Normally, fellows at the KLI carry out their own independent projects, with the institute acting as a node to enable informal interactions. Yet as the pandemic abruptly pushed us into our isolated rooms, the urgent desire to understand the catostrophe catalyzed a novel type of collaboration at the KLI.
Back in late March, while COVID-19 cases were just skyrocketing around the world, hundreds of pre-prints on the pandemic were already pouring out at a dizzying rate. Frustrated, our fellows recognized the need for a systems-level framework to synergize the fragmented studies coming in from multiple angles. Led by postdoc fellow Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, they split into groups to analyze the pandemic as a phenomenon of the “total environment," a self-regulating and evolving system that consists of the geosphere, the biosphere, and the anthroposphere.
The gist of their paper is that the negative impacts of our species on the diversity of the geosphere and biosphere in turn affected the diversity of the anthroposphere, which feeds back into the other two. Human pressures on diversity in all three spheres have created the preconditions for the emergence of the pandemic and set the stage for its drastic effects. The depletion of geochemical, biological, and human diversity has resulted in an accumulation of destructive actions impacting human activities and global governance strategies, as well as entire species and ecosystems. This laid down the conditions for the emergence of the pandemic as both an environmental and social phenomenon.
Each subgroup tackled one sphere: Alice Laciny headed the biosphere, Hernan Bobadilla oversaw the geosphere, while Lumila Menéndez led the anthroposphere. The groups explored and organized information from the rapidly growing number of scientific papers, preprints, preliminary scientific reports, and journalistic pieces that gave insight into the pandemic crisis. Over the weeks and months, they met and compared notes, first virtually during lockdown, then in person when the institute reopened over summer.
The geosphere group worked through the connections between the pandemic and the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the lithosphere; the biosphere fellows analyzed the past, current, and possibly future impacts of humans on biological diversity in connection with emerging pandemics. Concerning the anthroposphere, group members dissected the problem from the micro (psychosocial, behavioral, and domestic dynamics), the meso (disparities between ethnic and social groups), and the macro (national and transnational decision-making) scales of organization.
For the fellows, the process of putting this paper together was a lesson of interdisciplinary collaboration. Coming from diverse home disciplines (including anthropologists, ecologists, philosophers of biology, environmental economists, geographers, and sustainability scholars) and native tongues (Spanish, Italian, German, English, Dutch), they encountered multiple episodes of epistemic tensions, cross-talk, and resolutions that ended up clarifying where disciplinary boundaries can complement and overlap.
Gradually, a common theme began to emerge. Our fellows found that in each sphere and taken together, loss of diversity is interconnected with the emergence of the pandemic.
Figure 1 (caption from paper): The complex relationships between the pandemic and the different spheres are shown by inferred forms of feedback (blue arrows from the Anthroposphere, red arrows from the Pandemics), which in turn impact one another (black and white arrows). The feedback from the Anthroposphere to the Biosphere and Geosphere comes back as triggers that created the conditions for the emergence of the pandemic.
Lessons learned and steps forward. The framework offered in the paper, captured by Figure 1, is a critical analysis of the literature. Focusing on the importance of interconnections within and across the spheres, the fellows drew several key messages on the overlapping implications of the pandemic and human activities on the anthroposphere, biosphere, and geosphere:
1. “Human pressures on diversity in all spheres have created the preconditions for the emergence of the pandemic and set the stage for its drastic effects.”
2. “The depletion of geochemical, biological, and human diversity has resulted in an accumulation of destabilizing stressors impacting human activities and global governance strategies, as well as entire species and ecosystems.”
3. “Immediate impacts of the pandemic on the diversity of the Anthroposphere – due to large scale quarantine regimes – may appear auspicious in the short term for the regeneration of the diversity of the Biosphere and Geosphere, but they have negative consequences in the long term.”
The final takeaway is an urgent message. We need to protect and promote diversity in order to to contribute to more effective decision-making processes and policy interventions that can face the current and future pandemics. To quote from the paper:
"The COVID-19 pandemic clearly shows that global rehabilitation policies must be launched immediately to reinforce health security by restoring the complexity and diversity of ecological, social and economic systems to make them more resilient. In order to reorient the future, strategic alliances between environmental justice and social justice movements are needed. It is, therefore, fundamental that as scientists we join our forces with civil society’s protests in defending the rights of human diversity and that civil society joins scientists in the struggle for the conservation of biological and geological diversity. It is imperative for us as human beings to understand that diversity represents the invaluable resource of that universal exception that we call Life."
Read the German and English press releases here.
Written by KLI Communications Officer Lynn Chiu
Cazzolla Gatti R., Menéndez L. P., Laciny A., Bobadilla Rodríguez H., Bravo Morante G., Carmen E., Dorninger C., Fabris F., Grunstra N.D.S., Schnorr S. L., Stuhlträger J., Luis Villanueva Hernandez A., Jakab M., Sarto-Jackson I., Caniglia G., 2020. Diversity lost: COVID-19 as a phenomenon of the total environment. Science of The Total Environment, 144014 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.144014