Note: This is the REVISED version  (June 23, 2020) of an essay written for an international cyber-conference on the COVID-19 global pandemic. 

How To Destroy Civilization: COVID-19 and the Exploitation of Animals and the Earth

Steve Best

“Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvelous as being there in the beginning.”  ― Jean Baudrillard

  1. Apocalypse

Many past cultures have thought that they lived in apocalyptic times and expressed a foreboding sense of doom and ending. From the Book of Revelations to cyberpunk, apocalyptic visions have been a mainstay of human culture. In contemporary 21st century conditions, the signs of apocalypse are everywhere, from collapsing ice shelves in the Arctic to wildfires raging in California, Australia, and Brazil; from superstorms pummeling coastal towns and island communities to millions of refugees fleeing the ravages of drought, poverty, famine, and conflict; from lingering specters of nuclear annihilation and (bio)terrorist attacks to species extinction and runaway climate change. And now, on the heels of numerous recent viral outbreaks, we are witness to the scourge of a global pandemic inflicting suffering and death around the globe, a massive economic meltdown, and cities turned into ghost towns or petri dishes when not in flames over systemic racism and police brutality. All the while, authoritarianism rises, democracy wanes, and power concentrates into ever fewer hands, as promising signs of resistance emerge.

Whereas all past apocalyptic visions were rooted in fear, paranoia, fantasy, and superstition, visions of chaos and collapse today find grounding in mathematical projections and scientific facts. In our current era, apocalypse is an immanently unfolding objective reality that we are accelerating toward at breakneck speed. For the last 50 years or so, postmodern forms of culture and theory have articulated pronounced feelings of exhaustion and endings. We have heard much about the death of metanarratives; the end of history; the disappearance of the social; the demise of truth, reality, and the subject; and of course, the passing of postmodernism itself.[1] Postmodernism arises amidst paradigm shifts that register across the disciplines. but these changes barely scratched the surface of seismic changes unfolding in society and the objective world that had allegedly disappeared into the text or impenetrable fog of hyperreality. For what we are witnessing is not the end of modernism or modernity, but rather the immanent collapse of the expansionistic, growth-oriented enterprise we call civilization — the dominant institutional structures and ideologies that human beings have built over the last 10,000 years during the Holocene epoch.

Our present moment is so radically novel and extreme we have to think of it in geological, not merely historical terms, for we have created a new geological epoch — we are transitioning from the Holocene to the Anthropocene.[2] Humans have expanded their technological and world-altering prowess to such an extent they have disrupted every living system on the planet – most evidently in the emergence of a sixth (human-caused) mass extinction (right now, 150 species go extinct every day) and with the rise of fossil capitalism and its causal effect in global warming and climate change, thus creating  a radical break in the history of humanity and the earth itself. Since the 1970s, in just the last half-century, humans have reduced wild animal populations 60%, and within the next few decades we will obliterate an additional million plant and animal species.[3] To indicate the extent to which one species has usurped the planet on its unending path of destruction, humans have hitherto destroyed 83% of all wild animals and half of all plant species, such that 96% of all mammals on earth are now humans and their cattle.[4] Only 15% of the planet’s forests remain intact, the rest have been cut down, fragmented, and degraded, as grasslands and wetlands suffer a similar fate.

As we glean by its name, Anthropocene means “age of the human” (literally, “Anthropos,” human, and “cene,” new”) and it marks the time when human beings became the main driving force of natural change on the planet, surpassing or equal to the powers of nature itself. Humans have become a formidable super-agent driving changes on the planet, and there is no natural process – not wind, not rain, not tides and sea levels – that humans have not altered. Today, “natural disasters” are really social disasters – disasters caused by human disruption and degradation of natural processes. Indeed, we have pushed back the next anticipated Ice Age by some 50,000 years and possibly the ones that would come after that.  In contrast to the stability of the Holocene, the current Anthropocene epoch is highly unstable, volatile, and extremely hostile to humans and other life forms. By 2050, vast areas of the earth will be uninhabitable; indeed, many areas today are already.

  1. Orgy

Postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard asks, “What would life look like after the orgy?” Well, let’s open our eyes and look around at the detritus and decay. What is the orgy but the last 10,000 years of wanton growth, extraction, plunder, slaughter, colonization, consumption, and destruction of the predatory, growth-oriented, ever-expanding and globalizing system we now call advanced capitalism? We are awakening from a 10,000-year-long orgy of excess, violence, and destruction of peoples, animals, and the natural world, to find ourselves in a new epoch and facing the punishing consequences. And what we’re witnessing now is not the collapse of a local ecosystem, but of the planetary ecosystem, and not the rise (and fall) of any particular empire – Greek, Roman, Mayan, Ottoman, and so on – but of the human empire itself.[5]

Viruses are parasites that depend on a host to hijack and take over for their own purposes, with no mind to the sustainability of the enterprise, replicating itself until the host adapts or dies. Humans too, although they have their own reproductive machinery, are parasites, and our host is planet earth — its “resources” and all of its resplendent biodiversity. We have commandeered this planet, ransacked its resources, exploited its animals, and continue to mindlessly kill our host and thus ourselves. Viruses act only to reproduce, humans often seem to operate with a similar lack of consciousness as capital seeks only to reproduce capital in a never-ending cycle that constantly magnifies and enriches it. A smart virus spares its host, at least until it can spread to other hosts, but earth-bound humans do not. From the vantage point of animals and the earth, we are the virus.

