City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

4: We make the virus and the virus makes us

Written in


Afternoon walk, Stockholm 3 April 2020

The reversed dynamics of coronavirus and climate, and how the destruction of biodiversity that created the climate crisis probably also created the virus.

Deforestation, biodiversity, and zoonotic diseases

Building on Deming’s notion, the virus is thriving because it is produced by the system we have created, and is tuned optimally for these conditions. So this is not a Black Swan event, any more than climate disasters like the bushfires are (Indeed, a 2008 report, commissioned by the Australian government, predicted that the climate crisis would cause more intense fire seasons, starting earlier and ending later, and that this would happen around 2020.)

The virus is not a black swan either. For years, researchers have been warning us that pandemics such as COVID-19 have been emerging, with increased frequency in recent decades, responding precisely to the dynamics of our economies and the impact of our patterns of living over that period. For example, World Health Organisation (2003); ‘Global trends in emerging infectious diseases’ (2008); ‘Planning for the Next Global Pandemic’, (2015); and ‘Pandemics: Risks, Impacts, and Mitigation’ (2017) and so on.

“Evidence suggests that the likelihood of pandemics has increased over the past century because of increased global travel and integration, urbanization, changes in land use, and greater exploitation of the natural environment.” — Madhav, Oppenheim, Gallivan, Mulembakani, Rubin, and Wolfe, in ‘Pandemics: Risks, Impacts, and Mitigation’, (2017)

“Changes in infectious disease transmission patterns are a likely major consequence of climate change. We need to learn more about the underlying complex causal relationships, and apply this information to the prediction of future impacts, using more complete, better validated, integrated, models.” World Health Organisation (2003)

Crucially, then, the virus is intrinsic to the same patterns of activity that create the climate crisis, and its attendant crises of chronic health and inequalities. In essence, the virus is an articulation of the climate crisis just as the bushfires are.

This is not simply clear to scientists and other researchers. John Scott, Head of Sustainability Risk at Zurich Insurance group, writing for the World Economic Forum, states:

“The increasing frequency of disease outbreaks is linked to climate change and biodiversity loss … Deforestation has increased steadily over the past two decades and is linked to 31% of outbreaks such as Ebola, and the Zika and Nipah viruses. Deforestation drives wild animals out of their natural habitats and closer to human populations, creating a greater opportunity for zoonotic diseases — that is, diseases that spread from animals to humans. More broadly, climate change has altered and accelerated the transmission patterns of infectious diseases such as Zika, malaria and dengue fever, and has caused human displacement. Movements of large groups to new locations, often under poor conditions, increases displaced populations’ vulnerability to biological threats such as measles, malaria, diarrheal diseases and acute respiratory infections.” — John Scott, Head of Sustainability Risk at Zurich Insurance Group

That deforestation is, of course, a primary factor in the climate crisis — as are, more broadly, the above references to “increased global travel and integration, urbanization, changes in land use, and greater exploitation of the natural environment.”. The origins of the virus and the climate crisis are the same: each supports the other, in a symbiotic dance that would almost be admirable were it not so life-threatening.

John Vidal, writing in Ensia a few days ago, collates much of the scientific evidence to support this claim, specifically for COVID-19. He has scientist after scientist lining up to point out the links between biodiversity loss and easier generation and transmission of new and existing diseases. Of course, this same biodiversity loss is also a major enabler, as well as outcome, of the climate crisis. This, amongst many other reasons, is why Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson suggests that increasing and protecting biodiversity must be our primary goal for the foreseeable future.

“A number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19, the viral disease that emerged in China in December 2019, to arise — with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems.” — John Vidal, Ensia, 17 March 2020

Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at UCL, describes how emerging animal-borne infectious diseases are linked to environmental change and human behaviour, which is a “a hidden cost of human economic development”.

In the New York Times, David Quammen, author of ‘Spillover: Animal infections and the Next Human Pandemic’, suggests those particular patterns of human economic development include widespread deforestation, industrialised agriculture, easy air travel, and globalised supply chains driven by efficiency above all. Again, all of these are direct drivers of the climate crisis too. After the initial crisis is dealt with, Quammen suggests, there is the longer game:

“Long term: We must remember, when the dust settles, that nCoV-2019 was not a novel event or a misfortune that befell us. It was — it is — part of a pattern of choices that we humans are making.” — David Quammen, ‘We Made the Coronovirus Epidemic’, New York Times, 28 January 2020

Dr. Dennis Carroll, who ran the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) programme PREDICT until federal funding was removed in 2019, now runs the Global Virome Project, to “discover unknown zoonotic viral threats and stop future pandemics.” In this powerful interview about coronavirus as the latest in a long line, he says, fairly clearly, in response to the question “Have there been disturbances in their environments that have brought bats closer to us?”:

