Coronavirus in the Light of Traditional Integral Ecology by Prof Osman Bakar
THE UNPRECEDENTED CHALLENGE
In terms of the depth and breadth of impact on the global community, none of the events or phenomena of global significance that have taken place thus far this century can rival the menacing and still-ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has brought our contemporary technological civilisation to a near standstill. All talks and digital chats everywhere on earth are about vaccines and vaccination, which have themselves developed into controversial issues among pharmaceutical companies, medical and health practitioners, and the general public, especially in the United States. The world’s focus right now is on the present effects and consequences of the pandemic, particularly health-related issues. This is completely understandable given the questions many people have raised about the efficacy and long-term safety of vaccines that are now in use. However, from the point of view of the future needs of humanity, particularly in the area of health security, it is extremely important that we take a broader view of the pandemic.
SEARCHING FOR THE ROOT CAUSES
By a “broader” view of the pandemic, I mean broadening our concern beyond not only the destructive social consequences it has brought, especially to marginalised and lower-income groups, but also including the issue of the origin of the coronavirus that is believed to be the material cause of the covid-19. Broader still, I mean including the view that the pandemic has root causes of ecological proportions that run beyond the microscopic terrain of the coronavirus species and deeper into the natural realm. It is the main argument of this article that the origin of the coronaviruses, to which the outbreaks of both SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and covid-19 have been respectively attributed, may be best understood in the light of an integral ecology perspective that comprehends the vast and multi-layered interface between the natural and human worlds. This interface, of which we still have scarce knowledge, may be appropriately described as ecological in nature. It is my contention that the ecological interface in question that was natural and normal for the human condition once upon a time has already entered an abnormal, problematic, and dangerous phase, and it is fast deteriorating in direct proportion to technologically aided human greed! The time span of less than two decades that separates between the outbreaks of SARS (2003) and covid-19 (2019) is a powerful signal to us humans, whom religions generally consider as divinely appointed guardians of planet Earth (khalifatu’Llah fi’l-ard), that we could be witnessing more frequent outbreaks of coronavirus-generated diseases and pandemics if planetary ecological health continues to deteriorate.
The idea of integral ecology is important for the purpose of gaining a deeper understanding of planetary ecological health and the meaning of a balanced interface between the human and natural orders on which it depends. As we all know by now, human-originated factors, some more than others, could adversely affect the balanced state of ecological interface between the two orders. Greenhouse gas emissions are well-known examples of a major threat to the earth’s planetary ecological health. Scientists maintain that it is these gas emissions which cause the earth’s global warming and climate change, symptoms of a severe ecological disease that needs to be cured and healed. These emissions are, of course, consequences of excessive human greed that are manifested in the form of overconsumption of natural resources. If in the given example we wish to further pursue and extend the causal chain of ecological disorders that runs through the human and natural realms, then we may view the excessive human greed that produces the emissions as a side effect of our materialist cultural environment.
What we have just seen may be termed a chain of ecological disorders traversing the biophysical and human cultural environments. It may also be described as a cycle of ecological disorders originated by modern man who has lost a sense of the sacred and who is overzealous in the pursuit of material wealth. If the chain or cycle is not soon broken, it could well turn into the proverbial “vicious circle” in which human life would be trapped. This is what the Qur’an terms da’irat al-saw’¹ (literally: circle of evil) when referring rather significantly to the consequences of “hypocritical life.” It is extremely important that world bodies like UNESCO take serious efforts to break the ecological vicious circle that appears to be haunting humanity right now. Otherwise, the newly emerging ecological vicious circle could put in jeopardy the United Nations’ seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a programmatic initiative for the global community. Through the particular example of the cycle of ecological disorders that I have given, I have demonstrated the practical side of integral ecology and its significance to human life on planet Earth. In its ideal form, integral ecology refers to the natural state of interrelatedness and interdependence between the natural and human worlds and the balanced state of ecological interface between the two worlds. However, it appears that we are now resigned to the fact that the balanced ecological interface is an earthly paradise lost, not to be regained.