While human beings literally act like parasites, viruses, and cancers on the planet, such discourse is problematic in its association with the dismal positions of misanthropy and ecofascism, which by all means we want to avoid. Environmentalism has a long history of association with problematic ideologies like from eugenics, racism, and xenophobia to elitism and ecofascism.

Ecofascists promote authoritarian ideologies and minimize or even encourage human suffering or death if it is good for the environment. Weeks into the pandemic, many misanthropes took to social media to celebrate a renewal of nature with human beings in retreat, and to declare the virus to be “nature’s revenge,” while showing no regard for human suffering. It was stimulating indeed, for instance, to see dolphins swimming in clear canals of Venice or wildlife frolicking in urban habitats. But this bit of self-rewilding on the animals’ part, just like the improvement of air quality and drop in carbon emissions, was short-lived, and hardly worth the human toll.

The much-celebrated environmental benefits of the shutdown are of no consequence. One study found that during the peak of confinement on April 7, daily global carbon emissions fell by 17% compared to 2019 levels, primarily due to disruption to ground transportation and industry.[6] Although one of the largest emissions drops in history, this improvement is insignificant not only because it is temporary and doesn’t reflect structural changes in economic, transport, and energy systems, but also because its negligible compared to both the emissions accumulated so far and those that must be cut in the next decade to stay under the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold point of runaway climate change. There is no indication the pandemic has sparked any rush to hasten progress in slowing climate change, rather, in the US, the main focus is on providing stimulus packages and industry bailouts, and reviving the economy – making it “great again” in Trump’s words. The pandemic provided an opportunity to reassess values and priorities, to move toward more sustainable practices, and to create new jobs in green sectors of industry, but it is very unlikely this opportunity will be taken or that any lessons generally will be learned by global elites who thrive from the status quo. Regardless, the COVID-19 pandemic make clear that far more consequential changes are necessary to effect a real impact in climate change.

  1. Zoonosis

Everyone knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world. Yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet plagues and wars always take people by surprise.” Albert Camus, The Plague

What happens after we indulge in a prolonged orgy? Well, one likelihood is that we contract a disease. After centuries of ever-increasing slaughter, plunder, population growth, territorial expansion, relentless consumption of the earth’s finite resources, habitat destruction, and species extinction, Western civilization has contracted many diseases, the latest being COVID-19.

“All societies end up wearing masks,” Baudrillard says in his book, America, and now this is literally true in the streets and stores around the world, where people are not confined to home. We are all carriers or potential carriers, but no one is safe because the clever virus delays symptoms. Many host-people are asymptomatic, and the seemingly healthy person next to you could be an infected host. This uncertainty, danger, and enforced distancing breads paranoia, isolation, mental illness, and the degradation of social existence. And because we live in a globalized world, a supersonically-connected planet packed with densely inhabitable urban zones, it is axiomatic that a virus anywhere is a virus everywhere, and thus we share the same fate.

With the emergence and spread of their empire over this earth, Homo sapiens came into ever-more intimate contact with other animals and the viruses they carried, leading to the rise of zoonotic diseases – bacterial and viral diseases transferred from nonhuman animals to human animals. 60% of known infectious diseases and over three-quarters of new or emerging human diseases are caused by pathogens originating from animals or products of animal origin, such spillover onto us from the wildlife trade, live markets, and factory farms.[7] As Al-Marashi summarizes, “The domestication of the horse led to the virus responsible for the common cold in humans, while the domestication of chickens gave humans chickenpox, shingles, and various strains of the bird flu. Pigs were the source of influenza, and measles, smallpox, and tuberculosis emerged from cattle.”[8] Older zoonotic diseases include the bubonic plague, rabies, and influenzas (including the “Spanish” flu of 1918-1919 that killed between 50-100 million people).[9] Newer diseases originating from animals include AIDS, Ebola, Marburg, Lyme disease, Lassa fever, West Nile fever, SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 — which most likely came from a live animal market in Wuhan, China. The host animals of these diseases include bats, rats, primates, chickens, pigs, and camels.[10] Zoonotic diseases are responsible for over 2 billion cases of human illness and over 2 million human deaths each year.[11] This is a needless tragedy.

COVID-19 is a coronavirus in a rather large family of coronaviruses, which take their name from being shaped like a crown, and it is the third coronavirus outbreak of the twenty-first century, the first being SARS in 2003, then MERS in 2012, and COVID-19 in December 2019. It is hardly likely to be the last, given the proliferation of coronaviruses in the world and the spillover opportunities we provide. Zoonotic diseases began with animal domestication, they have afflicted humanity throughout the history of civilization, and they will plague us long into the future, so long as we continue our rapacious extraction of resources, destruction of habitat, decimation of biodiversity, and exploitation of nonhuman animals. Infectious agents involved in zoonotic diseases can hide or lurk within a reservoir host (like a bat), waiting patiently for a prolific host like humans to provide transport.

