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The Political Ecology of Pandemics

Emerging Diseases and Ecosystem Decline

October 25, 2020

As an ecologist with a background in epidemiology, it is encouraging to me that the Sars-CoV-2 pandemic has drawn global attention to the connections between human and ecosystem health. Over the past decade, increasing awareness of those connections has led to the emergence of the field of “One Health” or “Planetary Health.” One of the chief proponents of One Health in the U.S., Dr. Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance, a NYC-based NGO, recently wrote a Guardian editorial titled, “We are entering an era of pandemics – it will end only when we protect the rainforest.” It is true, as Daszak writes, that rainforest protection and restoration and curtailment of the international wildlife trade are necessary components of any plan to forestall pandemics of emerging diseases, but these measures are not nearly enough, and when applied without addressing social inequities and structural economic imperatives, ultimately counterproductive.

Not all emerging or zoonotic diseases originate in tropical rainforest, although many have, and given the diversity of potential hosts, intimate engagement with susceptible human populations, and high rates of deforestation in regions like Southeast Asia and the Amazon Basin, it is likely that many more such outbreaks will occur. Many other zoonotic pathogens emerged from forests and fields in temperate climates, including Hantavirus, Lyme disease and probably Sars-CoV-2. Yet other emerging pathogens, such as recent virulent strains of Vibrio cholerae, arose in aquatic environments. Of course, much of what Daszak says about deforestation and emerging diseases is true of these other ecosystems. The upsurge in emerging diseases over recent decades is the consequence of a much broader issue of anthropogenic ecosystem disruption

Such disruption manifests itself at many intertwined levels, from populations and communities to the biosphere as a whole. Deforestation and other forms of habitat destruction that bring humans into proximity with hosts or vectors represent just one aspect of this. Biodiversity decline is another driver of pathogen emergence and crossover. Reduction of complex ecological communities can contribute to creating concentrations of favorable hosts and vectors for pathogen transmission. Decline of these communities often favors opportunistic species and adaptable vectors, while eliminating predators, competitors and dead-end “decoy” hosts. Such generalist organisms do well in anthropized environments, with their heterogeneous habitats, nesting sites and food sources. As ecological communities become depauperate and fragmented, the remaining organisms themselves become more vulnerable to pathogens and invasive species. Ecologists have long recognized the impact of biodiversity decline on such “ecosystem functions and services” as pathogen and pest resistance.

Yet other ecological transgressions involve increasingly global disruption of biogeochemical cycles, leading to other kinds of pathogen emergence. Agricultural, industrial or urban residential waste runoff overload aquatic phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, and favor outbreaks of toxic algae, dinoflagellates, cyanobacteria, or the cholera bacterium

Rainforest protection and restoration and curtailment of the international wildlife trade are necessary components of any plan to forestall pandemics of emerging diseases, but these measures are not nearly enough.

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.

The environmental costs of this chain are borne or exported to the global south, in a dynamic of “unequal ecological exchange.” 

One example of this is the looming threat of swine flu and other outbreaks in the containment livestock industry. Not only does factory livestock production create a favorable environment for interspecific pathogen transmission, but, as a result of the crowded conditions, high mortality and rapid turnover of livestock in these facilities, an environment in which natural selection enhances virulence.

Throughout the history of modern society, from the enclosure of commons and dispossession of peasants through the development of industrial capitalism, our social order has spawned a succession of environmental crises. The past half century corresponding to the development of globalization has witnessed a confluence of transgressions of biospheric boundaries, including the destabilization of the carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles, ecosystem destruction and massive biodiversity decline. This same period has seen the proliferation of emerging illnesses on a global scale. The international division of production and markets has led to devastating but rather different repercussions for north and south. 

Emerging Diseases in Global North and South

Emerging diseases with pandemic potential have largely arisen in the south due to both biological and social factors enumerated above. Systems of mass production and consumption in the north have favored proliferation of pathogens, sometimes locally emergent (such as Lyme disease) and sometimes arising elsewhere in the chain of capital circulation (such as swine flu). However, a globalized market economy, together with growing social inequity and neoliberal structural changes in the north, creates the conditions for the impact of outbreaks, whatever their origin, to be felt in both global north and south. By and large, the global north was historically better equipped to confront outbreaks. In the postwar period, even with continued social inequality and persistent poverty among marginalized and dispossessed groups, medical, public health, sanitary, housing, educational, and transportation infrastructures were more developed. This legacy has allowed a number of countries to contain the impact of the current Sars CoV-2 pandemic. However, neoliberal structural changes, such as dismantlement of infrastructures, ecological degradation, health and environmental deregulation, or just-in-time manufacturing have limited the ability of much of the north to respond effectively, while this virus has been effectively weaponized by political actors in north and south committed to maintenance and reproduction of social inequality.  

