Nature’s reminding us who is boss

Chinese nationals at Wuhan Medical Centre. Coronavirus pandemic could be a reform opportunity for Africa. PHOTO | NOEL CELIS | AFP

What you need to know:

  • The coronavirus that is shutting down human systems is suspected to have originated from a wet market in Wuhan, China.
  • Sustainable development can drive provision of public services with embedded value for the environment.

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the noxious gases that hang over cities in Asia and Europe have miraculously disappeared. Dolphins are back in the beaches. Rare birds are soaring over mountain resorts.

It has taken barely two weeks for nature to reclaim its space but it’s unlikely that the havoc the pandemic has visited on human systems will be undone in a year.

But these events belie the impact that human industrial pursuits and accompanying greed have had on the environment. In the words of the American writer Robert Ingersoll, “In nature, there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are (only) consequences.”

Make no mistake: The pandemic is a consequence of wanton human abuse of nature. In our pursuits of profit and more profit, we have violated all natural laws. And nature (call it God if you wish) is reminding us who is boss here.


The coronavirus that is shutting down human systems is suspected to have originated from a wet market in Wuhan, China. These markets are literally wet with blood of slithering snakes, creepy bats and ghostly spiders that are cut into pieces for food. This is common in Southeast Asia.

I do not mind what cultures have chosen to eat. The tragedy is, animals that are poached, removed from their natural ecology, are forced together — all in the name of personal profit by well-known buccaneers. Snakes, monkeys, pangolins, bats and humans do not ordinarily mix in nature.

It is not so difficult to imagine that, at some point, there is bound to be a confluence of factors that make conditions conducive for new germs. It is always a matter of time before lithe viruses make that animal-to-human quantum leap.

Human hubris has blinded us to a naked truth. Viruses and animals have been around for millions of years. The modern human being is barely 200,000 years old. The universe itself has been ‘living’ for about 13 billion years.

Longevity is good measure of capacity to adopt to the environment. There is no guessing what is superior.


Because of our large brain, we delude ourselves that nature depends on us. It is the opposite: We depend on it. The universe does not really give a hoot whether we are here or not. Other species have come and gone, mostly as they were unable to obey Mother Nature’s laws. There is nothing special about us and this virus is reminding us that.

To paraphrase Robert M. Lilienfeld and William L. Rathje, it is a common myth that we have to save Mother Earth. Earth doesn’t need to be saved. In its existence, this planet has survived cataclysmic changes over and over again.

It is widely believed 99 per cent of all species have come and gone but the planet remained.

Critically, note the resilience of nature in the current crisis. Within weeks, nature has quickly readjusted itself. But such flexibility is not easy with humans. More than 10,000 people are dead so far. Trillions of dollars gone down the drain.

This catastrophe threatens to bring down even the systems that buccaneers use to advance their nefarious interests. Gone also are cherished values that come with capitalism, such as freedom of association and movement.

Saving the environment is really for our own sake and future generations. This is the truth that more people need to grasp and be committed to if we are to cope with such shocks as the current one.

This is the time to learn lessons on resilience and coexistence with nature. Many human societies are weak in resilience and, therefore, building it is a reasonable objective for a public sector wishing to avoid a sudden demand for services when systems fail.


Human societies are poor in managing chronic and accelerating stress. This is because stress is not recognised as critical until the tipping point is reached.

Sustainable development can drive provision of public services with embedded value for the environment. Without this, it will always take time for human systems to absorb emerging shocks.

Resilience planning requires analysis of the vulnerabilities of critical systems and strategies to address them through diversification, localisation and stronger community connectivity: Things which ordinary markets cannot be expected to deliver.

Sustainable development offers a framework within which to invest in systems that sustain health, protect resources, build capacity, create wealth and make a high quality of life possible. Strengthening these systems reduces community vulnerability to unexpected events.

One hopes that humanity will learn to coexist with other species. If it does not, nature has more, nastier ways of reminding us about it. It’s obvious who is boss.

Dr Mbataru teaches public policy at Kenyatta University. [email protected]