Microbes are everywhere in the bodies of species with which they have evolved but can cause disease or death in humans when there is a spillover. The Ebola virus, for instance, lives harmlessly in bats but is lethal when it crosses over into human bodies. Similarly, the West Nile virus doesn’t cause illness in birds, but does in humans, just as Lyme disease is an affliction of human beings, not ticks or rodents.[12] In each case, there is a spillover when human beings encroach upon, disrupt, fragment, and degrade habitats and ecological systems – through logging, road building, mining, creating farmland, rapid urbanization, and population growth – and bring animals into closer contact with us.[13]

In many cases, eating meat is a key and direct cause of zoonotic outbreaks, whether the animals consumed come from Asian live or “wet” markets, African “bushmeat,” or US factory farms.[14] This is true in cases such as HIV and Ebola (primates), the Spanish flu and avian flu (chickens), swine flu and the Nipah virus (pigs).  It should be clear, however, that eating meat and animal exploitation are not the only causes of zoonotic diseases, as obvious in cases such as malaria or the Zika virus, which humans contract from mosquitoes. Veganism therefore would not eliminate all infectious diseases, only the end of all forms of contact with animals would do this. Nonetheless, ending meat consumption of meat would eliminate many deadly zoonotic diseases, such as avian flu, bird flu, SARS, and COVID-19. The 1918 Spanish flu, one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, was caused by an H1N1 virus from a Kansas chicken farm that spread globally and killed between 50-100 million people. In 1997, a novel poultry virus, H5N1, emerged in Hong Kong, infecting 600 people and killing half of them, and continues to circulate around the world. In 2009, a new strain of H1N1 – a swine flu virus from pig farms in North Carolina that was a volatile mix of pig, bird, and human DNA – infected hundreds of millions of people and killed hundreds of thousands over a year and a half period, as it still circulates seasonally worldwide.[15]

The cause of numerous influenza outbreaks over the last few decades is no medical mystery, it can be traced to the industrialization of the chicken and pork industries – to the rise of factory farms and mass production methods. As Dr. Michael Greger observes, “No one even got sick from bird flu for eight decades before a new strain, H5N1, started killing children in 1997. Likewise, in pigs here in the U.S swine flu was totally stable for eight decades before pig-bird-human-hybrid mutant-virus appeared in commercial pig populations in 1998. It was that strain that combined with a Eurasian swine flu virus ten years later to spawn the flu pandemic of 2009, sickening millions of your people around the world.”[16]

As the mechanization of production advanced globally over the last 50 years, factory farms now produce 90% of the world’s meat supply[17] and 99% of meat consumed in the US.[18] The profit-driven techniques of confining more animals in smaller spaces are guaranteed not only to cause misery and sickness for chickens, pigs, and other “farmed animals,” but also for humans as these conditions select for the most dangerous pathogens possible. To quote Dr. Michael Greger again, “When we overcrowd animals by the thousands, in cramped football-field-size sheds, to lie beak to beak or snout to snout, and there’s stress crippling their immune systems, and there’s ammonia from the decomposing waste burning their lungs, and there’s a lack of fresh air and sunlight — put all these factors together and you have a perfect-storm environment for the emergence and spread of disease … If you actually want to create global pandemics, then build factory farms.”[19] In stark contrast to potential viral hosts that live in the forests or wild, factory farmed animals are squeezed together as tightly as possible, bred to be genetically identical, have weakened immune systems, and are traded across international borders. Both live markets and factory farms share are each keep animals caged and in close contact with one another amidst filthy and unsanitary conditions. Factory farms, of course, with their massive volume of animals processed, multiply the problem astronomically. It’s easy for US citizens to blame Asia for pandemics, while ignoring the central role played by factory farms – a proud US invention! – and its own food production supply which have been the cause of numerous outbreaks such as the 2009 swine flu.

Radical reduction or elimination of meat consumption globally would dramatically reduce the risk of infectious diseases. As well, a meatless diet is proven to help prevent many human health diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, while also improving immune function to help individuals ward off pathogens such as COVID-19. Eliminating meat consumption would end many other (non-zoonotic) infectious diseases as well. These include e-coli and salmonella, which stem principally, but not only, from meat products, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (better known as “mad cow disease” in cows) which arises from eating meat infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and may be a contributing factor to Alzheimer’s disease.

The problems do not end here. To control the diseases in animals that factory farms breed, farmers use huge amounts of antibiotics in animal feed, which contributes to the major problem of our current “post-antibiotic” era in that this once-hailed “miracle drug” no longer effectively treats many bacterial diseases, due to its overuse and the evolution of anti-biotic pathogens. Every year in the US, at least 2.8 million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria or fungi, and 35,000 die as a result.[20] This has staggering implications and promises to return medical science to the nineteenth century.[21] Also, by releasing massive amounts of waste and fertilizers into groundwater, factory farms pollute human water and food supplies and cause serious infections such as relating to E. coli. And since factory farms contribute to climate changes in numerous ways – by destroying habitats, converting forests to farmland and feedlots, causing species extinction and biodiversity reduction, and by producing numerous potent greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane) – they are major drivers of the diseases that come with warming the planet.[22]

Thus, a staggering amount of zoonotic and non-zoonotic diseases result from consuming animals and the global meat complex of factory farms contributes significantly to a host of related problems. Substantive considerations of animal rights aside, most zoonotic diseases could be avoided if humans simply treated animals better – if they didn’t intensively confine them, if they didn’t butcher them mercilessly. Except in the starkest survival conditions, humans can not only survive, but thrive by not consuming animals. At bottom, the justification for causing so much misery to billions of animals every year, and to humans themselves, is that people like the way taste. It is hard to conceive of a more insane and unjustifiable preference and abominable system built to satisfy it.

