One blessing of 2020

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The year 2020 has been an upending year for most people in the world. No need to recount the details but never has there been so many people who suffered and died from one common cause. And so much of the global economy tail spun into a dive.

​As the year came to an end and we started constructing in our minds an idea of a “time transition” from one distinct segment into another – as if one segment ended and another, with different features and possibilities, had begun – we saw some kind of liberation from the pains of 2020, and we began holding on to the idea that 2021 would be different.

​Unfortunately, unless warped, time is a continuing event. It won’t change. What would change is what we learned over time so that we could begin tweaking and recalibrating our behaviors based on what we learned. Learning and applying what we learned – not time – are what create the difference between one mentally constructed segment of time to another.

​There is a Tamil word recently shared to me by a friend. This is “pattarivu”, roughly “knowledge from experience”. It is distinguished from another Tamil word “padipparivu”, or “knowledge from studies”. If there is one blessing to us from 2020, it would be that it was a year of “knowing from experience” that it is extremely dangerous to disrespect Nature.

​Disrespecting the limits to what Nature could do to maintain its well-being would be like working a carabao as much as we want without making it rest enough to recover its expended strength; it would die. Or like fishing as much as we could without care of the biological and ecological capacities of our fisheries to naturally replenish themselves and their habitats, so we don’t end up depleting their stocks.

​The pandemic and typhoons that devastated our county in 2020 have been all linked to the deepening climate crisis. Their links have been described in the Assessments of the UN’s Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change published and continually updated since 1990, and the Report of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment published in 2005.

The IPCC Assessments detail how extreme weather events like typhoons and severe episodes of El Niño/La Niña, could be due to rising surface temperatures in the earth’s oceans and lands, which it determined to have been caused by human industrial and agricultural activities. These activities had overloaded the earth’s atmosphere with carbon, methane, and other “greenhouse-effect” causing gasses causing global warming that fuels these extreme events.

​The MEA Report discusses the impacts of climate change on human systems and institutions. It refers to human health and pandemics that’s been summarized in a World Health Organization (WHO) fact sheet as follows: “human activities are affecting the global climate, with serious implications for public health. Catastrophic weather events, variable climates that affect food and water supplies, new patterns of infectious disease outbreaks y and emerging diseases linked to ecosystem changes, are all associated with global warming and pose health risks.” (From: /factsheets/en/).

​In the Montreal Meeting of the MEA in April 2004, Dr. Paul R. Epstein, then Associate Director of Harvard’s Center for Health and Global Environment, and Instructor of Harvard Medical School’s Global Health and Social Medicine, talked of pandemics and climate change.

I recall him stressing that changing moisture and temperature regimes and closer human-wildlife contact due to increasing human intrusions into wildlands to open up more areas for agriculture, and food pressures to eat bushmeat, are likely to give rise to serious outbreaks of infectious diseases. By then, of course, lots of documented cases of these have been already reported in the literature … and MERS, Zika, Ebola, and CoVid19 were yet to come.

​Before last year, climate change and pandemics, and climate change and typhoons, were mere padipparivu to many. After last year, they’re more pattarivu to most. And if this change creates changes in our behavior towards Nature – if it gives us an existential push to respect Nature – 2021 would be indeed different from 2020.

​Time won’t change. What needs to change is us. It would be how we change that would distinguish this year from last.

​And that, friend, if it happens, would be a blessing. – NWI