The eruption of Covid-19 has triggered a massive surge of voices imploring us to see the crisis as an opportunity to rectify our unhealthy relationship with the Earth (Lambertini et al., 2020). Journalists, scientists and activists have passionately advocated for a revision of human/non-human relations, inviting publics to learn the harsh lessons of the pandemic. Coverage particularly emphasised the spill over of zoonotic diseases via factory farming in the meat industry (Spinney, 2020) and the erosion of natural habitats (Carrington, 2020a, 2020b; Vidal, 2020; Watts, 2020). The virus appears to have undergone a peculiar discursive construal, whereby it became some sort of guiding figure, an intransigent supra-human force, and above all, a revolutionary agent.
On the face of it, for those deeply concerned with the morally abhorrent attitudes humans have carelessly displayed towards all that is not-human, this sudden rise in media coverage of environmental wrongdoing, committed by and in the name of human society, is good news. Finally, the veil has been lifted, thousands of already-anxious readers are now fully confronted with humanity’s shameless exploitation of the Earth. Environmental consciousness must surely follow: the Earth will be saved.
However, a closer, more critical reading of the dominant narrative in media coverage reveals a slightly different view. More often than not, this narrative is human-centred and permeates even the discourses of the greatest allies of environmental and animal rights movements, revealing how human chauvinism is deeply entrenched in our ways of thinking. Since the pandemic erupted, the dominant narrative prevailing in media and public discourse seems to tell the story of how our unsustainable ways of living are detrimental to our well-being, our economy, and ultimately – our health. This discourse is fraught with human-centred presumptions that are left largely unquestioned.
‘Human chauvinism’, or ‘anthropocentrism’ (‘human-centeredness’), has been conceptualised by environmental thinkers as the dominant worldview premised on the idea that humans are at the centre of the moral universe. Nature and non-humans are therefore merely instrumental and ancillary to human purposes. From the 1960s, with the emergence of academic scholarship wholly dedicated to environmental thought, human chauvinism has been vigorously contested. The ongoing debate between anthropocentrists and non-anthropocentrists has not trickled down to the general public debates. This short piece intends to shed light on the problematic nature of not tackling head on the limits of the anthropocentric paradigm. The case of the Covid-19 pandemic serves here as a great opportunity and a perfect lens for problematising the anthropocentric/non-anthropocentric divide.
Among the environmental thinkers who expressed reservations regarding the anthropocentric presumption of human superiority, ecofeminist Val Plumwood (2003, 2005) stands out. Plumwood articulated a searing indictment of Western culture and thought, condemning its artificial ‘hyper-separation’ between humanity and nature and its subordination of the latter to the former. According to her analysis, anthropocentrism entails a deep form of oppression of the non-human, not dissimilar from other oppressions of marginalised groups within human society.
On the one hand, so goes Plumwood, nature is ‘backgrounded’ since its value depends solely on its ability to provide so-called ‘ecosystem services’ that are crucial for maintaining human existence. Nature is acknowledged as a necessary condition to human flourishing, which is now ‘in jeopardy from the accelerating decline of the Earth’ natural life-support systems’ (Carrington, 2020a). On the other hand, nature is devalued when framed, more or less explicitly, as morally inferior to humans. A neo-liberal, capitalist discourse that instrumentalises the natural world constructs it as a crucial pool of resources while, paradoxically, endowing it with lesser value compared to its human masters. It is therefore unsurprising that remedying our relations with the Earth is conceived as important first and foremost for creating ‘a healthier and more prosperous future for people’ (Lambertini et al., 2020).
Through a process of ‘radical exclusion’ by which nature is construed as the ultimate Other vis-à-vis humankind, a dualistic ‘hyper-separation’ between the human and the natural is generated in such a way that prevents recognition of the ways in which humankind is interrelated, co-dependent and entangled in nature. Judged in strictly human terms, the intrinsic, unique value of nature and non-humans goes unrecognised.