  1. Homo rapiens

Like humans, pathogens do not respect species boundaries. Overall, nearly eight billion people, many with advanced technologies and rapacious appetites, are tearing ecosystems apart and within these ecosystems live millions of different kinds of viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. As Sonia Shah observes in her book Pandemic, society operates with an erroneous paradigm of disease, treating diseases as foreign invaders into our territory (a mentality she describes as “microbial xenophobia”), when in fact we are the invading species encroaching on the habitat and communities of animals and ecosystems.[23] It is wrong to say that these diseases are happening to us, rather they are the unintended results of what we are doing to the natural world. Speculations about accidental laboratory origins of outbreaks and COVID-19 conspiracy plots of bioterrorism draw attention away from actual systemic structures and dynamics of human exploitation of nature, especially as driven by the growth-addicted world system of capitalism.  Hardly unexpected or accidental, viral outbreaks are the inevitable consequences of human growth and expansion. All too often, we are the causes, not effects, the culprits, not victims, of pandemic-inducing pathogens.

Why is it, we must ask, that the microbes that have existed for ages suddenly begin “causing” diseases? In the last fifty years, we have lost over 60% of all wildlife, as over three hundred infectious diseases have emerged or remerged around the world. It is no coincidence this is happening as the human empire expands and globalization increases. Zoonotic diseases spillover to humans far more readily in disrupted and fragment systems than intact and diverse ecosystems. Not only are humans consuming wildlife in markets, they are trafficking in wild animals for food and “medicine,” and opening up new global routes for the transmission of zoonotic disease.

  1. Invisible Enemy

Ironically, while the virus is hidden and invisible, it acts to make dramatically visible numerous crises and problems in nations such as the US. Better than any Marxist theory of crisis, the virus showed that the world capitalist system is extremely fragile and built on a house of cards that can be toppled by an ill-wind. More so than depressions, world wars, or terrorist attacks, COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill. It exposed the mighty US Empire as a second-rate moribund power and a failed state in its inconceivably feeble response to the pandemic and the plight of its citizens. It revealed Emperor Trump to be without clothes — not only grossly incompetent as a leader, but a truly dangerous sociopath indifferent to the suffering he causes. Trump not only presides over the greatest health crisis in a century, he is a health hazard, a danger to public safety.

Moreover, the virus shed a blinding light on the already clear racial and class inequalities in the US, for the poor and people of color have the least resources, the worst access to healthy food and health care, and are the most vulnerable. In May-June 2020, protests and riots erupted all over a nation dealing with the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism and police brutality.[24] As well, COVID-19 laid bare the nihilistic logic of capitalism, when anxious elites insisted that the elderly, the vulnerable, and “essential workers” will have to be sacrificed for the greater good of the economy and revivification of the sacred “American Way of Life.” Just as surely, the virus put on display the supremacy of politics over science, ideology over facts, and personal ambition (of Trump) over public health. The respect for and preeminence of science has never been lower in the US. Just as Trump has censored climate change science for the last few years, he and compliant Republican-governed states like Florida censured medical sciences disclosing the distressing factual realities of the COVID-19 outbreak. Truth, facts, and objective reality are troubled notions in the topsy-turvy society Trump has shaped. The virus made disturbingly clear the power of lies and ideology in a media-dominated hyperreal society, as even with the colossal failure of leadership, Trump retains the ardent support of his base, which comprises nearly half of the country.[25]

COVID is the perfect virus for neoliberal, atomized societies and especially for the sharply polarized US. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the utopian dreams of open societies in the aftermath, nations around the world have built more, not less, walls, and currently there are over 70 sizeable border walls worldwide.[26] In the midst of the climate emergency, when international cooperation is critical, alliances are unraveling, and nations are building walls between one another. Donald “America First” Trump has pulled out of the Paris Treaty and withdrew from the Word Health Organization. Divisions form not only between nations, but within nations themselves. This is dramatically evident in the US, where Trump abdicated federal oversight and leadership of the COVID-19 crisis, states were forced to compete with one another for medical supplies and many erected border checkpoints to keep out citizens from neighboring states. The culture wars dividing conservatives and liberals for decades have intensified to draw battle lines now between those who wear MAGA hats and those who don protective masks.[27] As well, COVID-19 has frayed important lines of family and community connections among individuals, forced people into isolated and sanitized zones of solipsism that breed depression and mental illness.

Perhaps most of all, however, the virus pulled back the curtain on how radically unprepared the world is for crises, especially the much larger planetary crisis of climate change already unfolding. This is a foreboding indeed, as the world stumbles through the dress rehearsal for ecological collapse.  COVID-19 is surely a vivid reminder of our dysfunctional relationship with nature, one that we must repair immediately or face terrifying consequences.

