The pandemic is not a natural disaster

In The New Yorker, historian Kate Brown writes that the coronavirus isn’t just a public-health crisis. It’s an ecological one.

Kate Brown; photo by Allegra Boverman

"Zoonotic diseases can seem like earthquakes; they appear to be random acts of nature. In fact, they are more like hurricanes—they can occur more frequently, and become more powerful, if human beings alter the environment in the wrong ways."⁠ 

— Kate Brown, Professor of Science, Technology, and Society

Research and Perspectives for the Pandemic
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"The interconnectedness of our biological lives, which has become even clearer in recent decades, is pushing us to reconsider our understanding of the natural world. It turns out that the familiar Linnaean taxonomy, with each species on its own distinct branch of the tree, is too unsubtle: lichens, for example, are made up of a fungus and an alga so tightly bound that the two species create a new organism that is difficult to classify.

Biologists have begun questioning the idea that each tree is an “individual”—it might be more accurately understood as a node in a network of underworld exchanges between fungi, roots, bacteria, lichen, insects, and other plants. The network is so intricate that it’s difficult to say where one organism ends and the other begins. Our picture of the human body is shifting, too. It seems less like a self-contained vessel, defined by one’s genetic code and ruled by a brain, than like a microbial ecosystem that sweeps along in atmospheric currents, harvesting gases, bacteria, phages, fungal spores, and airborne toxins in its nets.

"In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, this idea of a body as an assembly of species — a community — seems newly relevant and unsettling. How are we supposed to protect ourselves, if we are so porous? Are pandemics inevitable, when living things are bound so tightly together in a dense, planetary sphere?

Full article at The New Yorker


Suggested links

Kate Brown's MIT webpage

MIT Program in Science, Technology, and Society

Book: Manual for Survival