With respect to the intersection of the Covid-19 pandemic and the environmental crisis, the focus of media coverage has so far been on the expected benefits that developing a ‘healthier’ relationship with the Earth would yield to humankind. In so doing, all that exists outside the sphere of human civilisation is, once again, crudely overlooked. The welfare and well-being of non-human animals; the persistence of biological species threatened by the Sixth Great Extinction; the preservation of natural landscapes and habitats; and the conservation of entire ecosystems – are all pushed aside and eclipsed by human interests. The non-human is implicitly construed merely a means, rather than an end in and of itself.
The idea that the Coronavirus pandemic is a ‘wake-up call’, designed to set us on the right path as far as our interaction with the planet goes, is admittedly an important and rare act of collective reflexivity on a global scale. Nonetheless, the utilitarian tone implied by the notion that this reflexive re-evaluation of human-nature relations is essential solely for protecting humanity’s best interests, keeps the deeper problem at bay. Rather than ad-hoc solutions to a well-defined, specific problem (such as the spill over of pathogens from nature to human society), what we truly require is a radical re-thinking of our very relations with nature and non-humans, in the most profound sense. Sustainable farming and clean energy are admittedly important enterprises, yet insufficient in tackling the root of the problem.
This involve a paradigmatic shift of consciousness. Talking incessantly about how we need to revise our interaction with the Earth and non-humans as a means to avoid the sorrow and misery inflicted upon us by pathogens, diverts the attention from acknowledging the value of the Earth and non-humans and recognising them as intrinsically valuable entities with whom we share the Earth. After all, it is not only the case that ‘our broken relationship with nature is affecting human health’ and that Covid-19 illustrates that ‘our destructive behaviour towards nature is endangering our own health’ (Lambertini et al., 2020). If we consider the harm to the entire Earth and its non-human components, the stakes are much, much higher.
To conclude, using the Coronavirus crisis to reinforce green policies designated to prevent the eruption of zoonotic diseases imply that nature is only a means for promoting human interests. It may-well be that these messages bear strategic importance in harnessing public support for a green recovery campaign. However, such strategic and instrumentalist understandings of the lessons to be drawn from the pandemic as far as human/nature relations go fail to propel us far enough. Only a radical shift in our moral paradigm and self-understanding vis-à-vis nature can stall ongoing destructive processes. Now is the time to let go our phantasies of omnipotent mastery over and superiority to the non-human world.
Talia Shoval is a PhD student in Politics at the University of Edinburgh. She examines the interplay between environmental ethics and the ethics of war.
Carrington, D. (2020a, April 27). Halt Destruction of Nature or Suffer Even Worse Pandemics, Say World’s Top Scientists. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/27/halt-destruction-nature-worse-pandemics-top-scientists
Carrington, D. (2020b, June 17). Pandemics Result From Destruction of Nature, Say UN and WHO. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/17/pandemics-destruction-nature-un-who-legislation-trade-green-recovery?utm_term=Autofeed&CMP=twt_gu&utm_medium&utm_source=Twitter#Echobox=1592372967
Lambertini, M., Maruma Mrema, E., & Neira, M. (2020, June 17). Coronavirus is a Warning to Us to Mend Our Broken Relationship with Nature. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/17/coronavirus-warning-broken-relationship-nature
Plumwood, V. (2003). Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (2003rd ed.). Routledge.
Plumwood, V. (2005). Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. Routledge. http://public.ebookcentral.proquest.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=243171
Spinney, L. (2020, March 28). Is Factory Farming to Blame for Coronavirus? The Observer. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/28/is-factory-farming-to-blame-for-coronavirus
Vidal, J. (2020, April 7). Human Impact on Wildlife to Blame for Spread of Viruses, Says Study. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/08/human-impact-on-wildlife-to-blame-for-spread-of-viruses-says-study-aoe
Watts, J. (2020, May 7). ‘Promiscuous Treatment of Nature’ Will Lead to More Pandemics – Scientists. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/07/promiscuous-treatment-of-nature-will-lead-to-more-pandemics-scientists