Excerpt: 'What Would Nature Do?' by Ruth DeFries


“This is not a drill.” “This is not a drill.” The headline blasted around the world as I was putting the finishing touches on [the] manuscript [for What Would Nature Do?: A Guide for Our Uncertain Times]. Suddenly, the frightening reality of our interconnected, unpredictable, and uncertain world became palpable. It could choke your lungs and, through a handshake or cough, infect your neighbor. It could bring down the stock market and crash oil prices.

The culprit was a crown-shaped virus. It might have spread from the blood and guts of a wild animal, perhaps a small, scaly, ant-eating pangolin. A pangolin might have picked up the virus from a bat in a wildlife market in China. The virus passed from the infected animal to a butcher or someone shopping in the market. As one person breathed out the virus and another breathed it in through droplets in the air, it traveled on an exponentially expanding web of sickness and death. It had never before circulated among humans. Within weeks, the virus had piggybacked on travelers and spread across the globe.

Ricocheting repercussions from the virus rocked the global economy. Investors got spooked, and the stock market fell into a downward spiral. In countries around the world, governments imposed shutdowns and people could not leave their homes.

With workers in factories unable to produce goods and ship them around the world, demand for oil tanked. Shoppers hoarded overpriced hand sanitizer and toilet paper. Restaurants and nonessential businesses lost their customers and employees lost their jobs. At this writing, the pandemic has not yet finished its course. The tiny virus has upended the daily lives of nearly everyone on the planet as they struggle to survive through the crisis. Already, hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars are among the casualties.

The coronavirus confirms that we are all connected in an entangled, complex maze of animals, airplanes, and economies. This is the reality of our modern civilization. Never before has our species been so connected across the continents. Never before have so many of us huddled in cities, dependent on traded goods for our daily sustenance. Epidemics have plagued humanity since civilization began, but today’s transport and trade networks give pathogens a conduit to reach nearly everyone on the planet. Humanity has little experience in collectively managing the global reverberations from a microscopic virus in an obscure Chinese market.

Nature’s long experience with persisting in an interconnected, uncertain world—the topic I had been pondering for many years for this book—takes on surreal relevance as this book goes to print. If only, as you will read in these pages, humans could cordon off the sick as do bees and termites, the virus wouldn’t spread. If only our supply chains resembled a leaf vein’s loopy network, hand sanitizer would not be in short supply. If only the stock market could reverse its downward spiral like the self-correcting ebb and flow of insulin in our veins, investors wouldn’t be so anxious. Humanity will undergo many more tests as our species encounters new diseases, novel climates, and erratic political whims. We are in uncharted territory. We are not prepared.

By the time [my] book reaches [readers’] hands, probably new, unexpected calamities will have befallen humanity. We have no way to predict exactly when or where the next coronavirus-like shock will strike. We can’t say whether it will be another pandemic triggered by a pathogen that jumps from an animal to a person, or whether it will be a calamity like raging fires triggered by the slow-moving train wreck of climate change. We can say with surety that humanity’s collective ability to manage our complex world will be on trial. If we put aside our obsessions with efficiency and listen to the wisdom of nature’s experience, perhaps humanity can withstand the upheaval and continue to thrive in our complex, capricious world.

Excerpted from What Would Nature Do? by Ruth DeFries Copyright (c) 2021. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Image Victoria Boobyer via Flickr (cc)


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