Ask a scientist

| 19th May 2020
Air pollution
XR
Scientists must be ready to help people understand the interconnected causes of this pandemic.

This is one of the last chances we get to persuade people of the importance of making drastic, fundamental changes to the way we live with the rest of the natural world.

In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) identified the coronavirus family as a pandemic threat from the ‘spillover’ of animal diseases into the human population. In May 2019, Covid-19 was unheard of. 

Extinction Rebellion (XR) had just exploded onto the scene, using mass non-violent civil disobedience to protest governments' decades of political failure to act on the increasingly dire warnings from the scientific community.

A year on, in May 2020, nearly four billion people have experienced some form of lockdown, and despite the postponement of COP26, public support for action on environmental crises remains high'

Engagement 

Sections of the media are starting to call to attention the links between humans' destruction of the natural world and infectious disease.

XR Scientists are contributing to public understanding of intersecting environmental and public health crises through our Ask a Scientist Live series. The first episode brought together a panel of four world-class experts to discuss exactly this question (a full recording is available here). 

The session reached an audience of more than 25,000, and demonstrated the enormous public appetite for engaging with working scientists who will give truthful and nuanced answers to complex questions. 

A recurring theme was the need to understand global food chains and the associated human-animal contact patterns from multiple perspectives – landscape ecology, government policy, public health, antibiotic use, population pressures and their interactions at different scales are all necessary to understand spillover events.

As Dr Beth Purse put it: "The food chain is very connected globally, so our buying behaviour can affect what happens locally in tropical areas where the highest impacts of these diseases are happening … there can be national and international factors that have very local impacts." She cited an increase in epidemics in southern India in the 1980s due to deforestation for cashew plantations linked to international development projects.

Food

Professor Eric Fèvre answered a question on what is needed from both individuals and societies to avoid future pandemics. He said that whilst we often celebrate the diversity of our food cultures, we also need to question our production systems without stigmatising people for what they eat, recognising that ‘bushmeat’ (what people in many Western countries would refer to as ‘game’) and intensive farming are an essential part of the food security of many populations.

David Quammen pointed out that there is plenty of responsibility to go around, as high-consumption lifestyles demand that people in some countries encroach on ecosystems and expose themselves to animal-borne diseases on the behalf of the affluent.

Professor Kate Jones captured the essential message of the event, by explaining that banning ‘wet markets "is not the only answer - we have a joint responsibility for our actions in destroying ecosystems and impacting them in ways which are causing these spillovers to happen."

She later added that the current lockdown could be a chance for the global community "to pause and think about what we need to change, and so maybe this post-Covid world might be a bit different and less exploitative."

The second episode continued to examine the connections between Covid-19 and the climate and ecological crises. Another top-notch expert panel considered why people have been so ready to adopt drastic lifestyle changes in the face of a deadly epidemic, but not in response to a truly existential threat. The difference is only one of many factors that will determine just how different our post-Covid world turns out to be.

Oil

At least one major city recognises that we cannot return to economies premised on the total domination of nature. Amsterdam is adopting radical plans that go far beyond nonsensical ambitions for infinite material growth and recognise the inherent limits of systems and the couplings between them, and others are working together to similar ends.

In contrast, the fossil fuel and allied industries are taking the opportunity afforded by lockdown to open up pubic land for bitterly contested new infrastructure, lobby compliant governments to trash decades of environmental legislation, and demand taxpayer subsidies as demand collapses and oil prices go negative. All this after spending hundreds of millions of dollars obstructing action on climate change. 

The world is at a crossroads – vast sums are going to be spent one way or another, and our future depends on all of us (not least our leaders) making the right choices.

This is not something that is going to be decided on a panel show, no matter how informative. While we will continue to produce the Ask a Scientist Live series, we have to recognise that if the simple truth was enough to put the world to rights, there would have been no need for mass civil disobedience in the first place.

XR Scientists was formed to ensure that the movement’s messaging is rooted in the science, but we also mobilise our colleagues to participate in non-violent direct action that draws attention to truths that have been ignored or deliberately obscured.

Action

To date, more than 1600 of us have signed a declaration of support for civil disobedience as a morally necessary response to governmental negligence, and some have been arrested putting deeds to our words. Although we can’t take to the streets in our lab coats again just yet, there’s plenty we can do to push for meaningful change.

To take one example, some in the scientific community have started to question whether the habit of flying halfway around the world for conferences that typically last less than a week is justified. The normalisation of video conferencing (not to mention the gaping hole in university budgets) now make this ‘perk’ of academic life even more indefensible. Those of us who acknowledge that have a responsibility to come together to precipitate change.

The European Geophysical Union’s 2020 General Assembly (the second largest geoscience conference in the world) was held entirely online last week. It would be utterly perverse not to seize this chance for a permanent cultural shift in academia, one that will allow us to lead by example rather than going back to acting as if the findings of our environmental science colleagues weren’t terrifyingly real.

As David Quammen put it, scientists and communicators have to be ready to help people understand the ultimate causes of this pandemic - ‘this is one of the last chances we get to persuade people of the importance of making drastic, fundamental changes to the way we live with the rest of the natural world … this is a crisis we must not let go to waste.’
António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the UN, agrees.

The time for action is now, so if you’ve ever despaired at the inertia of academia and the indifference of otherwise rational people to the shared fate of humanity, here we are.

This Author 

Dr Tom Woodroof has a PhD in applied nuclear physics and radioecology from the University of Liverpool. To follow the Ask a Scientist Live series, find XR Scientists on FacebookTwitter and Instagram

Image: Crispin Hughes, XR. 

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