Anthropogenic transformation of the earth’s climate heightens the risks of epidemics and pandemics as hosts or vectors expand their ranges and encounter populations of susceptible humans or other creatures rendered yet more vulnerable by the previous factors. Scientists have already reported climate-associated range expansions of host animals and vectors for such diseases as Dengue, Malaria, Lyme disease and West Nile.
These multiple ecological processes and their emergent properties are deeply intertwined, and anthropogenic impacts can show up in multiple and sometimes contradictory ways. For example, research on the re-emerging vector-borne disease American Cutaneous Leishmaniasis (Mountain Leprosy) shows how intersecting biodiversity decline, deforestation, habitat fragmentation, climate change and social marginalization and inequality can lead to counterintuitive and widespread pathogen transmission. In this case, the protozoan parasite is transmitted by forest-inhabiting sand flies. Common belief held that the vector would disappear with deforestation. But, this belief failed to consider that forest fragmentation, the result of subsistence agriculture by impoverished peasant farmers, actually leads to the proliferation of the sand fly.
Capitalist Economics Drive Ecological Devastation
The upstream causal agent of this ecological degradation is not “overpopulation,” as Daszak and other writers affirm, but the capitalist economy. Environmental destruction is inherent to our economic system, from its “core” characteristic of commodity production, which values the objects of production based on monetary returns, not on any usefulness or aesthetic or ecological value they may possess.
Such commodities are worthless to entrepreneurs if they do not incorporate a profit which is the result of appropriation of human labor, ultimately captured by working up nature-based resources, such as cobalt or oil or soy beans or palm oil or cattle. Corporations are driven by competition to increase returns on their investments. Profits can be enhanced by cutting production costs or intensifying or increasing productivity of labor through mass production. Commodities are also useless if they cannot be sold on a market that is intrinsically limited by “effective demand.” As a result, those same entrepreneurs must strive for increasing market shares and creation of new markets through approaches such as astute advertising, expansion of credit or visually appealing and nutritionally useless or addicting agricultural or food products. Capitalist production has thus brought into being rampant mass consumerism. Indeed, there is a reason that up to 60% of corporate budgets are devoted to marketing. Monocrop agriculture, growing pesticide or fertilizer use, containment livestock production and profligate antibiotic use, or mountaintop removal, and deforestation, along with immiseration of agriculture workers and subsistence peasant farmers are all products of this dynamic.
Such a system of production is also inherently wasteful and polluting. Capital is obliged to throw increasing masses of cheap, disposable or obsolescing commodities onto markets. Since the inception of our social order, capitalists have sought to hold down costs of production by externalizing environmental, health and social costs deemed superfluous to the accumulation process. Nutrient-laden waters, loss of biodiversity and emerging diseases are all externalized costs for corporations, even though they are all directly or indirectly attributable to capitalist production and circulation.
The dynamic of capitalist production, with the support of corresponding nation-states drove the centuries-long global division of labor between the global north and south, and the subsequent, more recent, and ever-accelerating international domination by finance capital and globalization, with its current obscene concentration of wealth and power. Most critically, this refers to the power to make investment decisions (and influence political decisions) that impact entire regions or the globe. The decision to raze Amazon forests for cattle ranching or West African forests for oil palm production is made at corporate headquarters in New York or London and financed by the World Bank to produce commodities to be sold largely in the global north, but, also, increasingly among emergent middle classes in Brazil, India or South Africa. And the environmental costs of this chain are borne or exported to the global south, in a dynamic of “unequal ecological exchange.”
As ecosystems are bulldozed, polluted, over-hunted/fished, and replaced by anthropized, often toxic or pathological environments, organisms such as the deer mice that bear Lyme disease or Hantavirus, the bats that carry Nipahvirus, Zika or Ebola, or mosquitoes that transmit Dengue or Malaria, prosper. In particular food, fisheries and agricultural or livestock industries have notoriously given rise to zoonotic illnesses. The latter three sectors are particularly susceptible to plant or livestock pathogens and pests, including many that are transmissible to humans.