(Source: Leonardo Boff; translation: Novena)

It’s a terrible fact that the systemic attack that nature is carrying out against humanity with a tiny and invisible virus is causing serious concern and leading many thousands of people to death.

In the face of this real human misfortune, what will be our reaction to the pandemic? What is its resonance in us? What lesson is it teaching us? What cosmology (world view) and what kind of ethics (values and principles) is it leading us to develop?

Surely we’ll have to learn everything that we should have learned before and didn’t.

We should have learned that we are part of nature and not its “lords and owners” (Descartes).

There is an umbilical connection between the human being and nature. We come from the same cosmic dust as all other beings and we are the conscious link in the chain of life.

The erosion of the image of the “little god on Earth”

The modern myth that we are “little gods” on Earth and that we can dispose of it as we please because it is inert and purposeless has been destroyed.

One of the fathers of the modern scientific method, Francis Bacon, said that we should treat nature as the henchmen of the Inquisition treated their victims, torturing them until they gave up all their secrets.

Through technoscience we have taken this method to the extreme, reaching the heart of matter and life. We have done that with unprecedented fury, to the point of having destroyed the sustainability of nature and therefore of the planet and of life.

In this way we have broken the natural pact that exists with the living Earth: it gives us everything we need to live and in return we must take care of it, preserve its goods and services and give it rest to restore everything we take from it for our life and progress.

We haven’t done any of that.

For not having observed the biblical precept of “protecting and caring” for the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15), and for threatening the ecological bases that sustain all life, [the Earth] has counterattacked us with a powerful weapon, the coronavirus 19.

To confront it, we have returned to the method of the Middle Ages, which overcame its pandemics through strict social isolation. So that the people, scared, would go out onto the streets, in the Munich city hall (Marienplatz) an ingenious clock was built with dancers and cuckoos so that everyone would come to look at it, as they still do today.

The pandemic – which more than a crisis is a demand for a change in cosmology (of world view) and the assumption of an ethic with new values – raises the question:

Do we really want to prevent nature from sending us even more lethal viruses that can decimate even the human species? [Homo sapiens] would be one of the ten species that disappear permanently every day. Do we want to take that risk?

General insensibility to the ecological factor

As early as 1962, American biologist and writer Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, warned:

“Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life… The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized”.

It seems like a prophecy of the situation we are now experiencing on a planetary level.

We have the impression that the majority of humanity and even political leaders are not demonstrating sufficient awareness of the dangers we face with global warming, with the excessive overcrowding of our cities and especially with the massive agribusiness that is advancing on virgin nature, and with the forests that are being lost to deforestation.

In this way we are destroying the habitats of millions of viruses and bacteria that end up being transferred to humans.

According to serious scientists, the coronavirus would not have come through a bat from a Chinese market, but simply from nature.

On the best of hypotheses, the coronavirus will force us to reinvent ourselves as a humanity and to remodel in a sustainable and inclusive way the only Common Home we have.

If what prevailed before prevails again, exacerbated now to the extreme, then we should prepare for the worst.

Many are heralding a new era of destructive austerity in the post-coronavirus world. The vultures of the past are already getting ready to return to business as usual and to thwart significant changes.

The interests of financial capital – and the lack of awareness on the part of those in power, and still on the part of a great number of academics, about the gravity of the degradation of nature – do not lead them to learn anything from thousands and thousands of deaths from the coronavirus worldwide.

They want to return to austerity, which is an opportunist policy executed by opportunists for opportunists. According to CEPAL [the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean – ed.], it is estimated that Covid-19, due to austerity policies even worse than before, will leave 215 million new poor in Latin America.

However, it should be remembered that the life-system has gone through several massive extinction events (we’re in the sixth) but it has always survived.

Life would seem – if I may use a singular metaphor – a “plague” that nobody has yet managed to exterminate. Because it is a blessed “plague”, linked to the mystery of cosmogenesis and to that mysterious and loving Background Energy that presides over all cosmic processes, and also ours.

It is imperative that we abandon the old paradigm of the will to power and domination over everything (the closed fist) and embrace a paradigm of caring for everything that exists and lives (the outstretched hand), and of collective stewardship.

Eric Hobsbawn wrote in the last paragraph of his book The Age of Extremes:

“One thing is plain. If humanity is to have a recognizable future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or the present. If we try to build the third millenium on that basis, we shall fail. And the price of failure, that is to say, the alternative to a changed society, is darkness”.

This means that we cannot simply return to the pre-coronavirus situation; we cannot even think of a return to the pre-Enlightenment past, as the current Brazilian government and others on the extreme right want.

More by Leonardo Boff, on Novena:

Liberation theologian Boff, on COVID-19: “To return to ‘business as usual’ could mean our self-destruction”

Boff: “Capitalism is only good for the rich; for the rest it is hell and for nature, a war”

Liberation theologian, on coronavirus: “All individualism, soul of the culture of capital, is false and anti-human”

Theologian warns on coronavirus: “This pandemic demands a different relationship with nature and the Earth”


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.