Modern man’s appetite for material wealth and power is growing and expanding rather than subsiding and contracting. His consumerism-centred materialist culture, particularly its conspicuous consumption habits, guarantees him a fertile ground to enhance his appetite for material wealth, though not always practically ending in success. For those who have a strong appetite for material power, particularly of the military type, and who are strongly committed to the goal of securing physical superiority of their respective groups or nations in order to dominate and subdue others, technology is the means to achieve this superiority.
VIROLOGY: PROMISES AND PERILS
Contemporary man is now encroaching on the viral kingdom that is inhabited by various virus species, including the newly discovered and now famous coronavirus. This he does in the name of scientific inquiry that is widely believed to go hand-in-hand with exploitations of viral resources, mainly by the major corporations, for military and biomedical purposes. The viral kingdom is increasingly viewed as the new frontier of scientific research that could generate new kinds of wealth and power. Virological research for military purposes is an ongoing enterprise, as is research on viral diseases. Virology is a relatively new science, but it is rapidly gaining importance. The present coronavirus pandemic will undoubtedly further its significance and standing. However, virology is also a science that is in greater need of ethical wisdom and guidance than any other biological science. Its research paths are strewn with tempting promises of new and exciting knowledge along with its attending possibilities of new wealth and power. However, it is also fraught with many perils, particularly health hazards to both its working scientists and the general public. We are reminded by the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safa’), the tenth/eleventh century association of philosopher-scientists in Islam, that the mixing of good and evil in the natural world is in its most complex form in the microbiological order. This observation may help explain the hazardous nature of research paths in virology.
Obviously dangerous to the world human community and the planetary ecological health are the stockpiles of biological weapons that are now in the hands of many countries. According to some reports, sixteen countries so far are known or suspected to be in possession of biological weapons. These countries include the United States, Russia, Germany, Israel, Japan, China, Iran, and North Korea. Regardless of the actual number of countries in possession of such weapons, the mere fact that these weapons exist and that viral research continues to be secretly carried out in various countries with the expressed purpose of producing more lethal biological weapons is sufficient cause for grave concern. Biological weapons, just like their nuclear counterparts, pose the gravest danger to planetary ecological health. These weapons may be misused and abused at any time, especially at the hands of mentally unstable leaders or when they fall into the hands of terrorists. These weapons are ecological time bombs that can explode at any time. From the point of view of planetary ecological health, these weapons of mass destruction have no right or justification to exist. They should be destroyed, and virological research for military purposes should be declared illegal and halted. Even virological research for peaceful purposes needs to be re-examined so that stringent safety measures can be imposed on its pursuit. That is, if it is deemed truly necessary for the benefit of humanity.
A thorough re-examination of the merits and demerits of virological research is called for. Towards that end, I call for a constructive dialogue that would bring together virologists and scientists in related fields — biomedical scientists and health practitioners, ecologists, philosophers of science, theologians, ethicists, and other pertinent experts — to discuss major issues that arise from scientific explorations of the viral world. I would argue that the concept of integral ecology, especially as articulated in traditional Islamic philosophy, may serve a useful purpose in the proposed intellectual dialogue by virtue of its capacity to situate the viral world in its right ontological context independently of the empirical approaches adopted in virology. Or, as I have earlier characterised it, it is by virtue of its comprehension of “the vast and multi-layered ecological interface between the natural and human worlds.”
