by Stan Hirst
Another year almost gone. Only 7778,582 seconds left to the end of 2020 says the doomsday app on my computer screen. There is a morbid fascination in watching seconds tick away on a coloured clock face. To think that somebody actually took the time (ha!) to programme an app like that. To an elder with a finite number of seconds left in the mortal basket that seems like a huge waste.
The year 2020 seems to be heading that way too – a huge waste. All those days, weeks, months spent indoors trying to avoid one’s fellow citizens. Skulking around in supermarkets suitably hidden behind an itchy face mask and skirting away from anyone who threatens my 2-metre sacred space. Then back to the house to catch the next Zoom and to behold again all my fellow sufferers neatly arranged by column and row on the screen.
Wikipedia tells me that nearly 79 million people worldwide have already contracted Covid-19 and that 1.7 million have died from it. The eventual final tally alone will forever be the defining statistic of our age. The scale of the pandemic, the extent of disruption due to Covid-19, and the injustices and dangers revealed by the pandemic will ensure that 2020 will long be remembered as the year when everything changed. Economists report that global economic output has been depressed by at least 7% under what it would otherwise have been – the biggest slump since World War 2.
Unsurprisingly, the world’s leaders have seized the opportunity to try to move the focus away from gloom and despair to the hopes and opportunities afforded by recovery from the pandemic. Strategies for economic recovery are spewing forth at a great rate. Even the United Nations is on the bandwagon, attempting to forge a link between the two global crises of biodiversity loss and public concern over the COVID-19 pandemic.
A little more than a month ago the United Nations convened a special session of dozens of heads of state, financial institutions and non-governmental organizations to formulate and develop pandemic responses that are “green and just.” The aim is to convince world governments and all the peoples under their care to buy into the idea of a transformative recovery process whereby environmental destruction would be addressed while maximizing emerging opportunities for transformative changes towards more equal and resilient societies. Its marvelous stuff, but I hear a faint voice in my inner ear whispering that old refrain – “promises…promises…promises….”
One significant statistic emerges from the murky mass of information that populates the media. Our COVID predicament is the direct result of our gluttonous obsession with animal protein as food. The World Health Organization has revealed that we humans annually slaughter our way through 80 billion animals for food and fur. Every one of those sacrificed beasts is (or was) a Petri dish, a virtual incubator for a plethora of viruses and bacteria that are evolving into lethal human pathogens as the decades slip by. This year the links all clicked into place and the consequences spilled over. Covid-19 related costs have been astronomical, way bigger than those generated by the earlier SARS virus and the earlier afflictions – HIV, TB, malaria, and influenza. The really ominous item here is that epizootics like SARS and COVID-19 might become even more common as densely-packed human populations continue to burgeon around the world.
But lo! Something almost miraculous has taken place. Clear blue skies have appeared in many parts of the globe as the Covid curse has shut down the economy and many of the smoky industries that underpin it. A team of international scientists recently calculated that global CO2 emissions dropped by 1,550 million metric tons in the first half of 2020. That number obliterates the standing record for CO2 decline which was 790 million metric tons in 1945 at the end of World War II.
Let us cheer that event for one brief second and then return to the slumped shoulder posture when we consider that a 50% drop in global CO2 75 years ago was linked to the global demise of something close to 75 million people. That statistic alone highlights the magnitude of the task the world faces in attempting to reduce global climate carbon levels in accordance with the lofty promises of the 2016 Paris Agreement when the realty is that we have a global population who are not all that interested in reducing their carbon.
To pass the time usefully (and to assuage my mounting sense of injustice and self-righteousness), I turn again to my sagging bookshelf. On the oldie but goodie side is The Covenant by James Michener, worth another read, and Bernhard Grzimek’s 1972 Among Animals of Africa – a biography by the man who rebuilt the world-famous Frankfurt Zoo after WW2 and was later instrumental in securing conservation status for the famous Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. On the newer but definitely goodie side is Horizon by Barry Lopez who, to quote a recent reviewer, is a writer who brings the natural world to resonate metaphysically, without treating it as just another form of resource.
One more volume flips off the shelf – a 26-year old copy of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. My copy has 768 pages; I confess I haven’t read them all, but browsing through them kindles memories of places, people and events which played some distant role in my own life. It took Mandela 26 years to write the epistle, much of that time while incarcerated in a 7 by 9 foot cell with a concrete floor. And here I am carping about a few months’ worth of Covid-19 lockdown?