Coronavirus reminds us we're organisms in an environment

The first pandemic in a century is reminding us that Darwin was right about our place in the natural world – more specifically, that we will never be outside of it.

Kurt Cobb

A close friend of mine, a professor of English literature, has been researching American philosopher John Dewey, whose book Quest for Certainty captivated me so much many years ago that I read it again right after I had finished it the first time. My friend has been reminding me why I found Dewey so profound while shedding new light on the philosopher’s thinking.


Dewey, it turns out, is one of the few thinkers in American life who absorbed the true import of the work of Charles Darwin. Dewey reminds us that, quite simply, Darwin posited that we humans are organisms in an environment just like every other organism. Dewey’s star faded after World War II. American and world society have since lapsed into a narrative that puts humans above and outside nature, protected by technological advancements that supposedly shield us from nature’s demands and vicissitudes. The general narrative is that we are heading into a push-button, voice-activated technocratic paradise. (I think of the various Star Trek television series as popular cultural reflections of this view.)

But, the first pandemic in a century is forcefully and sadly reminding all of us that Darwin was right about our place in the natural world, more specifically, that we will never be outside of it.

That the world is “wildly unprepared” for this pandemic is in part a result of our belief the we are on a separate journey from the rest of the natural world, headed toward a perfected existence in which nature obeys all of our commands and bothers us not at all. Why prepare for something that is merely a product of nature? We have the technology to overcome it, don’t we? There must be a pill, right? Actually, wrong.

If we continue to think of illness as something that is prevented by a pill or a shot—and if not ultimately prevented, treated by a pill or a shot—we humans won’t make the necessary changes as a global society to better withstand more frequent pandemics.

Those who understand human vulnerabilities have been sounding the alarm for years. But the idea that our entire way of life could be dramatically disrupted worldwide simultaneously simply was not on the radar of most governments—at least not enough to get them to stockpile even the most basic medical supplies; face masks come to mind.

There is much talk of creating a vaccine and doing it quickly. But such an endeavour can take more than a year and even more time to manufacture and distribute. There is less talk about the unhealthy lifestyles and chronic disease such as heart disease and diabetes that result from that lifestyle which might need to be addressed if we are going to cope better with the world of microorganisms we inhabit. There is even less talk that those at the bottom of the economic ladder are the most vulnerable and that the wealth gap and the gap in access to health care it implies are actually a huge public health problem for all of us.

The very way in which we live—constantly pressing on the edge of wilderness to develop it and exploit it—puts humans potentially in contact with millions of viruses from which will come the next pandemic. And, the next one will likely come much sooner than 100 years from now.

If we continue to think of health as the absence of illness, of illness as something that is prevented by a pill or a shot—and if not ultimately prevented, treated by a pill or a shot—we humans won’t make the necessary changes as a global society to better withstand more frequent pandemics.

Robust health, not techofixes, is the best way to confront the biological perils of the natural world in which we participate. Such a focus would, however, take a complete rethinking of who we humans are, namely, organisms in an environment. Will the coronavirus awaken any more of us to this fact?


Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights, where this article was first published. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. 

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