Anthropocene and Pandemic Diseases

K. Sahadevan & Dr. Smitha P Kumar

Joshua Lederberg, a renowned microbiologist and Nobel Laureate, once said, “nature is not benign. .... The units of natural selection-DNA, sometimes RNA elements-are by no means neatly packaged in discrete organisms. They are all share the entire biosphere. The survival of the human species is not a preordained evolutionary program. Abundant sources of genetic variations exist for viruses to learn new tricks, not necessarily confined to what happens routinely, or even frequently”  (Lederberg 1989, Quoted in Garret 1994).[1]

Lederberg was addressing a group of scientists at the Hotel Washington in a Conference jointly organised by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Rockefeller University. His talk was a little prophetic in nature. Prof. Lederberg’s concern was about the ability of the viruses to learn new tricks from various sources of genetic variations has simply happened now. The world has been experiencing different microbial attacks in the forms of AIDS, H1N1, SARS, MERS and several other diseases.

There is no doubt about the fact that, homo sapiens is the most intelligent and predominant species on earth. He has gained dominance over all other living beings using his intelligence and organizational skills. Even then, the viruses - a non-living thing- are still remains nightmare for the mankind. As Rene Dubos, an eminent pathologist and microbiologist, once predicted, “human destiny is bound to remain a gamble, because some unpredictable time and in some unforeseeable manner nature will strike back” (Dubos, 1959)[2] . Rene Dubos has also foreseen the onslaught of the viruses against the human race.

The World as such is facing an “unexpected and unpredictable” setback today, as Rene Dubos stated.  The Novel Corona virus has made all human inventions and social expressions standstill.  All the physical and non-physical structures that have created man's cognitive revolution, including the economy, the industries, the transportation systems, social organization, and spiritual institutions, lie in a state of stillness. But there has some fundamental questions arises on Dubos prediction. One of these is whether the crisis emerged in front of the human race today is unexpected? Whether the society has not been aware of the link between human interactions in earth’s biosphere and the spread of the virus? If we want to find the answer to these questions, we must have expand our search to some scientific findings. “The Biomass Distribution on Earth”[3] an article published in ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ (PNAS) of the United States of America, the world's leading scientific journal, in its July 2018 issue will throw some lights on it. Let’s allow to clarify that the arguments which we put here are based on the findings of the above mentioned article appeared in PNAS.

The crises created by human intervention on earth systems are coming before us in many forms. The Anthropocene Era has a number of crises ranging from climate change to radioactve contamination.  The current virus outbreak in all over the world is only one in that series. Is there any relation between climate crisis and the microbial attacks? In fact, there is no direct evidence that the climate change is the causation of virus spreading. But still we could find a common factor for these two crisis.  In the case of the pandemic virus attack (here the novel corona) and climate change, one of the fundamental factors is that industrial capitalism places a heavy load on the biosphere. From the aforementioned scientific article, it can be seen that this is a stronger cause for the spread of the virus than the climate change. Let us first go through some of the findings in the PNAS article.


The PNAS report attempts to estimate the relative mass of all organic matter on Earth - including the virus - on the basis of their carbon mass. In the past decade, several major technological and scientific advances have facilitated an improved quantitative account of the biomass on Earth. The recent study is a major achievement in this direction. Census of biomass on Earth is key for understanding the structure and dynamics of the biosphere. Even though the scientists made a successful effort, it still lacking a global quantitative view of how the biomass of different taxa compare with one another. The PNAS report found that the sum of biomass across all taxa on Earth is approximately 550 Gigatons of carbon (Gt C). All these species in the biosphere are distributed different location globally such as terrestrial, marine and deep subsurface environment. Among these plant kingdom is the dominant (450 Gt C), next comes bacteria (70 Gt C), Fungi (12 Gt C), Archeae (7 Gt C), Animals (2 Gt C) respectively.   From the above statistics if we separate the animal kingdom, it's estimated that humans, at 0.06 Gigatonnes of carbon, represent almost ten times the mass of all wild mammals on Earth (0.007 Gt C), while livestock are in turn almost 20 times the mass of humans (0.1 Gt C). (See the figure). To give a better understanding of the changes in the mammal biomass distribution here are excerpts from the famous book "Homo Deus" by the famous historian Yuval Noah Harari:

