A response to Christian Zeller’s article

Updated: Jan 13

2 January 2021


Alan Thornett responds to Christian Zeller's article on 24 December 2020 which can be read here.

An article circulated by Christian Zeller from Salzburg proposes that the left should adopt an appeal issued by a group of scientists from across Europe calling for prompt and decisive action to halt the spread of Covid-19 – or as they put it for a “pan-European commitment for rapid and sustained reduction in SARS-CoV-2 infections” – as the basis for a European-wide campaign against the pandemic. The appeal can be found here.


The problem with this is the limited basis of the appeal, which is essentially palliative: i.e. stopping the spread of the virus. Whist this is extremely important and understandable in terms of saving lives now – particularly with the second wave of the pandemic and the new and more dangerous mutation which is raging out of control world-wide – it is inadequate in terms of a radical campaign that can address the totality of the crisis we face and defend the planet in regards to its future as a habitable living space.


Such a campaign would need to start from such pandemics as an existential and global threat to human life on the planet alongside other such threats such as climate change, the pollution of the oceans, the melting of the ice sheets, the mass extinction of species, and the crisis of freshwater.


The appeal – in other words – has no ecological dimension, and (understandably) does not see its role as having one. It says nothing about the origins of such viruses, their zoonotic transmission to human beings, or the huge problem of mutation. It also places far too much reliance on vaccines as the long-term solution. While vaccines are extremely important their limitations must also be taken into account

Any campaign capable of defending the future of the planet would have to go beyond how to stop this particular pandemic and address the root of the problem.

Any campaign capable of defending the future of the planet would have to go beyond how to stop this particular pandemic and address the root of the problem – which is the deeply destructive nature of the relationship between human beings and the natural world – and what to do about it. It would need to address the zoonotic origins of Covid 19, the major problem of mutation, and what a long-term solution would look like. It would need to see such pandemics as an integral part of the environmental crisis itself and not just a medical problem because there is not a solution at that level.


The reason the threat from zoonotic spillovers from other species is greater today than at any previous time in human history is that the human impact on the ecosystems of the planet is also greater today than at any other time in human history. Scientists estimate that we could soon be facing up to five potentially deadly pathogens crossing over from other species every year, any one of which could escalate into a disastrous pandemic, far worse than this one. The battle against a particular virus, therefore – even if successful – is just a holding operation until the next one arrives.


We face a perfect storm created by human activity. Such activity includes deforestation and habitat destruction, industrialised and intensified agriculture (meat production in particular) and the bushmeat trade via Asian wet markets, rising population density, and poverty living conditions in many of the world's global megacities. If this situation is to be overcome major changes will have to be made in the structure of contemporary capitalist society and they will have to be made quickly. Any campaign that fails to recognise this is missing the main point.

Zeller’s article addresses some of these problems but not all

Zeller’s article addresses some of these problems but not all, and he shares its general framework which is to focus on managing the virus. In Britain, this would involve repeated intervention in the detailed application of the various tiers of lockdown and where and when various measures should be implemented. It takes up some of the ecological issues but it does not make them central.


It is also unclear why the proposal is pitched at the European level since there are many legitimate national regional and local social complexities that have to be considered by representation at those levels of society. In Britain, Scotland is very different from England for example.


The scientific community


There is another problem as well when it comes to how such a campaign should be pitched. This is that a big section of the scientific community is already fully engaged in demanding strong and effective action including lengthy shut-downs and is involved in an ongoing and in very effective critique of governmental competence on a day-to-day basis. In other words, there is already a major divide on this issue at the level of civil society.


In Britain, this involves what is called Independent SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) who mirrors the official governing body of the same name and very effectively critiques the government on a day-to-day basis. In the last few days Independent SAGE has put out a new five-point plan to meet ever-rising infection rates, and its chair, David King, a former chief scientific advisor to the government, has called for a complete national lockdown. The education unions have also played an important role in opposition to government policy, and continue to do so.


In this situation, the left should support the scientific community but go further. It should support decisive measures to eradicate the virus along the lines of the statement and we should stand in solidarity with those victimised by the virus and the actions of the government. It should also, however, defend the future of the planet by reducing the human impact on its biosphere and regard such pandemics as an integral part of the ecological crisis itself. It should also promote discussions on a long-term solution, from an ecosocialist standpoint, based on a completely new relationship with nature.

It should place, alongside this, the principle directly environmental demands. For example zero carbon by 2030; a comprehensive changeover to renewable energy; and an end to economic growth; make the polluters pay; abolish the internal combustion engine with a big reduction of cars on the roads; a massive reduction in international travel air travel in particular; abolish intensive agriculture and the unregulated trade in wild animals; stop all deforestation and habitat destruction, which damages the climate and generates zoonotic spillovers; an end to habitat destruction and species extinction.


There also has to be a big reduction in meat consumption. Today, 77 Billion land animals are slaughtered every year for human consumption (as well as 50 billion chickens). This is set to double by 2050. As well as generating zoonotic pathogens in their production these animals consume vast quantities of corn, maize, and soy that could otherwise be eaten, far more effectively, by the human population. The run-off from their production created dead-zones in the oceans and poisons the rivers and lakes.

Unless there is a fundamental change in the relationship between human beings and the planet there is ultimately no way out.

Unless there is a fundamental change in the relationship between human beings and the planet there is ultimately no way out. The old norm of human beings trashing the planet to destruction is no longer an option. Not everyone can be a vegan or even a vegetarian or indeed stop using air travel. But there is a lot the individual person can do short of that. Not everyone can stop using air travel, or even long-haul flights, but everyone can think carefully before they do it.


Meanwhile a major opportunity to decarbonise the global economy is being squandered. Trillions of dollars are set to be spent by governments to rebuild from the Covid crisis. Instead of grasping the opportunity to start to build a sustainable low-carbon future, with a new relationship with nature, this money is being used (scandalously) to replicate the same disastrous paradigm with growth as the central objective.

Alan Thornett is the author of Facing the Apocalypse - Arguments for Ecosocialism and can be purchased from Socialist Resistance Books.

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