COVID-19 has demanded that humanity come to a halt. Where humans have stalled, it seems as though nature has picked up the slack. Indeed, fewer cars on the road, jets in the sky, and factories in operation have meant that nature has gotten a well-deserved break from humanity’s pollutive tendencies. As such, canals in Venice have clear water, satellite images show reduced pollution and pictures of animals roaming empty city streets abound.
Nature’s rebound in light of humanity’s suppression by COVID-19 has led some to conclude that humanity itself is a virus. The “We’re the Virus” school of thought has used the example of COVID-19 to assert that humans are like a virus unto the earth. This metaphor is tragically misguided at best and fatally dangerous at worst. Vilifying humans by equating them to a virus is a Malthusian narrative: It argues that humans — specifically, large populations — are the root cause of the climate crisis. Such a demonizing view, however, is fallacious.
Viruses, of course, justifiably deserve to be expelled from their hosts. As such, a metaphor that equates humans to viruses seems to suggest that humans be expelled from the earth. So, let us briefly entertain the notion that humans are a virus that must be removed. Certainly, not all of us would agree to sacrifice our lives for the environment, nor does it seem that that is what proponents of that view want. Indeed, most who adopt that Malthusian view of environmentalism suggest that a global population of 2-3 billion is sustainable if we all want to have comfortable levels of consumption.
So, if humans are a virus of unsustainability that must be removed, with a current population of 7.8 billion, we only have to drop 4.8 billion people to achieve sustainability! In reality, it’s not so simple. As is always the case with human processes, the decision of who would bear the brunt of that endeavor would not be equitable, and the result would undoubtedly consist of the wealthy choosing the poor to pay.
In the realm of global development, evidence of that sort of thinking is already evident: while wealthy nations consume and pollute much more than poor nations, the wealthy have used Malthusian logic to suggest that the large populations and rapid growth rates of poor countries are really what is responsible for poverty and the climate crisis.
That has had nasty implications: India, for example, has an appalling history of forced sterilizations in attempt to slow its population growth. Such obvious violations of human rights bring us to why the depiction of humanity as a virus is so bad. If humans determine that humans are the virus, it would ultimately be poorer people who pay the price for that notion at the will of the wealthy, and that is called eco-fascism.
All of this is not to say that there aren’t environmental lessons to be learned from COVID-19. Humans naturally evolved on this earth, and we have a valuable place here. More than that, we can be part of the solution. While humanity’s current behavior may be unsustainable, that does not mean that humanity itself is. As such, instead of dangerously reviling humanity as a whole, we should be focused on ameliorating the unsustainable practices we have adopted.
Sam Smith is a junior studying geography at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sam know by tweeting him @sambobsmith_.