“....Altogether about 200,000 wild wolves still roam the earth, but there are more than 400 million domesticated dogs.The world contains 40,000 lions compared to 600 million house cats; 900,000African buffalo versus 1.5 billion domesticated cows; 50 million penguins and 20 billion chickens. Since 1970 despite growing ecological awareness, wildlife populations have halved (not that they were prospering in 1970). In 1980 there were 2 billion wild birds in Europe. In 2009 only 1.6 billion were left. In the same year, Europeans raised 1.9 billion chickens for meat and eggs. At present, more than 90 per cent of the large animals of the world (i.e., those weighing more than a few kilograms) are either humans or domesticated animals.”[4]

It is imperative that the human intervention on the biosphere made drastic changes in the biomass distribution on Earth. It has been estimated that the mammalian biomass that preceded the great species extinction was subsequently reduced by more than sevenfold. Although the total population of wild mammals on land and sea declines, there is a fourfold increase in the total number of mammals on the planet. It is noteworthy that the rise was due to an increase in the number of humans and livestocks.   So called Anthropocene epoch have not only changed on the mammalian species, but also brought  significant changes in the plant kingdom. The plant biomass reduced two times lower than the previous estimation.

There has been several attempts made by scientists to identify the flora and fauna on the Earth and it is still continuing. Till the date scientist could only identify less than 2 million species and assuming that 98 million species are unknown to the human world! About half of these species are in the Amazon rainforest, and scientists believed that any threat to the Amazonian ecosystem will lead to the destruction of the world's flora and fauna.

Let us now examine how the distribution of biomass on Earth and the changes that are taking place, thereby cause serious problems such as the spread of the virus. We all know that the global population was over 100 billion by the early 1800s. Now the human population has increased by 7.5 times  since the industrial era began. Similar increase can be found in the number of domestic animals and pets. Several characteristics of humans allowed him to become the peak predator on the planet, which are the key factors that have lead to this crisis-and the many other crisis that will follow it. Well known American science writer Lauri Garrette writes: ""the extraordinary, rapid growth of the homo sapiens population, coupled with its voracious appetite for planetary dominance and resource consumption, had put every measurable biological and chemical system on earth in a state of imbalance.''[5] (Garrett, 1994).

As a peak predator species, human have created an environment to grow for all kinds of pathogens; including viruses. With the massive decline in the number of wildlife and the increasing number of human and domesticated animals, both species became the hosts of pathogenic viruses. Because of the fluctuations in the number of host species, it is obvious that the viruses can turn to favorable conditions to preserve their survival. As we noted Lederberg's quote at the beginning of this article, we need to understand that, “abundant sources of genetic varations exist for viruses to learn new tricks”.

There is another characteristic of both humans and livestocks, which differs from that of other wildlife species in that the virus is spreading. Humans and Livestocks are sociable between groups as well as within them. Human’s ability to mobile far away area is uncomparable to any other species on Earth. Especially with the increase in international air traffic, the increase in travel by humans and livestocks can be seen thousands of times over the past seven decades. Let us put some facts here.

In the 1950s, the number of global air travelers was 2 million, but in 1990, it grew to 424 million. In 2019 that number has increase to 4.54 billion![6] (E.Mazarenu,, 2020).

Human intervention has reduced the Earth's biodiversity and transformed the earthsystem into a single habitat. While there are still many climatic and geographical regions in the world, the movement of flora and fauna from one place to another has increased due to human intervention.

