An Anthropocene pandemic

It’s important to understand that this COVID-19 pandemic is a human creation. We made this problem because of the type of species we are, and the planet we have created.

Endangered turtle on sale


Humans do not operate within ecosystems in the same way as other species, we alter them cumulatively.

We also don’t interact with each other like other species. We operate in large networks of unrelated individuals that we treat as other species treat family.

Over tens of thousands of years, this has helped make us the most successful big species. We now dominate the planet and have pushed it into the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans. No part of Earth is untouched by human activity.

The biosphere operates systemically: the cycling of chemicals (carbon, oxygen, water, etc), of energy, and biology all interact to produce a living synergy. We are part of that. Our bodies and all the resources we use and move are part of this interaction.

But on top of this, human culture is its own system. The numbers of us, how we are networked, our position in this network of humanity as individuals and societies all produce their own effects.

This is important because human interactions with their ecosystems are culturally driven. We attach subjective values to things of no or little survival value. And we spread these invented values through our networks, just as we spread our resources, genes and germs.

Armadillo and assorted

As we plunder intact ecosystems for the resources we value, we disrupt established ecological niches, including those of pathogen and host. Viruses that evolved life cycles in a wild animal get opportunistic exposure to humans, for instance.

Because humans now operate as a globalised network of over 7.5 billion hyperconnected individuals, we have effectively become a superorganism. The movement of infectious valuables (such as wildlife) from one continent to another is as rapid as the spread of that agent.

No one individual decided bushmeat/wildlife was valuable; no one individual infected us. This situation arose synergically from our cultural system. And as we look at our globally devastated ecosystems it can seem hopeless.

But just as one infectious agent can spread throughout the network from a single point, so too can one solution. Our superoganism is made of so many differently connected networks that can each be tweaked. And some individuals are positioned with greater agency over the whole.

Already, the networks are producing potential tests, treatments and vaccines, as our collective brain takes data from the superorganism’s body.

And tweaks are producing networks optimised for physical distance yet social connectedness, the better to thwart pathogen spread.

We must also tweak our superorganism’s interactions with our environment. We are a part of the biosphere and as we blunder into ecosystems we must be mindful of the greater systems that we are all a part of. A tweak to one part of the network can have far reaching consequences, (good or bad) for us all.

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