Ecology in a Time of Coronavirus

Our brains don’t do well with understanding exponential growth. This is why the Coronavirus pandemic is so concerning. It’s invisible, it’s nowhere, and then all of a sudden, it’s everywhere.

We are among the planet’s most social beings. We are not just an aggregation of individuals, we are a human community. And so it feels awkward to keep escalating our anti-social response to this invisible threat that has not affected anyone within our social sphere (yet).

But I encourage you to read about reports from Italy. Not to panic, but to consider the gravity of the situation and how we might respond in order to protect the most vulnerable among us. The situation continues to evolve, as Governor Holcomb just ordered all Indiana dining establishments to cease dine-in food service, and Indiana just registered its first death.

I’d like to point you to a brief reflection on exponential growth by our co-conspirator Steve Owen of the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy (AIRE). (As you may remember, AIRE was instrumental in helping us execute Phase 2 of our solar energy initiative at The Center at Donaldson).

Steve created this graph of what happens when you accumulate pennies and double it every day for a month.

Likewise, consider a bacteria that doubles daily as it fills a petri dish over the course of 30 days (the graph looks the same as Steve’s, just sub bacterial cells for pennies and make the end point 100%). On day 25, the bacteria is still barely visible, filling only 3% of the surface area of the dish. It is only by the end of the 29th day that 50% of the dish is covered.

Again, our brains are used to thinking like this, but it is nonetheless a fundamental truth of our universe (math, physics, biology, etc).

Another colleague just posted a reflection on the coronavirus and ecological systems. He’s a top-notch ecologist & botanist, go read it. In it he links to this AMAZING outbreak simulation from the New York Times. Seriously, science-communication can be very tough and this is some of the best of the best.

So: all indications are that we need maintain a minimum 6 ft buffer around us as a form of “social distancing“. In the last 24 hrs, I have still had people extending hands to shake, grabbing me by the shoulders, etc… out of an abundance of caution, we have to stop this, immediately. I have been using the “namaste” and folding my hands together in greeting: “The God in me greats the God in you.” This is a traditionally Hindu greeting, but of course makes sense for Christians as well (Col. 1:27, Romans 8:9-10, 2 Cor. 13:5, etc). People around the world are coming up with very creative alternatives.

So… how is this all affecting our ecological relationships?

The social distancing & shutdowns that are necessary to slow this pandemic are also causing economic turmoil. This is perhaps an unavoidable result, given how intertwined our lives are, but this adds additional stress to those individuals and businesses who are already on the edge financially.

This decrease in industrial activity and travel has led to measurable declines in pollution over China, and now Italy. Air pollution kills 7 million people each year, accounting for 8% of all deaths worldwide (this is a combination of ambient air pollution found in cities, as well as indoor exposure from dirty cook stoves). I have to think that this global pandemic will also cause a dip in net CO2 emissions for 2020. This pullback, in combination with an oil-price war between Saudi Arabia Russia, may incidentally spell the end of U.S. shale oil and hasten the energy transition (Gasoline in Plymouth is at $1.64/gallon, and world markets now under $30/barrel).

These are only a couple of the ramifications. I am reminded that everything is connected. Moreso, everything is connection.

the waning gibbous moon, framed by snow-capped seed heads of Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), 14 march 2020

I have been pondering the disruption that human societies are facing while watching Sandhill Cranes descending, spring wildflowers already bursting, Eastern Bluebirds searching. All continuing their relentless forward march, around and around their own circle of being. Migration, mating, reproduction, photosynthesis, metabolism, signaling, vocalizing, senescing, dying. Seemingly oblivious to our Great Turning, as we so often are of their own pandemics and crises.

Spring will arrive Thursday, regardless. Equi-nox, the great equal-izer. Every latitude, every crooked, every wetland, every hidden hillside, every remote island, every skyscraper, every family taking an idle walk, every king and pauper… all will receive +/- the same length of sunshine and nighttime.

a fire-scorched sandy hillside reveals a mammal’s burrow, 13 march 2020

In my next post, I will share about how we can continue to engage with nature around us during this time of human isolation. Fortunately, there are many opportunities.

3 Replies to “Ecology in a Time of Coronavirus”

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