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Gaia and the coronavirus by Stephan Harding

sitting on a windowsill

I’ve been asked a few times recently whether Gaia has sent us the coronavirus (COVID-19) for some reason or purpose of her own.

My first response is to re-frame this as a scientific question since this keeps me nicely within my comfort zone and yet has valuable insights to offer.

From a scientific perspective the virus can be seen as the inevitable result of ‘over-connectedness’.

Scientific ecologists have studied the structure of food webs in nature and have discovered that in the most resilient webs each species feeds a little on a lot of its prey species whilst feeding strongly on only a few of them.

Food webs in which strong feeding relationships predominate are more liable to collapse than those where predators have mostly weak feeding interactions with most of their prey species.  It makes sense.

Depend too much on one prey species and you vanish too if it crashes for some reason. It’s clear how this applies to our situation with the virus: our global human sphere is far too over-connected. We depend too much on food and products from far away.

We travel far too much in vast numbers and go to places that are far too distant. We are seeing right now how in an over-connected web a localised disturbance such as the appearance of a fatal virus can spread and amplify very quickly throughout the system, reducing its resilience and making it more likely to collapse.

We can even surmise that the mathematical relationship describing the frequency distribution of interactions in a healthy web is a power law with lots of weak interactions rising to a peak and then tailing off slowly towards a very few very strong interactions.

But does Gaia have a purpose in sending us the virus? Here we are of course on much trickier ground since we can’t explore this question in the traditional scientific way. The scientist in me tells me to approach this area with great care, and I am inclined to agree. 

Despite my great interest and love for psyche, I don’t want to accept anything that hasn’t passed some sort of stress test.

So if we want to wonder what Gaia’s purpose might be in stopping us in our tracks with the virus, depriving us of close social contact, of travel and mass consumption, let’s try this: she’s teaching us.

How so? We are clearly members of an over connected, deeply wayward, Gaia-blind culture. Our climate scientists have made it abundantly clear that our unbridled warming of the planet will lead to an unimaginably vast and irreversible global ecological and social catastrophe. 

Yet we tune out the message: they might be wrong, it won’t happen now, any day now we’ll find a fix. So perhaps the virus is Gaia’s way of giving us a taste of what a global catastrophe on a much vaster scale would be like.

The virus crisis is big and immediate enough to make us stop and ponder and re-evaluate our entire way of living, but it’s also a crisis that we should be able to resolve with our science, technology and ingenuity. In other words, she’s giving us a chance to learn by confronting us with a crisis that, is, hopefully, to some extent, reversible. Not so with climate change and mass extinction.

Once – and probably quite soon - the planet heads towards irreversible warming, by definition there will be absolutely nothing we’ll be able to do about it.

So, with the virus, is Gaia giving us a last chance to learn to love and value the local, to be small, to slow down and consume far less, to be humble, and to be beautiful again as a species within her vast lustrous earthly body?

As a mother, she is tough perhaps, but in the end possibly a strangely kind one if the virus makes us realise what will happen when climate change becomes unstoppable because of our endless lust for economic growth.

Floods, melting ice, droughts and fires haven’t worked. Perhaps the virus will make us listen.

Deep Ecology Research Fellow Dr Stephan Harding is programme lead for MSc Holistic Science.

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