By Alan Ware, Research Associate
“As the human population grows, ecosystems change. Forests are exploited for logging, landscapes are clear-cut for agriculture and mining interests, and the traditional buffer zones – once separating humans from animals or from the pathogens that they harbor – are notably reduced or lost.”
- the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) 2016 report
The coronavirus has swept the planet this year. And we’ve seen the massively disruptive effect a pandemic can have on people’s health, livelihoods, and everyday habits.
We always turn to the experts for facts and informed perspective on the role of population in the crises of our physical world. Researchers leave no doubt about the direct relationship between huge and increasing human numbers and our consumption with the increasing likelihood of regional epidemics and global pandemics.
In this coronavirus pandemic it's readily apparent the biggest cities are suffering the worst. As Dr. Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist, noted:
"There's a strong correlation between the risk of pandemic and human population density. We've done the math and we've proved it. Any emerging disease in the last 30 or 40 years has come about as a result of encroachment into wild lands and changes in demography.”
Professor Tim Benton, research director of the Chatham House Emerging Risks team, notes the fact that increasing urbanization puts wildlife and people into closer, more frequent contact:
"The way humans live has also changed – 55% of the global population now live in cities, up from 35% 50 years ago. And these bigger cities provide new homes for wildlife – rats, mice, raccoons, squirrels, foxes, birds, jackals, monkeys – which can live in the green spaces such as parks and gardens, off the waste humans leave behind. Often, wildlife species are more successful in cities than in the wild because of the plentiful food supply, making urban spaces a melting pot for evolving diseases."
Journalist Renee Cho of Columbia University’s Earth Institute gives an excellent overview of the main human activities that lead to greater likelihood of pandemics. She points to a specific culprit in this and many other pandemics: deforestation.
"According to the United States Agency for International Development, ‘nearly 75 percent of all new, emerging, or re-emerging diseases affecting humans at the beginning of the 21st century are zoonotic’ – meaning they originate in animals. These include AIDS, SARS, H5N1 avian flu and the H1N1 flu. More and more wild animals, which may have carried diseases without effect for years, are coming into contact with humans, often because of deforestation.
The human activity that drives deforestation – logging, mining, slash and burn agriculture, demand for firewood and road building – means more and more people are entering the forest, and thus forcing animals like bats to find new habitats closer to human civilization.”
Cho also notes that climate change is expected to increase the prevalence of large-scale diseases.
“A number of diseases well known to be climate-sensitive, such as malaria, dengue fever, West Nile virus, cholera and Lyme disease, are expected to worsen as climate change results in higher temperatures and more extreme weather events.
Extreme weather events can produce a cascade of other effects that influence disease. Heat and droughts create dry conditions, providing fuel for forest fires that end up fragmenting forests and driving wildlife closer to humans. Droughts and floods affect crop yield, sometimes resulting in malnutrition, which makes people more vulnerable to disease while forcing them to find other food sources. Flooding can provide breeding grounds for insects and cause water contamination, leading to the spread of diarrheal diseases like cholera. Moreover, extreme weather can disrupt the finely tuned relationships between predators and prey, and competitors that keep pathogen-carrying pests like mice and mosquitoes in check."
The causation becomes apparent: greater human population and activity creates changes in climate which then creates more opportunities for diseases to proliferate.
There's a new and growing academic discipline, planetary health, that focuses on the increasingly visible connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems. The coronavirus is a textbook example of how we ignore those connections at our own peril.
As David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, writes:
“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants – and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
Kate Jones, Chair of Ecology and Biodiversity at University College London, warns us that humanity’s blind destruction of landscapes and habitats comes back to haunt us:
“Viruses are on the rise more because there are so many of us and we are so connected. The chance of more [spillovers into humans] happening is higher because we are degrading these landscapes. Destroying habitats is the cause, so restoring habitats is a solution. It's not OK to transform a forest into agriculture without understanding the impact that has on climate, carbon storage, disease emergence and flood risk. You can't do those things in isolation without thinking about what that does to humans."
As Jones notes, it’s not just the world’s poorest invading and degrading landscapes.
"Demand for wood, minerals and resources from the global north leads to the degraded landscapes and ecological disruption that drives disease".
Fewer people in the rich countries means less pressure for resources in countries all over the world. More people choosing small families all over the world will produce a much smaller global population. And that’s an intentional, pain-free method for beginning to restore habitats around the globe.
We cannot continue treating nature like a bottomless bank account that we can keep drawing on ad infinitum. We have to give back. And a big part of giving back will be lessening the demands our numbers and consumption place on nature.
Nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis, according to Inger Anderson, executive director of the UN’s Environment Program.
“There are too many pressures at the same time on our natural systems and something has to give. We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves. And as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally.”
At World Population Balance we’re trying to prevent humanity hurtling towards 10 billion and the massive misery and suffering that will cause. The coronavirus is one of the many “accidents” of nature we can expect to continue increasing in this century. As more and more people choose small families we can – through intentionality and planfulness – create a healthier, more sustainable, and beautiful future.