“Brought to Its Knees by One Pangolin”

Praise and Criticism for “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting” by Julio Vincent Gambuto

This essay commends and helps popularize an important, poignant article by Julio Vincent Gambuto titled, “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting.” Please read his article for its crucial warning to humanity.

I am also writing this to expose what I consider a serious flaw, in addition to a couple other shortcomings I will discuss, in Gambuto’s essay that turns the argument of human, and especially American, greatness on its head. In reference to the global economy and Americanism, Gambuto writes:

“In fact, it’s been brought to its knees by one pangolin.”

At first blush, this might seem an innocuous statement because this pattern of thinking is insidious and habitual among Americans, if not the industrialized world. Yet, such thinking is, well, virulent. Ironically, Gambuto writes this in the context of criticizing the economy and economic disparity. Before reading more, I invite you to pause and consider for yourself the problem with Gambuto’s quoted pronouncement.

We Are Covid

Unpacking this dangerous thinking shines an important light on a crucial dynamic: our war on nature. Blaming the pangolin puts this incredible creature at risk, because the some humans could seek unjustified retribution on it, especially when fear, anger, and helplessness are prominent emotions during this time of chaos.

One conservation engagement manager, Karen Povey, is even afraid that the already-endangered pangolin will be driven to extinction as a result of being scapegoated:

“They’ve already had tremendous pressures on their populations and now, if there’s this connection of people feeling fearful because they may be disease carriers, there may be even more reason for people to want to try and kill them . . . They’re certainly so close to extinction as it is that another problem is certainly going to make things worse.”

The perspective that a pangolin has brought the economy and Americanism to its knees is essentially the same argument that attributes the severity of the pandemic to the SARS CoV-2 virus. This is a superficial and deeply entrenched “othering”—removing ourselves from the equation and blaming another often voiceless or underprivileged thing—that is supposedly at the root of so many of our problems. Such thinking is especially insidious because it condemns our most valuable ally: the natural world. It’s the same othering that is responsible for ecocide, genocide, racism, and sexism — to name just several cides and isms created by othering.

The pangolin bridge between virus and human, last I heard, has not been confirmed. Even if it were confirmed, the pangolin and the virus are not the primary drivers that have spread the pandemic, or brought the economy “to its knees.” We humans have. We are Covid. We have decimated the natural world; we have encroached horribly on the natural habitats of wild animals to expose humanity to the viruses they carry. We even bring these wild animals to market where they can more easily transfer such pathogens.

Climate change may contribute to this problem by making the lives of many animals more difficult. For example, bats have to search more arduously for insects during the current insect apocalypse (insect populations are being hit hard and more than 40% are currently threatened with extinction) and expend valuable energy to migrate in search of kinder climes. This toll on their energy reserves might weaken their immunity and make them more susceptible to viral overload and shedding of coronavirus. As professor Jem Bendell mentions:

“For instance, climate changes have contributed to one fungal pathogen, white-nose syndrome (WNS), spreading to new regions. It has been found to reduce antiviral responses in bats, which means they shed more coronavirus (Davy et al. 2018).”

Once we facilitated transmission of the virus to humans via our encroachment on natural habitats, we have then delivered the virus all around the world via our penchant for travel, industrial commerce, and densely populated urbanization. The result is a massive mixing of people, products, and pathogens. We have made it easy for the virus to jump to humans, and we have created a pandemic by transporting the virus around the world via the same vector that has destroyed the natural world: industrialization and hubris.

When we blame a pangolin, or a virus potentially carried by an innocent scaled creature, we other disease. We make it something else’s fault, in this case nature’s fault. We demonize nature and in effect remove ourselves from the equation and assume a victim stance. This does nothing for taking responsibility for the multi-faceted crisis we have created — a pandemic that is a subset and consequence of the same underlying dynamics that have precipitated climate crisis. When we remove ourselves from the equation of responsibility, we remove ourselves not only as a cause but as a solution. As a result, we cannot as effectively heal it.

Gambuto, however innocently, has scapegoated the pangolin. In a great twist of tragic irony, when we other, we perpetuate the same warmongering dynamic that has precipitated Covid and climate change. In other words, we perpetuate our current and future pandemics when say the cause of our economy collapsing is due to a pangolin, or due to any future viruses the proverbial pangolin represents. We also other another invisible agent with regard to climate crisis — CO2 — which we even more directly generate and propagate.