DEVELOPING A MODERN DISCOURSE ON INTEGRAL ECOLOGY
Since the concept of integral ecology is still new to many people, I will try to further explain the idea. The term integral ecology was first explicitly used by the scientist Hilary Moore in his book Marine Ecology (1958), but was left undefined. It was not to be used again until this century, when it was conceptualised and theorised mainly at the hands of Catholic writers. The initial Catholic discourse on the concept of integral ecology demonstrated an attempt to provide some kind of conceptual umbrella under which a wide array of political, social, economic, and environmental problems afflicting the contemporary world could be addressed in an integrated and holistic manner. But more than any other figure, it was His Holiness Pope Francis who helped popularise the concept of integral ecology to the world through his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si². In my view, it is to date the best single-volume work on integral ecology. In this encyclical, Pope Francis refers to the Vatican position on the environmental and ecological crisis that has progressively been built up through the works of his Papal predecessors. In its content, it reminds us of Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s best-seller Man and Nature, first published in 1968³, with which it shares many commonalities, including, most important of all, spiritual and intellectual perspectives on the environmental and ecological crisis. Like Nasr’s Man and Nature, Pope Francis’ Laudato Si attempts to provide a comprehensive understanding of how humanity has arrived at the present state of ecological crisis. But nearly half a century after Nasr’s work, the crisis has worsened. In the light of new manifestations of the crisis in both the human and natural domains, Laudato Si proposes integral ecology as the framework, including its moral and ethical dimensions, through which it seeks to address the crisis. It has broadened the scope of the ecological crisis discussed by Nasr to include issues of social disorders and cultural upheavals that have disrupted the human ecosystem more frequently than ever before, particularly in the last few decades. With this broader meaning of ecological crisis in mind, the use of the term integral ecology appears to gain greater justification.
I have had a good opportunity on several occasions to present an Islamic response to the ecological perspectives of Laudato Si, including at three international seminars. In August 2015, soon after its appearance, I presented a paper titled “Planetary Sustainability and Justice: A Response to Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Care for Our Common Home” at Caux International Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur on the theme of,”Islamic Contributions to Global Sustainable Development”, to which I was invited as a speaker4. In my presentation, I attempted to provide an Islamic response to Pope Francis’ position on four main issues, namely: eco-theology, human roots of the ecological crisis, integral ecology, and solutions to the ecological crisis. In the course of my discussion, I found myself more in agreement with the Pope than in disagreement. I thought then this augured well for the future of Muslim-Christian dialogue on the contemporary ecological crisis and the current global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). My second presentation was in an article published in 2016 as a chapter of a book5. The title of the article was,”Understanding the Challenge of Global Warming in the Light of the Qur’anic Idea of Earth as Our Only Planetary Home.” Actually, the published article was an expanded version of a paper I had presented at the International Conference on Ethics, Climate Change and Energy held in Bangkok in November 2014 when Laudato Si had not yet been published. But rather fortunately, I was in the midst of revising and expanding the article for publication when the encyclical came into my hands. This unexpected development provided me with a good opportunity to incorporate into the article my critical appreciation of some of the Pope’s views on the ecological crisis, since the theme of the Bangkok Conference and the title of my article were close to the heart of the encyclical’s ecological concern.
One of the Pope’s views I incorporated was his identification of the loss of the traditional appreciation of nature, which combines the spiritual and the scientific, as one of the explanatory factors for the ecological crisis. But he argues that the continuing absence of this traditional appreciation of nature, particularly in the West, proves to be a major obstacle to effective educational programs on planetary care and ecological education. He further argues that a scientific or materialistic appreciation of nature alone would not be able to help sustain the earth’s planetary health, as the last two centuries of modern man’s exploitation of the earth have clearly shown.