  1. Climate Emergency

If a virus can stop the world in its tracks in just a few weeks – shutting down sports events, silencing Wall Street, closing schools and universities, confining people to their homes, and throwing tens of millions of workers into unemployment — what kind of chaos does the far greater challenge of runaway climate change portend? Flooding, superstorms, drought, desertification, asphyxiating heat, and so on – these are the conditions the earth is preparing for us. But the climate emergency is a problem of the present, and not the distant future. If the chaos and suffering we already are witnessing has occurred with the planet heating up just over one-degree Celsius average temperature since the Industrial Revolution, what lies ahead on the current trajectory leading to a possible 4-degree spike by the end of the century?

In addition to the numerous forms of chaos climate change will unleash on the world, it will aggravate the problem of viral outbreaks. As temperatures climb higher and precipitation patterns change, so too do diseases multiply and spread. Increasingly, mosquito-borne diseases such as yellow fever, Dengue fever, Zika, and malaria will migrate northward and thrive in new areas. Malaria alone already kills a million people every year, and by 2030, the World Bank estimates that 3.6 billion people will have to contend with it, 100 million of them as a direct result of climate change.[28] With the habitat destruction and global warming produced by climate change, many animals are forced to migrate to more hospitable areas where they come into closer contact with other animals who may be or become pathogen carriers and then come into contact with us.[29] And as humans continue to decimate forests and habitats, we will confront ever-new viruses hidden away, just as both old and new terrifying diseases are locked in the melting Artic ice.[30]

Like climate change, the effects of the coronavirus will not be equally distributed. In the US, people of color and the poor have suffered disproportionately.[31] Globally, the virus is hitting hardest in nations like Ethiopia, Sudan, and Haiti, already affected by conflict, poverty, hunger, and climate change. According to David Beasley, head of the United Nations World Food Program, “We are not only facing a global health pandemic but also a global humanitarian catastrophe” that within a few months could lead to famine of “biblical proportions” in about three dozen countries.” [32] According to Beasley, the world now faces its most serious humanitarian crisis since World War II.

Again, we must recognize that COVID-19 is just a warm-up and trial run for the crises of far greater magnitude coming with climate change. Unlike COVID-19, however, there is no vaccine for runaway climate change, no technofix allowing global capitalism to ignore its addiction to growth. Both COVID-19 and climate change are global problems, but climate change is not solvable within capitalist society and demands far more radical vision and solutions to Anthropocene crises. COVID-19 itself may one day be vanquished, but climate change is here to stay, as is the problem of perpetual viral outbreaks. Human beings globally will have to learn how to develop sustainable lifeways and to radically change both their social institutions and their anthropocentric and speciesist worldviews, values, and practices. If there is one positive development to emerge with this pandemic, it should be awareness of how complacent and humanity is for a crisis like a global pandemic and how urgent is the need to develop global cooperation, medical infrastructure, and support systems for the most vulnerable as ever-greater crises lie ahead. More likely than not, however, the world will go the opposite route of denial, untrammeled growth, separation, fragmentation, and rule of self-interest.

  1. Post-Human Postscript

“We’re going to lurch from disaster to disaster to disaster until we start to really change the fundamental relationship between us and nature.” Sonia Shah

“There is hope, though not for us.” — Kafka.

What is most surprising about this new global pandemic is many were surprised at all, given that we are doing everything necessary behaviorally, sociologically, and economically for such outbreaks to erupt. Viral spread is a fait accompli when humans colonize landmass, eradicate species, and alter atmospheric dynamics, while spreading factory farms and wildlife markets on a global scale. Together, scores of different zoonotic diseases cause around 2.5 billion cases of human illness and 2.7 million human deaths a year.[33]

For decades, scientists have been warning about the imminent danger of pandemics, and human growth-addicted systems and predatory lifeways ensure that there will be plenty more pandemics and catastrophes to come. In the US, Trump ignored urgent warnings of an emergent pandemic in the first two months of 2020, squandering critical time needed to stop the spread of the virus, costing tens of thousands of lives. And upon taking office in 2017, Trump gutted medical infrastructure and research projects on infectious disease outbreaks, moving critical resources from public health to the military and defense industry.[34] Because of intensifying human transformations of habitat and ecosystems, zoonotic diseases are increasing dramatically and spreading rapidly across nations and continents, facilitated further by urbanization, international trade networks, and air travel. What used to take years or months for a pandemic to spread can now happen in a matter of weeks or days, as the COVID-19 virus demonstrates.

What will “the next Big One” be? What kind of hyper-virulent, highly infectious, promiscuously transmissible predatory virus is awaiting us? Another H1N1 avian flu strain that will claim at least 50 million lives as did the 1918 outbreak? One that kills 60% of those it infects as it spreads globally infecting billions of people? An Ebola outbreak from bushmeat that spreads like wildfire? Or a new bird/pig/human hybrid unleashed from a factory farm with a kill rate of 80%, unlike the comparatively feeble 1-3% of COVID-19. Or the relatively unknown and new H7N9 avian influenza virus first detected in China in 2013, which within a few years infected over 1,300 people and killed 40%, was detected in poultry in Tennessee, has mutated in a form infectious to human, and which the CDC considers to have the greatest potential to cause a pandemic? Influenza viruses, such as the avian and swine flu pathogens spawned by factory farming, are uniquely treacherous in being airborne, rather than a fluid-born disease like AIDS.