“The disturbances in their environments are us. We’ve penetrated deeper into ecozones we’ve not occupied before … In Africa, we see a lot of incursion driven by oil or mineral extraction in areas that typically had few human populations. The problem is not only moving workers and establishing camps in these domains, but building roads that allow for even more movement of populations. Roads also allow for the movement of wildlife animals, which may be part of a food trade, to make their way into urban settlements. All these dramatic changes increase the potential spread of infection … we’re looking at an elevation of spillover events two to three times more than what we saw 40 years earlier. That continues to increase, driven by the huge increase in the human population and our expansion into wildlife areas. The single biggest predictor of spillover events is land-use change — more land going to agriculture and more specifically to livestock production.”—Dr. Dennis Carroll, Nautilus, 12 March 2020

As he points out, the virus “was predictable. It’s like if you had no traffic laws and were constantly finding pedestrians getting whacked by cars as they crossed the street. Is that surprising? No. All you need to do is to better manage how we set up crosswalks, how we establish traffic rules and regulations. We’re not doing that. We’re not establishing the kind of safe practices that will minimize the opportunity for spillover. If we better understood where these viruses are circulating and understood that ecology, we would have the potential to disrupt and minimize the risk of spillover …”

Two key points emerge from Caroll’s interview. The first, is that you wouldn’t want to remove federal funding for programmes like his unless you had a particularly dangerous kind of ignorance, or worse. Secondly, is that it’s our patterns of development, living, and governance, including our inability to face risk, that are directly increasing the prevalence of these zoonotic diseases.

“It’s not just the U.S. government but governments at large and the private sector — we don’t invest in risk. Talking about zoonotic diseases is different than talking about tuberculosis or malaria. Those are tangible. They are clear and present problems. Zoonotic diseases are an emerging problem. But we as a society don’t invest in things that are not kicking our door down … this coronavirus will fall off the headlines and when it does, you will see a contraction in the kind of investments that are made in it. We have war budgets and then no monies during peacetime. So part of the challenge — it’s a social engineering exercise — is getting lawmakers and investors to invest in risk. That’s really difficult.” — Dr. Dennis Carroll, Nautilus, 12 March 2020

Beyond generally changing the tenor of governance, this has implications for urban and strategic planning in particular, as we’ll see later in this series. Researchers Eric Fèvre and Cecilia Tacoli write, for the International Institute for Environment and Development:

“Short-term efforts are focused on containing the spread of infection. The longer term — given that new infectious diseases will likely continue to spread rapidly into and within cities a — calls for an overhaul of current approaches to urban planning and development.” — Eric Fèvre and Cecilia Tacoli, International Institute for Environment and Development, 26 February 2020

Finally, this short piece for The Lancet by Richard S. Ostfeld in 2017 notes the potential for increased biodiversity to prevent zoonotic diseases as well as the co-benefits for climate and health when doing so:

“Burgeoning research has shown that high biodiversity frequently reduces rates of pathogen transmission and lowers disease risk for human beings, wildlife, livestock, and plants … Irrespective of the mechanisms, whenever pathogen transmission or disease risk is lower in high-diversity communities, policies that prevent the loss of biodiversity will simultaneously promote environmental protection and health protection.” — Richard S. Ostfeld, ‘Biodiversity loss and the ecology of infectious disease’, The Lancet, 1 April 2017

Massively increasing restorative and regenerative biodiversity into the places we live, as we’ll see later in this series, will solve for climate, health, and social justice simultaneously —as well as making us more resilient in the event of viruses like COVID-19 (poor air quality makes us less resistant, to name just one co-benefit) and if pursued systemically, would prevent the emergence of such viruses in the first place.

Here in Stockholm, there’s a good exhibition on at Nordiska Museet about the Arctic. One of its more terrifying exhibits points to the likelihood of viruses and toxins being released due to warming and melting permafrost and ice, crossed with increased resource extraction. The exhibition is particularly interesting when concerning the mythology of the Arctic, the patterns woven by indigenous cultures which both revel in the glories of the environment, but also the dangers:

“Quallupilluk, it was said, were ugly, scaly, brimstone­-breathing creatures that lived in the sea. They kidnapped children. They wore clothes made of eider duck skin and carried a big bag on their back to put children in. No­one knows why. Perhaps they were lonely, or hungry. The creatures hid in the water and waited for children playing near the shore or on the ice. When a child got too close to the edge, a creature would jump up and grab them. Sometimes you can hear cracking noises under the ice. That means Quallupilluk are hiding there.”

Images from Nordiska Museet exhibition ‘The Arctic — While the Ice Is Melting’, Stockholm (2019–20)

We don’t quite know what is hiding in the melting permafrost in the Arctic or the denuded jungles of Brazil. Yet these pandemics are clearly emerging directly from our interactions of economy and urbanisation, biodiversity loss and trade. Our fingerprints are all over this virus, and the others to come.

