The crisis with the novel coronavirus is teaching us some hard lessons about the importance of national preparedness and collective action. With the economic shutdown and social distancing causing many to head to nature preserves for solace and exercise, the pandemic can also help us better understand our relationship to nature. As explained below, that relationship plays out in every breath we take.
The power of nature
For one, the virus’s capacity to shut down an economy shows how powerful nature is, and the perils of placing all value on economic growth while taking nature for granted.
Internal vs. external threats
The pandemic also shows how much more seriously we take problems that affect us internally rather than externally. Coronavirus, which attacks us from the inside, has achieved in three months the sort of concerted action and acceptance of sacrifice for the greater good that an external threat like climate change has yet to spur in three decades. Environment by definition refers to what is all around us, and has historically achieved political priority only when the sight or smell of pollution caused in us a visceral response, or an invisible menace like radiation threatened us internally. A CO2 buildup in the atmosphere may threaten our collective future, but it is neither a direct threat to our senses nor our health.
The fallacy of individual innocence
While posing a physical threat to our insides, this coronavirus is also changing our perceptions of ourselves. Because the virus can be asymptomatic, each of us could potentially, unwittingly put others in danger simply through proximity. It shows how our bodies and our actions can pose a threat despite a complete lack of intention.
Libertarianism, which opposes government interference and believes that people should “be free to live their lives and pursue their interests as they see fit as long as they do no harm to another,” has long foundered on its second principal. We’ve known for many decades that it is impossible to “do no harm” to others when we each as individuals use machines whose exhaust is altering the atmosphere, radicalizing the weather and flooding coastal cities. Our lack of ill intent, our view of ourselves as good people, our noble motivations for using the machines–these have nothing to do with actual collective consequence. What each of us does has a small but collectively vast global impact. Again, coronavirus is teaching us in three months the lessons that many have resisted learning from climate change over three decades.
The biggest threats are not always the most lethal
Another lesson this particular coronavirus teaches is that the biggest threats are not always the most obviously lethal. There have been more deadly coronaviruses. SARS killed 10%, MERS more than 30%, of those known to be infected, but their higher kill rates actually served to inhibit their spread. Though COVID-19 has a relatively low mortality rate, it has caused the most disruption. The most dangerous kind of coronavirus, it seems, is one that can spread rapidly by being very contagious but selectively lethal. Similarly, the biggest threat to the earth’s climate is excess CO2, a molecule with less power than some but which has become dramatically more abundant and persistent in the atmosphere. Its lethal consequences–a superstorm here, a megafire there–are also selective, leaving many thus far unscathed.
The magic and power of CO2 in our bodies–how carbon serves as nature’s battery
Coronavirus is additionally relevant to climate change through the mechanism by which it threatens people’s lives. By inflaming the lungs and thickening their walls, the virus not only slows the transfer of oxygen from the air into the bloodstream, but also prevents CO2 from escaping from the body. Exhaling excess CO2 is just as important for our survival as inhaling oxygen.
It’s worth taking a moment to explore the elegance and beauty behind the normal breathing we usually take for granted. Our breathing is part of a magic show that perfectly matches the plant world’s own brand of magic. A plant takes invisible carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air, strips the carbon of its oxygens and packs the carbons with energy from the sun, much like we charge a spent battery. The plant builds these energized carbons into visible tissues full of sugars, carbohydrates and fats. We in turn eat the visible food, extract the energy from the carbons, then send the spent carbons flying out of our mouths as CO2, now invisible and airborne, to fly back to plants on the wings of oxygen. Blow into your hand and feel the carbons you ate as food just hours before. Breathing is how we lose weight. Our consumption and respiration is the equivalent of “now you see it, now you don’t.”
Coronavirus causes CO2 to build up to dangerous levels in our bodies
Though the CO2 constantly building up in our bloodstreams is essentially exhaust, a bi-product of our internal combustion, nature in its brilliance makes use of what seems like mere waste. Our bodies use the CO2 to strictly regulate our blood’s acidity and flow. Though the CO2 floating in the air all around us poses no threat to our bodies, CO2 in our bloodstream is a powerful molecule that must be carefully regulated. Any significant rise or drop in concentration could be life-threatening. Many thousands of times a day, the constant streaming of CO2 from cells into our bloodstream triggers an impulse to breathe, not only to take in more oxygen but to keep ridding the body of excess CO2 that otherwise could do damage. Coronavirus sabotages this beautiful, elegant, essential system, blocks the CO2’s escape from the bloodstream, and thereby prevents our bodies from regulating themselves. Thus the critical need for ventilators.
The magic and power of CO2 in nature
The critical importance of regulating CO2 levels extends to nature. As soon as the CO2 exits our mouths, it loses its power over our bodies but becomes active in the earth’s atmosphere. Nature, again in its brilliance, utilizes our exhaust not only as a convenient, ever-ready food for plants to build their bodies with, but also to regulate the temperature of the earth and the acidity of the oceans. As with a tiny coronavirus, CO2’s invisibility is part of its power. Floating like an invisible blanket in the atmosphere, CO2 lets the sun’s light energy reach the earth unimpeded. But when that light hits the earth, or the roof of our homes, or our skin, the light energy is transformed into heat. Our skin “burns” because of this instantaneous change of solar energy from light to heat. The CO2, which affects the earth like the glass windshield affects the inside of a parked car in the summer, lets light through but prevents the resultant heat from escaping. That’s the greenhouse effect, and that, too, is a beautiful part of the earth’s functioning until something–our machines–puts too much CO2 in the atmosphere, causing too much heat to be trapped.
Because the livable planet is only skin-deep, human activity beginning with the industrial revolution has increased the atmosphere’s concentration of CO2 by nearly 50%. The earth heats up and radical changes in climate and sea level are set in motion. Like with our bodies, a change in overall temperature of even one degree can have consequences.
Nature as a body we live within
That is how I came to view nature–the plants, animals, oceans, air and soil–as a body, as much in need of careful regulation as our own bodies. The plants are the earth’s lungs–whisking away excess CO2 and supplying oxygen. Animals are the earth’s cells–constantly burning energy and releasing CO2. The atmosphere and oceans are the earth’s circulatory system, carrying oxygen to the animals and CO2 to the plants in a mutually beneficial exchange. We live in this body, the body of nature, as if it were a womb that feeds us and, in past eras, conveniently absorbed and cleansed all our waste. It’s a body that is not much more than a skin on the earth. That is how the famous “blue marble” photo of earth, said to have transformed our awareness of our place in space, is both informative and deceptive. The living earth is not a massive solid ball, but more like the skin of a balloon, barely penetrating into the ground, and rising only a morning’s vertical walk into the sky. Our world is vast only when viewed horizontally. Look up or down and the boundaries of the living world are close at hand.
Like coronavirus, a fossil fueled economy causes CO2 to build up to dangerous levels in nature’s body
What a glorious system–this thin-skinned body of a living earth–a system whose built-in stability and predictable cycling of the seasons has allowed all of life, including us, to thrive. And how are we unintentionally but knowingly and profoundly messing up that system? It is not us so much as our machines, not our machines so much as the combustion by which they are powered, and not so much their combustion as the nature of their fuel. Fossil fuel–I wish there were a better name, what with its forced, phoo-phoo doggy alliteration and wimpy consonants that defeat an emphatic delivery. But there it is. We’re stuck with the name and increasingly stuck with the consequences. Fossil fuel means buried fossil life converted by intense pressure over eons into fuels deep underground. All that carbon safely sequestered down there in deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas. Wise it would be to leave it there, keep it out of action so that the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere remains within a stable range. But no. The stuff’s just too good to leave alone, too extraordinary in its concentration of power, too useful.
Imagining nature’s trauma in our own bodies
This is where viewing ourselves as inhabiting the body of nature can help us understand what our machines and the economy they supercharge are doing to the earth. Imagine your body were the living skin of the earth, and you were doing just fine, combusting and exhausting carbon, keeping your CO2 levels within a safe range, when an invasive civilization of microscopic creatures began constructing a whole new network of roads, airports, and homes inside your skin. And that tiny but expanding network had minute machines for mobility and comfort that began to emit a steady pulse of more CO2 into your body, so much that it outstripped your lungs’ capacity to expel the excess. Your body, unable to accommodate this additional burden of exhaust, would be in mortal danger.
The body of nature needs a ventilator
This is what our coal- and oil- and natural gas-combusting economy has been doing to that surprisingly thin, skin-deep body of nature we live within. The plant world and the oceans cannot accommodate the extra load of CO2 constantly being emitted by the economy we have installed on this planet.
Though nature here is being portrayed as a body, I have not seen any evidence that nature is an entity that can intentionally communicate with us in any way. There have, however, been two crises that seemed uncanny in their timing. One was Hurricane Sandy, which arrived in the last week of the 2012 presidential election, during which climate change had gone nearly unmentioned. The other is the arrival of the COVID-19 coronavirus, which imposes on the human body an imbalance not unlike what is being perpetrated upon nature. It could be seen as a “See how it feels!” moment, meant to inject the perpetrators with a dose of empathy for the nature we inhabit and abuse, just before the 50th Earthday.
But my guess is that nature doesn’t work that way. If portrayed as a character in a play, Nature’s personality would be one that quietly serves while stoically enduring relentless mistreatment. As the play continued, Nature would increasingly lash out with randomly deployed superstorms and megafires. Maybe the other characters–people–would come to their senses, would extend to Nature the empathy they feel for each other, begin to give back to Nature and work with it, and most importantly, stop overwhelming its lungs with exhaust.
This post originally appeared on Steve’s Princeton Nature Notes blog.