Matt Ridley

Dismantling the environmental theory for Covid’s origins

With a laboratory leak in Wuhan looking more and more likely as the source of the pandemic, the Chinese authorities are not the only ones dismayed. Western environmentalists had been hoping to turn the pandemic into a fable about humankind’s brutal rape of Gaia. Even if ‘wet’ wildlife markets and smuggled pangolins were exonerated in this case, they argued, and the outbreak came from some direct contact with bats, the moral lesson was ecological. Deforestation and climate change had left infected bats stressed and with nowhere to go but towns. Or it had driven desperate people into bat-infested caves in search of food or profit.

Green grandees were in no doubt of this moral lesson. ‘Nature is sending us a message. We have pushed nature into a corner, encroached on ecosystems,’ said Inger Andersen, head of the United Nations Environment Programme. The pandemic was ‘a reminder of the intimate and delicate relationship between people and planet,’ said the director-general of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. ‘God always forgives, we forgive sometimes, but nature never forgives,’ added Pope Francis, enigmatically. ‘Climate change is a threat multiplier for pandemic diseases, and zoonotic diseases,’ said John Kerry. Covid-19 was ‘the product of an imbalance in man’s relationship with the natural world,’ said Boris Johnson. ‘Mother Nature… gave us fire and floods, she tried to warn us but in the end she took back control,’ tweeted Sarah, Duchess of York.

In July last year, 17 scientists, including Dr Peter Daszak, who collaborated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and was keen to exonerate his friends there, wrote an article in Science magazine insisting that the main lesson of the pandemic was that deforestation must cease: ‘The clear link between deforestation and virus emergence suggests that a major effort to retain intact forest cover would have a large return on investment even if its only benefit was to reduce virus emergence events.’

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Written by
Matt Ridley
Matt Ridley is the author of How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom (2020), and co-author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19 (2021)

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