Don’t Kill the Messenger: How Pandemics Reflect the Way We Treat Animals

4 weeks ago 4 min read
July 17, 2020
By: Colm Ashe

Disregarding the dead stars that forged our parts, our most ancient ancestors are microbial. Deep within the primordial soup of a hostile history, bacteria birthed Earth’s first breath and set the stage for the oxygen-rich environment we’ve been blessed with. As those cells began to multiply, they became the fungi, plants, and animals of the world. They became us.

Our ancestors are still with us today. They are the lichen on the trees and the algae in the sea and they make up most of the cells in our bodies. However, in our attempts to escape nature, we have forgotten our origins. We have sprayed the weeds off our estranged family tree and declared war on our roots.

In the belly of our safe, sanitary civilization, we are manufacturing microbial monsters.

To be fair, not all bacteria are benevolent. The almighty microbes giveth and taketh away, with seemingly random measure. They have always decided the dance of life and death. It was us who decided to defy our own decay.

Medicine is the story of our age-old battle with these invisible forces of nature. It began with plants that healed wounds before the invisible forces of nature claimed the flesh as sacrifice. As we persisted with our existential rebellion, we became more clever.

We realized that sickness spread through our water, so we built sewer systems. We learned that it also spread through our blood, so we developed vaccinations. These innovations have raised the quality of life for humanity in dramatic ways, lifting us above the food chain. Nevertheless, nature still nips at our neck, and there are lessons we have yet to learn.

In the belly of our safe, sanitary civilization, we are manufacturing microbial monsters.

From the wet markets of Wuhan to the modern industrial factory farm, animals send S.O.S. signals in the form of sickness. The message was carried upon the flea-ridden backs of black rats during the bubonic plaque, passed along the pigpen as swine flu in 1918, and today, it has been picked up on the pangolin trail to China, where bats huddle tighter thanks to habitat loss and wolf pups howl from behind the caged rows of illegal animal markets.

Viruses have always thrived in the unnatural environments we create for our mammalian kin.

Deforestation forces species into concentrated areas to fight for dwindling resources, like the chimpanzees and bats that birthed Ebola. The only way factory farm animals survive is through heavy antibiotics. This tactic is an atomic bomb to the immune system of these already compromised critters, leaving them vulnerable to the viral strains that were strong enough to pass the gauntlet of modern medicine.

Thus, we wither the souls of the animal, and viruses fill the void left behind, jumping from life to life, mutating their way into a global pandemic.

The tools that have gotten us this far– the advent of medicine and a taste for meat– have reached diminishing returns. We are stuck on a treadmill trying not to trip over the bodies of our age-old battles with nature, but they are piling up too quickly.

We are at war with biodiversity, which is the very thing that can save us from these microbial monsters. With every wash with duty handsoap to every spray of pesticide that scorches the soil, we kill our best allies in the fight against disease.

Ultimately, we are warring with ourselves. We have forgotten how inextricably woven into the web of life we are. Since the dawn of science, we have sought to separate ourselves from nature. With every pandemic, we are reminded of our connection. We share every breath within this cosmic fishbowl.

To take the next step as a species, we must return to our Earthly origins. To heal, we need to foster environmental harmony. We cannot sustain our pursuit of the almighty monoculture— nature mowed into uniform rows, sanitized hands and soulless soil. Complete control at all costs.

The road ahead winds with unanswered questions: how can we feed the world without industrial farming? Just around the bend, however, lies hope. Clean meat. Regenerative agriculture. We have ways to change for the better, the problem, as always, is the changing. Without disruptions to the status quo, society would follow the momentum of the moment, no matter how close to the cliff’s edge we are.

The coronavirus has given us a chance to stop and breathe, albeit through heaving lungs. It’s given the planet a break, too. In the absence of humans, The air is cleaner, the water clearer, and the animals have space to play. We’ve been gifted a glimpse into what is possible if we do change.

We can shift as a society for the sake of survival, but will the hamster wheel of civilization simply resuming spinning when this panic has come to pass? Will we continue to ignore the echoes of our ancestors, urging us to bring balance to the planet.

If we don’t heed these warning signs, next time may be too late.