Influenza viruses, therefore, are comparatively easy to catch and spread. “Flu viruses are the only known pathogen capable of infecting literally billions of people in a matter of months.”[35] Numerous outbreaks, such as the 2009 swine flu pandemic, passed relatively quickly and ran their course, whereas they could have mutated into far more lethal forms, as can happen with any new zoonotic pathogen, especially one adapted for purely human-to-human transmission.

Nearly every major epidemic that has emerged over the last couple of decades – such as SARS, Ebola, Nipah virus and COVID-19 – leaped from people from animals under duress from climate change and habitat strain. Currently, a host of critical factors come together to drive a catastrophic collapse of ecosystems – deforestation, aggressive economic development, unfettered land conversion, species extinction, and climate change. Climate change and infectious diseases are the greatest dangers of our era; each one taken alone if a daunting crisis, together, they combine into a formidable planetary apocalypse.

Infectious diseases and climate change force a radical rethinking of whatwe mean by “security” and there is surely no danger greater than pandemics and the furies of a disrupted planet. In addition to new models of security that include health and environmental components, we need new holistic paradigms of health that recognize the interconnectedness of the well-being of humans, (nonhuman) animals, ecosystems, and the planet as a whole.[36] One of the most effective actions human beings can take to end the spread of infectious diseases is to stop exploiting and consuming animals.

Short of a safe and effective vaccine,[37] the coronavirus will never disappear; like Ebola, it will hide and emerge where there is opportunity, and exist alongside of thousands of other viruses, many perhaps far more deadly.[38] Right now, scientists worldwide are feverishly searching for a vaccine to COVID-19, and here, once again, people are treating symptoms and ignoring the root causes of the pandemic that lie in expansionistic economies, murderous animal markets, factory farms, and global meat consumption. Why focus solely on creating vaccines and do nothing to halt the conditions in which these diseases appear in the first place with live markets and factory farming? As well, calls for frequently handwashing, face masks, and social distancing are almost laughable in the face of what real priorities should be – abolishing live markets, ending factory farming, and moving society into a post-carnivorous paradigm.[39] As noted in an editorial published by the American Public Health Association a decade before the current COVID-19 pandemic, “Those who consume animals not only harm those animals and endanger themselves, but they also threaten the well-being of other humans who currently or will later inhabit the planet….[I]t is time for humans to remove their heads from the sand and recognize the risk to themselves that can arise from their maltreatment of other species.”[40]

Countless pathogens could evolve to become serious threats to humans, and pandemic outbreaks are inherent in current forms and institutions of human growth and expansion. The constant danger, uncertainty, and need to contend with deadly viruses, infectious diseases, and above all with the catastrophic effects of climate change, is a fact of life in the disrupted world of the Anthropocene. We have turned a corner as a species, there is no going back, no ignoring the bills come due for the last two centuries of frenzied growth and development that created a new geological epoch. To minimize the catastrophes that lie ahead one key measure societies across the globe must take is to radically change the way they treat other animals.

In a good sign, there is movement afoot, including from within China, to permanently ban wildlife markets and the sale and trade of wildlife for food and traditional medicine.[41] In an April 21, 2020 open letter to the World Health Organization, 241 leading animal welfare and conservation organizations around the world called on the WHO to urge governments worldwide to institute a permanent ban on live wildlife markets as proven threats to human health.[42]Similarly, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, called for a ban on live markets, saying that “The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us.”[43]

An effective global ban on wildlife markets and trafficking in wildlife would help prevent the spread of disease and also eliminate an important cause of species extinction.[44] Nevertheless, since live markets and bushmeat are some of the only sources of food for many poor people in Asia and Africa, one cannot successfully end the consumption of wildlife without providing alternative means of subsistence. “So unless we get alternatives for these communities,” Mrema warns, “there might be a danger of opening up illegal trade in wild animals which currently is already leading us to the brink of extinction for some species. We need to look at how we balance that and really close the hole of illegal trade in the future.”[45]

This raises the question of global justice, and here too we see the important overlap between human, animal, and environmental issues and the need to engage the complex social, political, and economic issues that underlie urgent problems.[46] Nor do these measures of banning wet markets and wildlife trade touch upon the structural problems inherent in capitalist economies that require incessant growth and consumption of the earth’s resources and lifeforms, a global system now clearly on a collision course with doom.

To Baudrillard’s quote that opened this essay: exactly what “world” is ending and why? The physical “world”? The planet? Not likely – the earth is 4.6 billion years old, will exist for another 5 billion years before being devoured by the sun. The planet has survived and thrived through tremendous climatic and geological changes and five mass extinction events, and it will survive the current sixth mass extinction event and the Anthropocene epoch that humans are rapidly bringing about. The problem is … these new planetary adaptation conditions will not be hospitable to human life, and to many other species as well.

Isn’t it rather that the “world” that is now “ending” is the Holocene epoch and the ten-thousand-year-old experiment we call “civilization,” an experiment that has not turned out well and now stands at a critical crossroads? Given the portentous changes still to come, I would hardly say that we are living after the apocalypse, but rather that we are witnessing its birth, amidst its infant beginnings. Our brief window of opportunity is closing and by the end of this century infectious diseases, runaway climate change, drought, famine, scarcity, flooding, superstorms, disease, and war will reveal their full horror. We are facing the greatest challenge in human history – are we up for the task? Or will this experiment of intelligent apes armed with potent technologies end tragically? We are well aware of the consequences of a failed state, but what if the true problem we face is the possibility that we will prove to be a failed species? If so, and we persist in being destructive parasites rather than responsible members of the global biocommunity (Gaia), the planet and its sundry life forms will only heal, revivify, and regenerate, but only in our wake.