While we examining the origins of the pandemic novel coronavirus spreading it is imperative that all of the above factors work together. It can be traced that the international trade in poultry and meat has played a significant role in the spread of the global flu -i.e., swine flu, avian flu, etc.- outbreak in the past. If we look at the hotspot areas of coronavirus around the world, we can see that the infectious disease spreaded the areas where international travel is frequently happened. While European countries, New York, California, Seattle in the United States all served as major hubs for the spread of the virus, African and Latin American countries with limited international travel escaped from the pandemic corona attack.

Once again we would like to quote Garrett here:
“Millions on the move,
Billions of humans on earth,
Shipping trillions of tons of cargo, crops and animals”

Did we learn anything from the history? We understand history often as something that happened to ‘someone else’ ‘in the past’. Human works in the sense that we are out of history. Our reluctance to move forward with the lessons of history points to this reality. The lesson that many diseases, such as AIDS (Acute Immune Deficiency Syndrome), have taught us is that a health problem in any part of the world can easily spread to another part. We have always seen most of the governments all over the world reluctant to creating an early warning system.

Sagar Dhara, an expert on Risk Analysis and former consultant of the United Nations Environment Program, termed this pandemic coronavirus attack as a ‘Grey Rihno Event’. A grey rhino event is a highly probable, high impact yet neglected threat. Grey rhinos are not random surprises, but occur after a series of warning and visible evidence. Sagar says, there are 14 major epidemic events, which killed millions of people, happened in the last 100 years. Even this corona case several early warnings made by the scientific community. Further, he added; Tedros Adhanom, Director General, World Health Organization, speaking at the World Government Summit, Dubai, 12 February 2018, warned the world, “A devastating epidemic could start in any country at any time and kill millions of people because we are still not prepared. The world remains vulnerable. This is what happened exactly 100 years ago during the Spanish flu epidemic.” [7]

 An article published in in March 2, 2019 written by Yi Fan et al clearly state that, “it is highly likely that future SARS- or MERS-like coronavirus outbreaks will originate from bats, and there is an increased probability that this will occur in China. Investigation of bat coronaviruses becomes an urgent issue for the detection of early warning signs”.[8] All those warnings were falling on deaf ears!

Larry Garrett, who has written numerous books on epidemics and the advances in microbial warfare against humanity, says that the global community must be prepared for the coming global epidemic.  The danger that anticipated by Garrett a quarter century ago has come to pass.  As early as 1994, Garrett had warned that the health care sector should be expanded to include more health care training and produce more standard emergency equipment such as masks and ventilators. In spite of repeated warning the world governments done the exact opposite.

It is evident that the intervention of the human species through his economic and developmental activities lead to the rapid changes in the Earth’s biomass which inevitably lead to the onset of newly arrived  viruses. There are many concerns about the future when the entire world is undergoing a complete lockdown.

1. Joshua Lederberg, Nobel Laureate,1989, (Quoted in Garret 1994).
2. Dubos, Rene (1959); The Mirage of Health: Utopias, Progress and Biological Change, Muriwai Books.
3. Bar-On, et al, (2018); “The Biomass Distribution on Earth” Proceeding of the National Academy of Science of United States of America, June 19, vol. 115, no. 25.
4. Harari, Y Noah, (2015); “Homo Deus: The Brief History of Tomorrow” Harvill Secker, London.
5. Garrett, L, (1994); “The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance”,   Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
6. Mazarenu,E., (2020);
7. An interview made by K.Sahadevan with Sagar Dhara, an expert on Risk Analysis & former consultant, UNEP.
8. Yi Fan, (Et al), (2019); Bat Corona Viruses in China, Viruses 2019, 11, 210;

About the Authors
K.Sahadevan has been writing on Energy, Ecology & Economics last few decades. He had authored several books on the above topics. He is a regular contributor of mainstream journals in Malayalam.

Dr. Smitha P Kumar is the Principal of Calicut University Teacher Education Centre. She has obtained Ph D in Botany in the work on Scientific Validation of traditional anti lithiatic medicinal plants. She has been extensively writing on science and environment.

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Apr 18, 2020

Sahadevan K

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