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The real lesson of 2020 is about your mother

My last column of 2019 was about respecting nature. Little did I know then what the natural world was about to unleash on us in 2020.

But I did know this:

“Each and every day, a beautiful sunrise occurs. The birds strike up their orchestra to herald another day. The light streams through the leaves; the insects begin their daily chores; the flowers open up for the business of the day. Each and every day, the sun descends peacefully, and a tranquility falls upon the earth. The stars in the expanse start to shimmer. The moon reveals itself. Peace descends.

All is in balance. Except the human being.

We are faced with this beauty, this perfectly poised earth, this remarkable oneness. Do we respect it, honour it, protect it?”

Truly, we have been gifted something uniquely precious: a planet so in balance, so in harmony, displaying such indescribable beauty, that it is almost beyond comprehension.

I asked last year: do we appreciate this, humans? Do we look on in wonder, and do we behave towards our home with the greatest respect?

No, we wish to change it, harness it, exploit it, ruin it. So that we can enjoy more man-made rewards. We put a wrecking-ball to what is natural, so that we can gain more of what is fake and artificial. We pull trees down so that we can have more concrete. We pollute oceans so that we can have more plastic. We kill animals indiscriminately so that we can have more toys to play with.”

This is our greatest stupidity as human beings. And it is the one we will pay the greatest price for.

The novel coronavirus rampaged through 2020 and brought us to our knees. Where did it come from? Consider it nature’s rebuke. I described the phenomenon of the zoonotic pathogen in July:

“Because of the way we humans have organized our world, we have convinced ourselves we can only grow at the expense of nature. A combination of greed and poverty means we keep pushing the boundaries. We keep encroaching and deforesting, denuding and polluting. As natural habitats are usurped and destroyed, nature bites back. As we intrude into areas previously left untouched, we encounter new viruses, unknown to science. And then they jump. When we kill their natural hosts, we become their new hosts.”

Why am I repeating myself as 2020 ends? There is so much that the COVID-19 pandemic should have taught us about our futures, but there is one lesson that stands above all others. Can we finally, finally learn to live humbly as denizens of this planet, and stop trying to be its lords and masters? Can we coexist in peace without trying to uproot and exploit everything we see? All the scars borne by this planet, our mother, are caused by one particularly idiotic and pestilent child – paradoxically, the one with the biggest brain. The human.

The Gaia Hypothesis posits that our Earth Mother should be thought of as a complex system that tries to maintain ecological balance. It does this not through some separate intelligence, but simply from its inbuilt regulating mechanisms. It is a superorganism in which all the life forms interact with the inanimate matter around them – the air, the water, the rocks – to promote the continuation of life.

When one component causes undue stress on the system, the system responds. The human being is the one causing huge stress and assuming an undeserved importance. If you were the parent, and observed one of your children behaving destructively and ruinously towards the rest, endangering the entire family – what would you do?

Could we all try a little harder to respect our mother? Could we limit our consumption of the products that come from her degradation? Could we stop funding the investments that cause her denudation? Could we grow trees rather than pull them down, clean our habitats rather than toss our debris and detritus onto them? Could we deny votes to the politicians who unleash the greed merchants?

Because if we don’t, we should prepare ourselves for more repercussions. More viruses, more heatwaves, more wildfires, more droughts, more hurricanes, more deluges. Eventually this planet may need to cleanse itself of us, the true virus in its midst.

Our single biggest act of wisdom from 2021 onwards would be to become extremely conscious of the damage our activities inflict on our natural siblings. We cannot tame or yoke this planet to do our bidding – it will outlast us. What we can do is to coexist with all our fellow inhabitants, with respect and appreciation, in mutual gratitude for our only home.

(Sunday Nation, 27 December 2020)

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