At the time of drafting this article, the planet we love is in the clutches of a recently discovered ruthless global pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus. The notorious pandemic is causing indescribable human suffering, social cataclysm and economic impairment as it mercilessly sweeps through countries and continents.
The arrival and the spreading of the current global health emergency are unprecedented. Nonetheless, the COVID-19 virus can be considered as a parlay to the diseases which have appeared in recent decades such as swine flu, avian influenza, SARS, Ebola and AIDS. And one commonality that we can find in all of these diseases is that, all of them originated in animals. So, it would be rational to say that one of the factors behind the birth and dissemination of new diseases is the over exploitation of nature by human-driven activities.
The development and spread of infectious diseases are easily facilitated and expedited when the natural ecosystems are deformed or altered. The depletion of habitats, the alterations of natural environments and more generally the deterioration in biodiversity are all factors in the proliferation and transmission of emerging infectious diseases. Ergo, it is important to fathom that natural ecosystems play a pivotal responsibility in encouraging and promoting life, including the survivability of the human species.
Wendell Berry, an American environmentalist, once said, “To cherish what remains of the earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival”. Having said that, according to various environmental assessment reports, human-driven activities have claimed a heavy toll on the planet since the 1970s. Whereby, booming economies and growing populations are urging for more natural resources to be drawn from the planet. Moreover, the amplified demand for resources has resulted in a declension of biodiversity, ecosystems and wildlife. In consequence, it is ultimately hypercritical to grasp that our planet’s natural wonders are perishing and are on the verge of extinction.
Presently, the 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report purports that almost 75 per cent of the planet’s land and 66 per cent of its marine environments have already been perilously affected by humanity. The report also avers that more than 85 per cent of the planet’s wetlands have disappeared. On top of that, the human population has doubled since the 1970s and, with it, consumption has swollen by 45 per cent. As a result, the demand for food, water, energy and raw resources has significantly swelled.
Warming of the earth
Just as important, the report also highlighted an “unparalleled appropriation of nature” where humans take more than they give back. Humans are flogging animals and plants to extinction faster than new species can evolve. Which is in contrast to what had been shared by Professor Andy Purvis, a research leader at the Natural History Museum, that “Before the Industrial Revolution, people had to look after the environment around them because that's where they got their products from. If they didn't look after it, they would face the consequences”.
Because of the human-driven activities, half of the world’s wetlands have dissipated since 1900; almost 80 per cent of sewage in developing countries is discharged untreated and pollutes rivers, lakes and coastal areas; in developing countries 70 per cent of industrial waste is dumped untreated into waters where it pollutes the potable water supply; everyday two million tonnes of human waste are disposed in water bodies; recent evidence shows that ground water supplies are diminishing with an estimated 20 per cent of the world’s aquifers being over-exploited; the global sea level rose about 6.7 per cent inches in the last century; all three major surface temperature reconstructions show that the earth has warmed since 1880, but most of this warming has occurred since the 1970s; the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass, data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment shows Greenland lost 150-250 cubic km of ice a year between 2002 and 2006, while Antarctica lost about 152 cubic km of ice between 2002-2005; and between 2030 and 2050 climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths a year mainly because of malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.
Earth hanging on to dear life
From here on, suffice to say our planet is just like the Kalaloch Tree, miraculously hanging on to dear life when considering the circumstances, it should have expired long time ago. Presently, the Kalaloch Tree thrives to subsist despite having its life supply taken away and at the same time not having soil underneath it to support its growth.
It is agreeable that it is consequential for us, the human species, to recognise that all living beings have the responsibility to defend the equilibrium of the natural world and preserve the planet’s harmonious functioning. In fact, it is incumbent for us to take responsibilities for past violations and future protection of our planet, especially those that have caused severe environmental damage.
We cannot afford to wait for a cataclysmic natural tragedy to find consensus to defend our planet and our lives. To illustrate my concerns further, each year more than nine billion tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are being released into the atmosphere and each year 350,000 people die because of climate change. This number could increase to five million in the next 10 years with current GHG emission levels. In order to palliate the imminent disasters, we must reconcile with our planet and restore the philosophies of belonging, gratitude and common destiny. As a small part of the natural world, we, the human species, cannot and do not have the right to go beyond the limits of our planet - which is our home and life provider rather than a mere resource.
A tragedy in Kerala
Before I end this article, I would like to dedicate the following paragraphs to the wild and pregnant female elephant which was recently abused beyond imagination by the locals in Kerala’s Palakkad district. She was later named Vinayaki and she was only 15 years old.
Vinayaki had left the national park in Kerala’s Silent Valley and meandered into a nearby village in search of food. It is believed that she had eaten an explosive-laden pineapple, as local farmers in India’s south often use firecrackers and explosives in fruit in order to protect their land and crops from wild animals.
So powerful was the cracker explosion in her mouth that her tongue and mouth were destroyed, and according to a forestry officer, Mohan Krishan, she must have walked around in the village for days, in searing pain and in hunger. She was unable to eat anything because of her injuries. He further added that “she must have been more worried of the child inside her than about her own hunger”.
On May 27, 2020, the unfortunate sentient being succumbed to her debilitating injuries. Vinayaki took her last breath while standing in the Velliyar River of the Silent Valley.
In tandem with what had been mentioned by Elisabeth Costello in J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, “Anyone who says that life matters less to animals than it does to us has not held in his hands an animal fighting for its life. The whole of the being of the animal is thrown into that fight, without reserve”. Vinayaki had put up a great fight to survive for the calf she was carrying while at the same time enduring the suffering of a slow and agonising death for more than 14 days after eating the explosive-laden pineapple.
How could have such an awful and a grotesque tragedy happened?
As human populations multiply and expand, natural habitats wither and fragmented, land use transfigures and densities of livestock grazing in protected areas increase, we will inevitably see an upsurge in human-wildlife conflicts.
Human-wildlife conflict has to do with the interaction between wild animals and humans, and the resultant negative impact on people, animals, resources, and habitats. It happens when increasing human populations overlap with established wildlife territory, creating competition for space and resources.
From orangutans in oil palm plantations, to European bears and wolves killing livestock, to greater one-horned rhinos in Nepal destroying crops, to baboons in Namibia attacking young cattle – the problem is universal, affecting the rich and the poor, and is bad news for all concerned.
The impingements are often astronomical: people lose their crops, livestock, property, and sometimes their lives; and the animals, many of which are already vulnerable or imperilled, are often destroyed in retaliation or to 'prevent' future conflicts.
In the meantime, conservation experts have already flagged that our planet is in the clasp of the "sixth great extinction" of species, driven by the destruction of natural habitats, hunting, the spread of alien predators and disease, and climate change.
Ergo, it is unprejudiced for me to say that humans are causing life on earth to vanish. In the words of Paul Ralph Ehrlich, an American biologist who is best known for his warnings about the consequences of population growth and limited resources, “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches”.
With everything that I have shared in this article, I think it is reasonable for me to conclude that the way we are treating our planet is no different than playing Russian roulette with it.
But what worries me the most is that it is like we are playing Russian roulette with a Luger rather than a revolver. One bullet, one chamber and we are pulling the trigger.
Dr Suzianah Nhazzla Ismail has a PhD in Politics from the University of Sheffield in the area of Animal Politics and Environmental Ethics. She is currently the one and only expert in that field in Southeast Asia.