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What Barry Commoner's Four Principles of Ecology Has to Do With China's Coronavirus

"The present system of production is self-destructive; the present course of human civilization is suicidal."

Wet markets are an established and ingrained part of Chinese community and culture, and thus it is no surprise that diseases are now jumping from animals to humans and humans to humans. (Photo by Edward Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

Wet markets are an established and ingrained part of Chinese community and culture, and thus it is no surprise that diseases are now jumping from animals to humans and humans to humans. (Photo by Edward Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

My world as a very impressionable kid growing up on Long Island was influenced in the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s by make-believe television heroes and heroines, like Davy Crockett, tough western cowboys like Paladin and Wyatt Earp, and gentler ones, like the characters in the Wizard of OZ who finally found their courage.  A picture of Alfred E Newman, from MAD Magazine, was pinned to the wall next to my bed, and a big pile of comic books were neatly stacked in a nearby bookshelf. Ah, the joys of a sheltered childhood….

These days I often find myself thinking about the people in my adult life that I count as exemplary individuals, like Pete Seeger, Martin Luther King, Joan Baez, Jane Fonda, Francis Moore Lappe, Ralph Nader, Greta Thunberg, and, the late Dr. Barry Commoner, who made the front page of Time magazine in 1970 during the first Earth Day as “the Paul Revere of Ecology.”

Barry Commoner published his first best-selling book, “The Closing Circle,” in 1971 which coincided with the very beginnings of Earth Day, and he warned Americans that a society which does not follow the basic laws of ecology and nature is a society courting disaster and turmoil.  He said, “We are in an environmental crisis because the means by which we use the ecosphere to produce wealth are destructive of the ecosphere itself. The present system of production is self-destructive; the present course of human civilization is suicidal.”  Prescient, wise, and terrifying words….. and probably the first person ever in a modern media spotlight to say that capitalism is inherently anti-ecological. Nowadays, Bernie Sanders seems to be the most well-known standard-bearer for this belief, though he is not so blatant as to say exactly that.  And there are others, like Naomi Klein, and a mix of lesser well-known eco-socialists.

 In “The Closing Circle,” Dr. Commoner proposed his now-famous Four Laws of Ecology, a thesis as timely today as it was when he first conceived this 49 years ago. 

  • “Everything is Connected to Everything Else.” 
  • “Everything Must Go Somewhere.” (Also known as There is No Such Place as Away.)
  • “Nature Knows Best.”  
  • “There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.”

Commoner’s wonderful and exquisitely useful thesis has been summarized, expanded, analyzed with environmental examples for today’s world, and discussed many times over, but ironically, a very hot news story this week regarding epidemics – the spreading CoronaVirus from Wuhan, China – presents us with an incredible example of how all four of Commoner’s ecology laws apply to this now-international health scare.  It turns out that Chinese “wet markets” are, according to Chinese scientist Zhenzhong Si, as quoted on NPR, “the predominant food retail outlets for fresh produce and meat in Chinese cities. A large city typically has a few hundred wet markets,” and a huge variety of both plant and animal products are for sale, including live animals, such as rabbits, frogs, snakes, turtles, pigeons, foxes, and many others.  Tragically, these animals are kept in notoriously unhealthy confined spaces and their excretions and illnesses are part of the overall market arena, which is visited by thousands of shoppers each day. Additionally, the live slaughtering of animals takes place on a regular basis. Wet markets are an established and ingrained part of Chinese community and culture, and thus it is no surprise that diseases are now jumping from animals to humans and humans to humans. This is how the SARS virus got started in 2002 and 2003.

In China and other parts of Asia, says Dr. Zhenzhong Si, “Eating wild animals is considered a symbol of wealth because they are more rare and expensive. And wild animals are also considered more natural and, thus, nutritious, compared to farmed meat. It's a belief in traditional Chinese medicine that it can boost the immune system…Of course, some people eat wild animals just because they were driven by curiosity.”

If the Chinese wet marketplace in urban areas doesn’t mesh with Dr. Commoner’s big picture of how the world can go very very wrong if it doesn’t follow nature’s basic rules, then nothing does….   If “Nature knows best” then wild animals should be living wildly, not harvested en masse for consumption and imprisoned in cages or tanks in crowded markets. And if “There is no such thing as a free lunch” and then you set up an unsustainable system such as the wet markets, you will undoubtedly be bitten in the ass, or worse.  “Everything must go somewhere”, in my opinion, equates to the disease, viruses, bacteria and blood, which are produced by animals in awful modes of captivity and being killed, directly next to people working and shopping. And, of course there’s “everything is connected to everything else,” which kind of sums up this whole truly unfortunate and inhumane situation. 

We’re told on the daily news that airports all over the world are now being used as emergency health assessment centers for travelers who may have been exposed to the virus, and that several huge cities in China, with a combined population of 25 million, are quarantined and essentially shut down in fear of the virus spreading to large numbers of people. 

A toxic brew, made worse by teeming populations and easy worldwide travel.  No easy answers here but many Chinese cities have apparently been moving towards modern supermarkets and away from the socially-popular wet markets.  Still, the whole thing is a fine but awful example of how easy it is to go off the rails when you don’t think and act like mother nature.

Pete Salmansohn

Pete Salmansohn

Pete Salmansohn has been an environmental educator for 30 years and is the award winning author of several children's books, including Project Puffin, and Saving Birds. His work has appeared in the NY Times, Boston Globe, Audubon, Wildlife Conservation, etc. He works for the National Audubon Society, the Hudson Highlands Land Trust, and the Garrison Union Free School in Garrison, NY .

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