FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - December 26, 2020 - 12:00am

Of all the virtues that enlighten our lives, hope was probably at greatest peril this year.

The pandemic was like an invasion – except that the enemy was unseen. The only way we could “see” it is through the lens of statistics. The enemy took down many of our friends and kept us prisoners in our own homes.

Our whole community mobilized to meet the threat. Old routines were quickly discarded. Old habits had to go. This was a comprehensive public health emergency that made everyone a frontliner.

It is as if the whole world was swept into a dark tunnel whose end just out of sight. We just had to improvise as we went along. We were stumbling all the way.

Although vaccines are now available to fight the dreaded coronavirus, most of humanity will still labor under restrictions for the next year – and probably the year after that. This will be a long grind.

New variants of the virus have been discovered. They are more transmissible although not necessarily more lethal. But the very thought of the virus’ capacity to mutate endlessly is disturbing enough.

We do not know how long a vaccine shot will protect us. It is likely that we will have to take them repeatedly, just as we take flu shots every year. This will make vaccination a continuing feature well into the future.

Even more disturbing, scientists are now telling us there are tens of thousands of other deadly viruses out there in nature, waiting for that zoonotic leap from animals to human beings to cause yet another pandemic. Industrial civilization brought stress to the rest of the animal world, pushing them to perilous existence, destroying their habitat and bringing closer animal-to-human contact than ever before. Viruses are produced by the stress this causes other living beings.

The infections have been continuing the past few years. SARS happened but was efficiently contained. Bird and swine flu epidemics have been intermittent. COVID-19 is simply another variant of what is really a continuing stream of epidemics.

For years, we brooded over how modern civilization was laying our own habitat to waste. Carbon emissions have caused changes in the climate that express in rising sea levels, increased desertification, water shortages and coral bleaching. We are destroying the very basis that makes our civilization possible.

Al Gore, two decades ago, described humanity’s destruction of its own habitat an “inconvenient truth.” The inconvenience lies precisely in the challenge of undertaking the difficult changes we need to make in the way we live.

It is much easier to deny climate change. In the US, the Republican Party and Donald Trump transformed climate change deniers into a powerful political base. That political base eventually took to describing the pandemic a “hoax” and built an insane conspiracy theory about the development of vaccines. This counter-scientific political base is the reason why infections are now running rampant in that country.

Ending this particular pandemic is hard enough. But the task is even tougher. We have to end the destruction of our own habitat to prevent even deadlier outbreaks from happening in the future. There is no vaccine to prevent global warming.

Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist, confronted global leaders recently with a truly inconvenient truth: not enough was being done. Global leaders were delivering only tokens, not real action.

It is now fashionable to talk about getting to a “new normal.” That “new normal,” however, is pretty much like the old normal except that we do the usual things a little more efficiently. I have not read enough about drastically changing our lifestyles as soon as possible.

Global warming still happens at over 2 degrees centigrade in the “new normal” being envisioned. We can shift to electric cars, use more renewable energy and work from home more often. But rising sea levels, coral bleaching and overfishing continue.

The world will not be a more sustainable place until after 2050 by most calculations. That will still be too late. More severe pandemics might happen that will decimate our populations more significantly even as we deal with shortages of water and fish.

No doubt the facts are not only disturbing. They are distressful.

I look at the children blissfully playing in the yard. Will they still have a world to inhabit?

I suppose it is the realization of the sheer unsustainability of the way we treated our planet that taxes the capacity to hope. It is easy to fear that the world cannot support a happy future for mankind.

Industrialization of human civilization was built on an unwarranted expectation: that nature will always be more abundant than our needs and that human knowledge will solve every problem that arises. That expectation is now collapsing all around us.

We will, of course, learn to farm the seas and supply our protein needs from things we once thought inedible. We will produce fresh water, at great cost, from desalination technologies. We will even learn to grow vegetables on the walls of high rises, in what is innocuously called “urban farming.”

There is no evidence, however, that all these puny efforts will reverse rising sea levels and prevent areas under permafrost from becoming bogs. We can all, in the next few years, try to live small. But that might suffice the harm already inflicted on the planet.

We all need to hope we can still do things that matter. Should we lose that hope, we simply yield to the consequences of centuries of human folly.

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