“Nature’s Way,” by Spirit:


[1] See Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. New York: Macmillan and Guilford Press, 1991. This is the first of a trilogy of volumes we completed on postmodern culture and theory.

[2]  I am well aware of the intense debates raging about the semantics, periodization problems, and politics of the discourse of the Anthropocene, and can’t deal with them here. Suffice it to say, I believe the Anthropocene is an entrenched scientific and cultural concept here to stay, just like the discourse of the postmodern, which many thought was merely transient. The concept is useful in forcing us to grasp the magnitude of changes we are unleashing on the planet, and the need for radical changes. For a good treatment of the Anthropocene concept, see Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017.

[3] See “UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’,” May 6, 2019, Sustainable Development Goals (

[4] See Damian Carrington, “Humans just 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals – study,”  May 21, 2018, The Guardian (

[5] See Steven Best, “Globalization and the Human Empire,” (ed. Samir Dasgupta) The Politics of Globalization, Sage Press, 2008, pp. 288-312; an early and shorter version of this essay is available at:

[6] Brandon Specktor, “Global carbon emissions dropped an unprecedented 17% during the coronavirus lockdown – and it changes nothing,” May 20, 2020, ( As I write, greenhouse gas emissions are skyrocketing back toward pre-COVID-19 levels; see Emma Newburger, “Carbon emissions sharply rebound as countries lift coronavirus restrictions,” June 18, 2020, CNBC (

[7] See John Vidal, “Destroyed Habitat Creates the Perfect Conditions for Coronavirus to Emerge,” March 18, 2020, Scientific American(

[8]  Ibrahim Al-Marashi, “Black plague, Spanish flu, smallpox: All hold lessons for coronavirus,” March 13, 2020, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists(

[9] Hanna Hoag, “Study revives bird origin for 1918 flu pandemic,” February 24, 2014, Nature, (

[10] For a fuller list of zoonotic diseases, see the World Health Organization (

[11] Stephanie J. Salyer, “Prioritizing Zoonoses for Global Health Capacity Building—Themes from One Health Zoonotic Disease Workshops in 7 Countries, 2014–2016,” Emerging infectious diseases vol. 23,13 (2017): S55–S64 (online at:

[12] This is not to say that viruses in animals are always asymptomatic or innocuous, as for instance avian or swine flu can sicken birds and pigs, who humans then slaughter by the millions if necessary in order to eradicate the hosts.

[13] See Sonia Shaw, “Think Exotic Animals Are to Blame for the Coronavirus? Think Again,” February 18, 2020, The Nation(, For an excellent analysis of how habitat destruction and climate change contributed to the degradation of ecosystems and allowed for new diseases such as Zika, West Nile, Lyme, see Abraham Lustgarten, “How Climate Change Is Contributing to Skyrocketing Rates of Infectious Disease,” May 7, 2020, ProPublica ( Also, on the key theme of how human encroachment into environments increases the risk of spillover diseases, see John Vidal, “Human Impact on wildlife to blame for spread of viruses, says study,” April 7, 2020, The Guardian(

[14] Wet markets sell wild animals such as salamanders, crocodiles, scorpions, rates, squirrels, foxes, civets, and turtles, and in Africa traffic in bats, rats, insects, and primates as well. Sundry animals are confined in adjacent cages in squalid and unsanitary areas and are slaughtered on site. On wet markets and problems with calls for banning them, see Sigal Samuel, “The coronavirus likely came from China’s wet markets. They’re reopening anyway,” April 15, 2020, Vox


[15]  See Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The 2009 H1N1 Pandemic: Summary Highlights, April 2009-April 2010.” June 16, 2010 ( On the frightening evolution and spread of the H1N1 and H5N1 viruses, see Mark Jerome Walters, “Birds, Pigs, and People: The Rise of Pandemic Flus,” in Walters M.J. Seven Modern Plagues. Island Press, Washington, DC, 151-173, 2014 (online at:

[16] Greger, cited in interview with Kelly Freston, “Flu Season: Factory Farming Could Cause A Catastrophic Pandemic,” March 18, 2010, Huffington Post (

[17] Kelly Anthis, “Global Farmed & Factory Farmed Animals Estimates,” February 21, 2019, Sentience Institute  (

[18] Jacy Reese Anthis, “US Factory Farming Estimates,” Sentience Institute, April 11, 2019


[19] Cited in Sigal Samuel, “The meat we eat is a pandemic risk, too,” June 10, 2020, Vox ( On the 2009 swine flu outbreak and factory farms as a key cause of disease spread, also see Felicity Lawrence,  “The Pig’s revenge,” May 1, 2009, The Guardian(

[20] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (

[21] See Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker, Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs. New York: Little Brown, 2017.

