By Michael Shank and Carter Dillard

While we recognize the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in Vermont, social distancing in nature, the world made a baseline mistake in developing environmental policy decades ago. It chose to treat nature as an unlimited resource for humans. This baseline allowed policies to fall short. It’s one of the reasons our planet is now superheating, with hotter, wilder weather in Vermont. Now, we are making that same mistake — leading to COVID-19, SARS and the swine flu — with factory farming and other forms of ecocide that degrade the buffer between people and the pre-Anthropocene environment.

Degrading that natural buffer exacerbates every aforementioned risk. With global heating, the next pandemic could be hiding in the Arctic permafrost. Solving this baseline problem allows us to trace these back to a source, and perhaps to a solution.

We suggest one stop and two starts. The first step involves the cessation of factory farming and factory deforesting. They’re the source of too many pandemics to allow these activities to continue. The second requires laying down new laws, instituting rights for both animals and nature. It’s the only way to enhance legal protections so that egregious actions, like the ones that led to these health and climate crises, are indictable. The third requires the immediate restoration of what’s been damaged and the all-hands-on-deck conservation of what’s left. A failure to do this and pandemics become part and parcel of daily life.

First and foremost, in the post-peak period of this pandemic and before another virus emerges, it’s time to shut down an industry that is at the core of this problem: the factory farming of animals and the destruction of natural habitat that makes this industry possible. Doing so would save hundreds of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.

The parallels here to the fossil fuel industry are striking. Fossil fuels are responsible for 7 million premature deaths a year, yet governments — and taxpayers — cover the $5.3 trillion tab for subsidizing environmental cleanup, medical response and more. Fossil fuel companies should cover those climate and health-related costs much like the animal farming industry should cover these pandemic costs, already in the trillions of dollars.

Similarly, the divestment activism that has helped shut down and transition off fossil fuels, needs to set its sights on the factory farming industry. Environmentalists may be surprised to see how many of the household names — like Tyson, JBS, Cargill, Smithfield and Perdue (and the feed/seed industries supporting factory farms like Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto and others) —– are in their fund portfolios. It’s time to shut down this industry before it breeds another virus that kills hundreds of thousands of Americans. The next one is festering now: A fatal bird flu was recently found on a turkey farm in South Carolina.

Second, as we phase out of animal agribusiness — and the festering factory farms and wet markets rife with disease — we need to establish new legal protections for animal populations and habitat lest it get abused and misused again and propagate yet another pandemic.

This debate — how to best protect the animal and natural worlds as a way of protecting human health — is now being fought in federal court. In the case, which is now on appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Seeding Sovereignty, two nonprofits, allege that the federal government’s treatment of the environment is a violation of our rights to freedom (freedom from harm to humans based on the mistreatment of nature, as just one example). If this case is successful, our right to nature could be inviolable and non-negotiable. And if ecocide — i.e., the willful destruction of the natural environment — was an indictable offense, we could better protect the public from pandemics (or fossil fuel impacts). Up until recently, drafts of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which lists international crimes against humanity, included the crime of ecocide (later removed due to outside pressure).

The longer we fail to institute and implement rights for animals and their habitat, the more likely it is fossil fuel and the factory farming industries will continue to extract and exploit for profit, while punting environmental and health-related cleanup costs to taxpayers and continuing to put the public in harm’s way.

Third, once the legal protections are in place to ensure a better baseline for keeping abusers and misusers in check, the work of conservation and restoration becomes critical. Even if we shut down the factory farm and fossil fuel industries today, there’d still be potential for millions more deaths from air pollution and pandemics. Because habitat has been so badly harmed by these industries and our support for them, extreme weather and disease will continue to rear their ugly heads, killing millions more, until we actively restore balance.

Our new environmental baseline, then, must be that nonhuman habitat, and the homes of sentient species, deserve the right to survive and thrive. That baseline — which goes beyond the shutting down of factory farming and fossil fuel industries and goes beyond the establishment of legal rights for animals and habitat — would be most protective against things like climate change and pandemics. If we, humans, want to survive and thrive, we must also ensure animals and their habitat survive and thrive. Right now, they’re barely surviving. Biodiversity is declining at unprecedented rates. More than half of the world’s biodiversity is gone. Since 1970, we’ve wiped out 60% of the animal population and now one million species are threatened with extinction.

Stopping this precipitous decline is a health emergency. Thankfully, it’s not an impossible lift — and comes with huge health and economic gains. Transitioning off factory farming and factory deforesting — and the propensity for pandemics that these practices propagate — frees up immense resources. Currently, only half of the world’s crop calories are directly feeding humans. That’s not an efficient system. Let’s turn the remaining crops, which currently support industrial animal farming, into plant-based protein instead. We could then conserve most of the world’s crops for plant production (to be used for human consumption), end all new destruction of habitat for livestock or feed production, and allow the slow but steady restoration of severely damaged habitat.

Big asks for the global community but no better time than now to double-down on our commitment to protecting it: Ending factory farming and factory deforesting; legally protecting animals and their habitat; conserving land for plant-protein production primarily and restoring heavily logged lands. Consider our choices, we either pursue this — and fast — or we face another pandemic and shut down our societies, economies, markets and more. The choice seems obvious.

Michael Shank, a resident of Brandon, teaches sustainable development and climate security at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. Carter Dillard is senior policy advisor for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.