Another international academic event that I would like to briefly mention here in relation to my response to Pope Francis’ integral ecology is the RIH International Conference on Environmental Humanities at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in December 2018. The Conference theme on Environmental Humanities is very significant as far as the pursuit of integral ecology is concerned. The term “environmental humanities” itself is laden with meanings that would help enhance the epistemological integrity of integral ecology. Guided by this understanding and optimism, I decided to title my paper,”Envisioning the Earth’s Multiple Environments in Harmony: Outlines of Islam’s Tawhidic Integral Ecology.” The term “tawhidic integral ecology” is understood to refer to the Earth’s multiple environments—natural, built, and cultural—viewed as a unified and harmonious system through the lens of Islam’s tawhidic worldview. The idea of a harmonious interrelationship between the natural, built, and cultural environments may be described as a fundamental feature of Islam’s environmental aesthetics. From the Islamic perspective, integral ecology presupposes the epistemological role of both natural theology and spiritual, or metaphysical, anthropology. I could see a broad overlapping in ideas between Pope Francis’ Catholic and Islam’s tawhidic perspectives on integral ecology. However, I would argue that the Pope’s integral ecology could easily be integrated into the tawhidic perspective given the latter’s more comprehensive, and also more detailed, treatment of the subject in question. It is in the light of the envisaged tawhidic integral ecology that the issue of the coronavirus pandemic as an ecological disease or disorder should be discussed.
It is a challenging task to be able to discover the root causes of the coronavirus pandemic. However, the task has to be undertaken by the world scientific community. This is because the possibilities of more frequent viral upheavals are very real if the root causes are not addressed. As part of discovering the root causes, we have to do some constructive soul-searching to see whether or not we ourselves as global citizens are partly responsible for the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. If our already well-known broken relationship with nature turns out to be one of the causes, then it is a matter of urgency that we seek ways to mend it. But as the foregoing discussion shows, even without knowing the root causes of the pandemic, present-day humanity needs to re-examine its overall ecological relationships with the rest of nature.
Until now, efforts aimed at discovering the root causes of the novel pandemic are still meagre. The issue has not received the attention it deserves. Unfortunately, this lack of concern with the root causes of human problems, both at the level of ideas and the level of practical life, seems to be characteristic of the contemporary world. As a result, societal problems keep piling up practically in every country without solutions in sight. The origin of covid-19 is still an unresolved mystery. The world wants to know the origin of the coronavirus that caused covid-19. From the point of view of the future safety and security of the global community, the issue of the origin of the coronavirus in question is no less important than the issue of safe vaccines and vaccination.
The global community is informed that there are several theories being offered to explain the origin of the new coronavirus. The word ‘origin’ in the current discourse on the pandemic is understood in three different senses. First, the coronavirus is believed to have originated from a scientific and technological lab that is undertaking some form of viral research. The assumption here is that somehow, a manufactured or scientifically manipulated coronavirus had escaped from a lab, with some fingers pointing to China as the original source. Second, the coronavirus is believed to have been transmitted directly from an animal to the first person in Wuhan, China, to have contracted covid-19. And third, a Chinese scientist had purposely extracted the coronavirus from an animal for experimental purposes in his lab. None of these claims has been found to be conclusive. It is not the purpose of this article to enter into a detailed discussion of the disputed ‘origin.’ Hopefully, the mystery of the coronavirus origin will eventually be resolved. However, from the perspective of tawhidic integral ecology, it does not matter which sense of origin of the coronavirus turns out to be true. Uncontrolled virological research, which we may associate with the first and third senses of ‘origin,’ is considered a threat to human life and the planetary ecological order. Even in the second sense of ‘origin,’ man is not blameless. Many people hold the belief that, upon seeing large-scale human destruction of the world of plants and animals everywhere, the natural hosts of viruses, it is only a matter of time before a major viral upheaval haunts the human species!
1. The Qur’an, 48:6.
2. Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis: On Care for our Common Home (The Vatican Press, 2015).
3.See Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Encounter of Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man (London: Allen & Unwin, 1968). In all subsequent editions, the book’s main title has been shortened to Man and Nature.
4. The event was co-organised by Caux Roundtable, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA and International Islamic University Malaysia on 12-13 August 2015. Caux Roundtable was particularly interested in Muslim responses to Pope Francis’ Laudato Si.
5. See Imtiyaz Yusuf, ed. , A Planetary and Global Ethics for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy (Bangkok: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University, 2016); for my chapter, 117-141.
Prof Osman Bakar is currently Al-Ghazali Chair of Islamic Thought at ISTAC-International Islamic University Malaysia and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Science at University of Malaya.