wet markets” (where miserable live animals are slaughtered and sold). COVID-19 did likely originate in a live animal market in China, but these markets are not the only places that pose dangers, or where animals suffer intensely. Scientists now believe that the current pandemic started as a result of wildlife trafficking and that the disease probably originated in those wonderful pest-eaters — bats — and moved in a live animal market to an intermediary host — possibly the highly endangered pangolin, the most trafficked mammal on earth — and from there the disease jumped to humans. Although some locales have banned the sale of wildlife for food, there are loopholes for alleged medicinal purposes and won’t trafficking just go underground?

Moreover, confining enormous numbers of tortured, domesticated animals close together in factory farms essentially creates breeding grounds for pandemics. Studies have linked factory farming (also one of the largest sources of methane emissions) to more virulent, faster-mutating pathogens. The same animal ag corporations that worsen the climate crisis abet the creation of new, deadlier diseases at high volume that can adapt to humans.

And let’s not forget the indirect destruction, killing and other environmental disasters, such as broken heat records, dying coral reefs, and uncontrollable wildfires. Both climate chaos as well as its causes — rampant development, deforestation, animal agriculture, and other ecosystem destruction — must end, since all force free-living wildlife into contact with people.

As Carl Safina writes, it’s only going to get worse and next time we could face unimaginable “lethal chaos.” But we’re nearly there, when it comes to how we’ve caused crossover contamination to other species. One example: The Siberian (or Amur) tiger, one of the six remaining tiger subspecies and one of the most terribly endangered due to poaching and habitat loss caused by humans, may go extinct soon due to the deadly canine distemper virus (CDV). CVD was first described and likely originated in South America where the closely related Eurasian human measles virus raged in the 1500-1700s. Those epidemics “likely facilitated the establishment of CDV as a canine pathogen, which eventually spread to Europe and beyond.” The virus is suspected to have caused the deaths of thousands of Caspian seals during outbreaks in 1988 and 2000; it nearly exterminated the black-footed ferret, and has decimated Africa’s wild dog populations. CDV hit Serengeti lions in 1994, when the epidemic killed a third of their population — nearly 1,000 animals at once — as well as a huge number of leopards, bat-eared foxes, and hyenas. Additionally, global animal trade spreads the often fatal ranaviruses, which infect amphibians, reptiles and fish, and one reason for the global decline of wild native bees are diseases that spillover from managed, commercial bumble bee or honeybee (Apis mellifera) colonies that suffer from a range of exotic and high-impact pathogens.

The largest mass extinction (since the dinosaurs)
Pandemics may happen more often when climate change is unabated. For example, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa coincided with cutting down forests for agriculture. Bats who lost their homes were forced into new places when their habitat was destroyed. Changing weather patterns also alter vectors and the spread of disease.

According to a new study, as early as the next decade, many more animal species than previously predicted will collapse if greenhouse gas emissions are not lessened, and it won’t be gradual. Nearly all species and all regions will be affected and abrupt collapses in tropical oceans could begin soon. Coral bleaching events have already begun, and collapse of highly diverse tropical forests ecosystems could follow just several decades later. One example that may speed up: As much as half of the planet’s 6,000 amphibian species are in danger of extinction due to a global pandemic caused by wildlife exploitation. Chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease that’s found on every continent except Antarctica, is quickly pushing some species toward oblivion; some, like the Panamanian golden frog are thought to be gone. The disease’s spread can be traced back to the commercial trade in exotic animals and is exacerbated by the climate crisis.

If we don’t learn now, will we ever? We certainly can’t stop every negative aspect of modern human society, but we can proceed in a more gentle, compassionate, sustainable way to reduce our ecological footprint. Not only will it lessen climate change and promote conservation, it will improve our health.

© 2020 Eileen M. Stark

4 thoughts on Earth to Humans: “Wake Up!”

  1. Thank you so very much for the extremely informative article. I will be sharing it with friends.

    Is there an easy way to find the sources? Any that you would additionally recommend?

    Thanks So Much!

    1. Andree, I’m not sure what you mean by “find the sources” … you can simply click on the green text to get to a source.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful article…I wish we could get all Americans to read and CARE about our incredible land…My husband and I live in Southern Oregon in the mountains on 165 acres of land. For twenty years we’ve worked to bring back natives and make this land as it was two hundred years ago… Every native plant, insect, spider and every other native is not only welcomed here…but REVERED…This was land where cattle were ranged…and most of the inhabitants back to the 1890s did there best to EUROPENIZE (I coined this word?) this land… We cherish our deer, bear, fox, coyote and all the other wonderful creatures…even our little rattlesnakes…Every NATIVE plant has a sacred place here…


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