[22] The data on the role of factory farming’s contribution to greenhouse gas production varies widely according to different sources. In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) published an influential report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow” (  which claimed that animal production generates 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions (including carbon dioxide and the far more potent gases, methane and nitrous oxide), more than the entire transportation sector combined.  In its most recent assessment report, however, “Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock” (, the FAO estimated that livestock produces 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions ( Despite the variance, the evidence is overwhelming that livestock production is a prodigious contributor to the problem of global warming and immediate and radical change is needed.

[23] Sonia Shah, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, From Cholera to Ebola and Beyond. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.

[24] Like the coronavirus, racism can be asymptomatic (subtle, unconscious, implicit) or symptomatic (overt and blatant).

[25] Trump made a complete abdication of any responsibility for the crisis, showed no interest in performing the basic function of government which is to protect its citizens, and displayed no empathy for suffering and death. In a larger context, the disaster is due not only to Trump, but also to the neoliberal economic policies prevailing in the US and globally since the 1980s, which gutted social institutions and programs.

[26] See Steven Best, “The Costs of a Wall: The Impact of Pseudo-Security Policies on Communities, Wildlife, and Ecosystems,” March 26, 2020, (

[27] Perhaps only in the US could scientists, doctors, and medical care professionals be threatened and vilified (by Trump supporters) for advocating public health mandates over individual “rights.”

[28] David Wallace-Wells, “The Coronavirus Is a Preview of Our Climate-Change Future,” April 8, 2020, Intelligencer(

[29] Neela Banerjee, “Q&A: A Harvard Expert on Environment and Health Discusses Possible Ties Between COVID and Climate,” March 12, 2020, InsideClimateNews (

[30] While horrifying for the environment and diversity of plant and animal species, the rapid clearing of Brazilian rainforests, for example, also has ominous implications for human health. ADD ref

[31]See, for instance, Mariah Godoy and Daniel Wood, “What Do Coronavirus Racial Disparities Look Like State By State?,” May 30, 2020, National Public Radio (

[32] Beasley cited in Nicholas Kristof, “This Pandemic Is Bringing Another With It,”  April 22, 2020, The New York Times( See Beasley’s dire forecast on the World Food Programme site, at:

” Lyse Doucet, “Coronavirus: World risks ‘biblical’ famines due to pandemic – UN,” April 21, 2020, BBC News


[33] D. Grace, et al. “Mapping of poverty and likely zoonoses hotspots.” Zoonoses Project 4. Report to the UK Department for International Development. 2012  (available online at:

[34] One such crucial project Trump cut was called PREDICT – Pandemic Influenza and Other Emerging Threats – doing cutting-edge field research on the risks of emerging viruses and who were on the cusp of a breakthrough on sequencing genes of coronaviruses and beginning work on a vaccine. See Donald G. McNeil Jr., “Scientists Were Hunting for the Next Ebola. Now the U.S. Has Cut Off Their Funding,” October 25, 2019, The New York Times ( The group advocated merging public health policy with environmental and climate science to help stem the spread of contagions, and under Trump were never invited back to Congress

[35] Kelly Freston interview with Dr, Michael Greger, op. cited.

[36] See, for instance, the concept of “One Health” which, the CDC states, “recognizes that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment” ( Also see the USAID report, “Emerging Pandemic Threats: One Health in Action,” (

[37] Here we must note the irony that vaccine research and development rely on inflicting further suffering on animals, in an attempt to solve a problem that arose from exploiting animals in the first place. As well, vaccines have sickened, crippled, and killed people in the past and are not a panacea.

[38] According to one estimate, there are already 3,200 strains of coronaviruses viruses in bats; see Abraham Lustgarten, op. cit.

[39] There are some modest changes afoot here, including: increasing calls from public health groups and others to abolish factory farms, the growing popularity of plant-based “meats” in advanced nations, a shift toward cloning animals in laboratories rather than factory farms (so-called “clean meat”), and so on. At the same time, however, statistics show that meat consumption globally continues to rise. ADD

[40] David Benatar, “The Chickens Come Home to Roost.” October 10, 2001, American Journal of Public Health(

[41] In February 2020, China banned the buying, selling, and eating of wild animals in an effort to prevent zoonotic diseases. An effective ban on trafficking wild animals in wet markets in China, however, is difficult to achieve, however, because these markets have deep roots in Chinese culture, they are a multi-billion-dollar industry, and they can operate undetected or underground. See Ben Wescott and Shawn Deng, China has made eating wild animals illegal after the coronavirus outbreak. But ending the trade won’t be easy,” March 5, 2020, CNN ( Some wet markets continue to operate after the initial ban, however, and current regulations do not prohibit rearing or trading exotic animals for fur, entertainment, and traditional Chinese medicine.

[42] See “Open letter to World Health Organisation,” Lion Coalition (

[43] Mrema cited in Patrick Greenfield, “Ban wildlife markets to avert pandemics, says UN biodiversity chief,” April 6, 2020, The Guardian( For other problems with one-dimensional calls to ban wet markets, see Michael Standaert, “‘Mixed with prejudice’: calls for bans on `wet markets’ misguided, experts argue,” April 15, 2020, The Guardian (

[44] In June 2020, China was forced to begin shutdown measures once again after a new viral outbreak emerged from a seafood market.

[45] Cited in Greenfield, ibid.

[46] On the interconnection among human, animal, and environmental issues, connected in a paradigm of “total liberation,” see Steven Best, The Politics of Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21st Century. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014.