The dynamics of Corona and climate

Though they are intrinsically connected, the way the virus moves is a mirror image of the way the climate crisis moves. Even these Australian bushfires, which affected territories at the scale of Europe, can be dismissed as a ‘local’ event; incorrectly so, and horribly, yes, but for most of the world they were barely noticed, even as an unprecedented global event.

Yet with the virus, the impact is global, almost immediately. The climate crisis is caused by mass action at global scale but has so far delivered slow, distributed, and local impacts. Whereas the virus starts locally, somehow, but has rapid global impact.

Climate disasters tend to be things you run away from, but at least you have somewhere to run to, for now. With the virus, you run inside, and stay in your home (if you’re lucky), with nowhere else you’re allowed to go.

Perhaps given those reverse dynamics, we react to the virus as if it is completely different class of disaster. The virus is pervasive and fast, the climate crisis is distributed and slow.

Yet they will converge on the same point. All our contemporary crises are global in origin and impact, ultimately — the dynamics hide that, temporarily at least, yet they are linked crises, with linked cause and effect. Even the responses overlap, with the virus mobilising resources on a scale that we have needed to deploy for climate for decades.

That, after China, the virus hit the ‘West’ first, and hardest, has no doubt engendered that massive mobilisation, including a set of fiscal measures that were impossible to even voice a couple of months ago. That, again, is the the reverse of the climate crisis, which has tended to hit the Global South hardest, first, and so our response is still largely watching from the sidelines as a result.

The indiscriminate globalism of the virus, tracing trade routes just as previous plagues have, means it can’t be ignored. The world, albeit in its own irregular and ham-fisted way, has actually reacted rapidly, and at scale. Look at the reality of Italy, Singapore, Spain, California, the UK, effectively in quarantine — this was absolutely unthinkable a few weeks ago.

So after the immediate and complicated challenge of stopping the virus, the longer-term and complex challenge is how the virus, with in its immense and immediate global call-to-arms, might genuinely reveal how to solve our other crises, and principally the climate crisis.

Again, it feels entirely inappropriate to discuss strategy at times like this. And it is. Therefore this is not that document, despite what it may look like on occasion. This is not about ‘how’, even if it sometimes explores some ‘whats’. They are reflections and ideas, no more. But they are reflections with the ulterior motive of enabling us to address the greater crises beyond, before the end of the Slowdown.

As Bruno Latour wrote the other day, “it would be a pity not to use the health crisis to discover other means of entering the ecological mutation without a blindfold on.”

Slowdown Papers

These are a series of observations, reflections and ideas, emerging from my view of the early impact of the coronavirus COVID–19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, but following the Australian bushfires over Christmas 2019.

1: Writing to memory

Observing, listening and writing, as a way of remembering the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, from within the midst of the slowdown.

2: The pitiless crowbar of events

How will we remember the coronavirus? While we are ‘flattening the curve’, how can we think about the curves beyond?

3: Remember the bushfires to remember the virus

The Australian bushfires and floods as harbingers of the coronavirus, and a world wearing masks and blinkers.

4: We make the virus and the virus makes us

The reversed dynamics of coronavirus and climate, and how the destruction of biodiversity that created the climate crisis probably also created the virus.

5: The curves beyond the curve

Flattening the curve on corona, squeezing the curve on climate.

6: A language in crisis

How key words, phrases and concepts are being bent out of shape by the coronavirus, shaping how we think about what follows.

7: Cultures of decision-making, in Sweden and beyond

Sweden’s ‘Middle Way’ approach to the coronavirus, democracy as a political system for people who are not sure that they are right, and the role of trust, expertise and citizenship, as compared with other Nordics, Taiwan and China.

8: An A/B test on our way of life

The lumpiness of history, how events change the world, World A versus World B, and six questions to prompt reflections about what the coronavirus might mean.

9: The restoration

The coronavirus immediate creates a restored and regenerative environment, and the Slowdown starts to create new habits.

10: Another Green World

Slow cities, flightshame, fast and slow layers, energy use maps the permanent weekend, the acceptance of essential infrastructures and Universal Basic Services, and is the coronavirus forcing us to sketch new forms of governance?

11: Post-traumatic urbanism and radical indigenism

How cities post-coronavirus can benefit from the distributed patterns of post-traumatic urbanism meeting radical indigenism, Wakanda meeting Aalto, and ‘Lo-TEK’ nature-based technologies meeting contemporary infrastructures.

12: Between the roots and the stars

Another green world lying just beneath ours; what our response to the coronavirus can learn from the night sky after Katrina, a 6000 year-old eel machine in Victoria, and a spruce tree in Sweden.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: