COVID-19 and Mother Nature

Here is this vast, savage, hovering mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard… -Thoreau

The corona virus is not Nature’s revenge on humanity, nor is it Nature’s immune system trying to flush us or put us in our place. The balance of nature is real and important, but it doesn’t work like that. The balance is not that of one, big, integrated system, but a patchy fabric sewn by multitudes of individual organisms and populations working out their relationships with their fellow creatures and the abiotic factors they contend with. It has to do with flowers blooming in sync with the emergence of pollinating insects, and with coyotes birthing larger litters when too many cousins have died. When we attribute design or purpose to nature, we speak of the adaptive nature of living systems. Meteor strikes may not be caused by human agency, but that doesn’t make them natural in this sense. Their causes are disconnected from the adaptive fabric of our biome.

Viruses that kill their hosts are out of balance. That’s why this happens when they jump species. Like a Brown Tree Snake on Guam or a Cane Toad in Australia, the species is in a new environment, where it is adapted to nothing and nothing is adapted to it. This is why we see chaos, things falling apart, both in invasive species biology and in disease pandemics.

Are such pandemics the consequence of our environmental misbehavior, whether our mistreatment of wild animals or our wanton destruction of forests? Perhaps. But like the coffee mug that shatters when you drop it, this is not a design feature intended to punish our carelessness. And if we cut our feet on the shards, it is not the vengeance of the potter.

David is an environmental philosopher who teaches at Western Carolina University in the southern Appalachian mountains.

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