Social conditions imposed through that same corporate hegemony, as well as the wars waged on its behalf, tend to bring the most vulnerable populations into contact with dwindling and disturbed environments, pathogen-bearing wildlife and vectors, and thus create a great potential for zoonotic crossovers. In the south, those are largely rural and urban poor, refugees and other displaced populations, living on marginal lands under precarious conditions, and relying on specific high-risk livelihoods, such as subsistence farming and hunting, plantation farm labor, or trapping for the wildlife trade These are the same populations that often lack public health or clinical infrastructures, or basic sanitary conditions. 

In the north as well, structurally vulnerable populations are more susceptible to pathogen transmission (not to mention increased virulence). While most blue-collar work environments pose enhanced risk of transmission among workers, particular livelihoods such as meat processing or agriculture may pose risks for direct cross-over of animal-borne illnesses, as has occurred with avian/swine flu, Q Fever, and other pathogens in both north and south. These pathogens may then be transmitted through commercial – and often global – commodity chains, as recent coronavirus contamination of Brazilian meat exports to China demonstrated.

While attending aquaculture projects in the Nicaraguan countryside, back during the 1980s, I became aware of the environmental health consequences of the dominant political economy. In many places in the hinterlands, cattle ranchers, producing meat for national and international markets historically displaced impoverished peasant farmers, who migrated ever further into the “agricultural frontier” – the rainforest, where they carried out slash-and-burn agriculture, creating precisely the kinds of fragmented, heterogeneous habitats favored by vectors – only to have the cycle incessantly repeated. Such populations were rife with malaria, Chagas and other diseases. Under the impetus of globalization, these cycles occur throughout the south at ever greater rates and are increasingly integrated into world-wide markets. Back in the 1980’s, though, his cycle was interrupted for a time by an extensive agrarian reform.

The current Sars CoV-2 pandemic is likely to prove to be the product of the same dynamic. Behind Sars-CoV-2 lie decades of deforestation in Hubei Province and massive expansion of agriculture, logging, industry and human settlement, bringing bats and humans into ever closer contact. These economic activities, even under “communist” rule, were driven by a competitive world market and capital accumulation. In recent decades, while some reforestation has taken place, agricultural and urban expansion and forest fragmentation have continued apace. Meanwhile, studies of Lyme disease have shown that reforestation minus restoration of biodiverse ecosystems may still favor proliferation of hosts and vectors.

The real basis for success in sea turtle conservation lay in that country’s grass-roots driven agrarian reform and its complementary access to agricultural credit and inputs, which freed the rural poor from the economic necessity to harvest turtle eggs.

A Viable “One Health”

The way to halt pandemics at the source certainly involves ecosystem protection and restoration, and more importantly, finding ways to integrate human activities with healthy ecosystems, such as agroecological production of foods. Such a transformation requires foregoing profit-driven production and growth. But it also requires providing vulnerable populations with decent wages, housing, healthcare, sanitary amenities, food and education. With regard to precarious livelihoods, such as trapping or hunting, it means providing alternative forms of employment with decent pay under safe and hygienic conditions. 

To address this panorama, it is insufficient to call for an end to rainforest destruction. Human societies must completely rethink and revamp our relationships with the biosphere and relationships between people. As is the case with climate change, what such measures will entail is system change.

Back in the 1980s I was introduced to the revolutionary Nicaraguan version of sea turtle conservation. Sea turtle eggs were widely harvested by the rural population as a source of food and income. Under the Somoza dictatorship and into the early Sandinista government, the turtles were legally protected, and the law was variably, sometimes repressively, and often ineffectively enforced by police and game wardens. However, in the early 1980s, government institutions and mass organizations embarked on a series of participatory and sustainable conservation programs. Inspired by the success of the 1981 literacy campaign and with the UN Environmental Program’s assistance, the Sandinista movement promoted grassroots environmental education, participation and decision-making in sea turtle protection efforts. The program was recognized by the UNEP as a success. However, as was the case with halting the expansion of the agricultural frontier, the real basis for success in sea turtle conservation lay in that country’s grass-roots driven agrarian reform and its complementary access to agricultural credit and inputs, which freed the rural poor from the economic necessity to harvest turtle eggs. Provision of housing, basic sanitary amenities, healthcare and education further stabilized the population’s wellbeing (and, additionally, diminished the risk of infectious disease transmission). It is only by simultaneously engaging in both ecological conservation and social transformation, that we will forestall the threat of further pandemics.



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