We Are Distracted

And this brings us to a another shortsighted point in Gambuto’s essay: we don’t fix the problems in America because we are too busy. In reference to the reason we don’t tend to our American problems he writes:

“The plain truth is that. . . as Americans we share this: We are busy.”

This is too easy an out, and quite frankly, a gross mischaracterization, and another shirking of responsibility. While it’s partially true that we are busy because we all have to make a living and have essential obligations, let’s not forget that Americans, on average, watch six hours of video per day, which includes TV-watching. Who knows how much more time on social media we spend! Video watching does not count towards essential obligation, especially in light of our grave problems that demand our participation. In fact, the problem is that most of America has its head in the sand (screens) and we are not, on the whole, the great and aware people Gambuto panders to with inaccurate praise.

I would prefer to hear a more proactive stance rather than a “we are busy” get-of-jail-free card. Instead of exonerate Americans with this hackneyed alibi, why not encourage us to be less busy and give up non-essentials, like excess video-watching or other entertainments, and, for example, get involved with climate and political strikes, or direct some energy to helping the natural world? With this extra time we could learn more about our collective problems and look into ourselves — especially if we have some time off during this pandemic — for how to get involved with direct solutions. This activity could segue nicely with Gambuto’s overarching warning that we should be careful what aspects of “normal” — including those that tear down the planet and expose us to unwanted viruses — we welcome back into our lives.

We Are Not-so-Great

Gambuto’s mention of the pangolin concludes a commendation of Americanism, which I also found flawed. The author acknowledges some of the problems with Americanism, and he mentions some of its positive qualities. Yes, Americanism as an ideal and as the practice of democracy (or what ‘s left of it) is good. But when he says overarchingly that Americanism is a “force for good,” this is too kind and generous a brush stroke to make because the destructiveness of Americanism is too great. Here’s Gambuto’s full mention:

“The economy is not, at its core, evil. Brands and their products create millions of jobs. Like people — and most anything in life — there are brands that are responsible and ethical, and there are others that are not. They are all part of a system that keeps us living long and strong. We have lifted more humans out of poverty through the power of economics than any other civilization in history. Yes, without a doubt, Americanism is a force for good. It is not some villainous plot to wreak havoc and destroy the planet and all our souls along with it.”

The economy and rapacious consumerism — quintessentially emblematic of Americanism — are the drivers of CO2 pollution and global collapse. Both are an artificial human edifice driving destruction of the planet, and the resulting drastic imbalance we know as climate crisis. So, no, this is not a system that “keeps us living long and strong.” It is a system that has appeared to keep us living longer and stronger when viewed with rose-colored, myopic lenses. If not immediately halted or severely changed, it will cause our extinction, along with millions of others already on the brink.

In truth, Americanism has kept us strong for a brief blip of history because we have raided the Earth’s pantry for a stint, and the party has now ended. We are in the hangover phase, thrown to the floor, and it’s unknown if we will get back up. Much of this depends on if we oust the current president who is drunk from guzzling and distributing cheap and toxic American booze (pick your poison).

Capitalism and its twin, rabid consumerism, have been a short-sighted splurge that mirror our immature, expendable, throw-away, entitled, and unconscious cultural narcissism. So, while we have lifted humans out of poverty, we have impoverished our future. This has been systematically effected through American imperialism, colonialism, and rapacious capitalism. And to ascribe agency to Americanism, as if it could exist without us, by saying it is not “a villainous plot” is a straw man argument. The rub is not whether Americanism — which in truth is collective human action — has intended to destroy the planet and our souls; the point is that it has.

Owning Our Shit

This said, the rest of Gambuto’s essay conveys a crucial message: watch out for media and corporate-driven normalization and gaslighting. It is coming. If we concede to a return to business as usual, as we very likely will — on steroids — we will be back on the trajectory to create more pandemics and more climate chaos — the same forces that brought us the pangolin that has allegedly destroyed our economy (not). So no, none of this is the fault of the pangolin, or any other non-human animal or virus.

The sooner we recognize the fault is largely ours, the sooner we can begin to rescue in earnest the world where pangolins, chimps, and bats make their homes and are content to live out their lives without being scapegoated by the humans that don’t own their own bat-shit crazy ways. And the sooner we will engage more full-heartedly with climate crisis and move towards genuine Climate Cure.