Fifty years ago I participated in the very first Earth Day — yes, I’m that old — by helping clean up litter along Monument Creek in Colorado Springs. I was a teenager excited about all the movements for social change at the time — environment, peace, justice.

At the time I fomented several bouts of indigestion at the dinner table by expressing my views on the Vietnam War, the environment and civil rights. My parents were staunch Republicans, my father had had a career in the military, and he worshipped unfettered capitalism. People like me were considered unpatriotic by the right wing. I remember being particularly upset when I read about how bald eagles were on the brink of extinction because of DDT. “These are our national symbols! And we are killing them!” My father was silent; my mother said, “Do we have to discuss these things at dinner?”

Such innocence then, and hopefulness: teach-ins, creek clean-ups, painting over graffiti on Colorado boulders with rock-colored paint. It was when people started using the word “ecology.” I went to lectures by biology professor Richard Beidleman at Colorado College, where I first learned how everything is interconnected. Disturb one species of life, and you’ll destroy others. Every creature is critical, even mosquitoes and vampire bats. Back then this seemed revolutionary thinking.

What I remember concluding was that, while all these other issues were important: peace, farmworkers’ rights, racial equality, the Third World — the most critical of all was the environment. What would any of these things matter if we had no Earth?

The coronavirus and other recent scary epidemics — Ebola, SARS, for example — jumped to humans from animals. We’re encroaching on species that carry these viruses, and because they’re new to us, we have no resistance. There’s suspicion that the COVID-19 virus came from an animal, possibly a pangolin, sold in a wildlife and seafood market in Wuhan. Humans are capturing rare animals that fetch large sums in faraway markets, hunting them to extinction. That in itself is a crime, or should be. We can never repay the debt we owe animals. But it’s killing us, too.

And it’s not just exotic wildlife markets. It’s much bigger and more fundamental than that. And it isn’t a problem that’s going to end with this virus if we keep on this way. Here are a couple of quotes from experts from one of today’s stories on the NPR page:

“We’re fragmenting habitats. We’re building roads through most regions of the world. We’re incrementally destroying the large landscapes that animals have to live in,” says Raina Plowright, professor of epidemiology at Montana State University and principal investigator of the Bat OneHealth research group.” …

“The real risk is in the wild in the way people interact with wildlife around the world,” says Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance in New York City, a group that researches the origins of pandemics. “That’s where we need to be focused if we want to really do something about preventing the next pandemic.”

NPR. “Coronavirus Researchers Cast Doubt on Theory of Coronavirus Lab Accident,” April 23, 2020.

 In our own greed, we’re killing ourselves.