“I’m not going to drink something that came out of a cow’s pants!”
The indignant quote above, renowned within my family, came from a cousin when he discovered where milk comes from. The light dawned the first time he saw my grandfather milk the family cow.
Memories of this nature seem to be stimulated by spending so much time in isolation while also preoccupied with the consequences of COVID-19. In the case of milk, the “Stay home” message to avoid infection has reduced demand for milk products in stores, schools, and restaurants. A recent article in The Santa Fe New Mexican told about dairies pumping unwanted milk into lagoons and irrigation ponds.
On doing a little research, I discovered that the aurochs was probably the first cow ever milked between 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. A seven-foot-tall giant, it went extinct in Poland in 1627.
Scientists say that humans were lactose intolerant in the beginning. However, the ensuing production of things like butter, cheese, and eventually ice cream probably helped us mutate tolerance that turned cows into a source of income.
So you see where I’m going. As one profitable industry after another is threatened by COVID-19, the mind travels back to memories of our early encounters with them.
COVID-19 as SMART ALECK
As I wrote earlier, the symptoms of COVID-19 have been much milder than historic pandemics, but due to the international effort to contain it, economic consequences threaten to be devastating. And this moment in history is an important factor. There have been voices rising all over the place trying to get us to rethink our way of being in the world, but the audience seems profoundly distracted.
Since I opened with a child’s perspective, I will continue with like imagination. So here is a fictional scene: A feminine presence towers, the brow of her blue and green globe of a head pinched in anger, heat rising from a crown that was once white. At her side stands a much smaller figure in a rose-colored skirt whose shade matches the buds evenly spaced all over her perfectly round little head. The mother figure stands supportive and protective at her side and addresses a group of little troublemakers.
A long finger like the stem on a giant tree points and quivers as though enlivened by a rising wind. “Go to your room!” the mother figure commands. “And don’t come out until you promise to be good!”
Heads of the scamps drop, and they move toward the bedroom door. They close it quietly but not entirely submissively. The maternal expression softens with the faintest touch of amusement. That of the young, sister-like face moves subtly into a smirk. She knows that she has the authority to ensure that the door will not open untimely.
BACK TO REALITY
In some ways, as in the case above, the young coronavirus is proving to be disciplinary and even enlightening–if one is open to the idea of a larger role for disease than is customary. Here are a few examples:
- The US is the world’s greatest emitter of greenhouse gases due in part to tremendous consumption of fossil fuels. Nevertheless, we withdrew from the Paris Agreement whose mission is to mitigate climate change by reducing emissions. The science behind climate change has been widely discredited here, due in part to the huge boost oil and gas production has given our economy. However, the way the pandemic has served to reduce pollution worldwide has put us in touch with the damage it is doing to our environment. Science aside, the emergence of blue skies and splendid scenery has illustrated the truth of our polluted world.
- The reluctance to cut back on emissions has also had a lot to do with the drive fully to develop all the resources underground. With the plunge in demand caused by reduced transportation, vastly more oil is being produced than is needed. The price per barrel has plunged and there are not enough places to store it. The fossil fuel industry had enough resources to diversify into “clean” solar and wind energy, but they didn’t. Now COVID-19 will make them pay.
- On a different front, there has been a recent push to “modernize” our nuclear arsenal to protect from other countries like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran that are improving their weaponry. Our cost is covered by an unprecedented $750 billion defense budget for 2020. This must send an alarming message to other nations and result in further escalation of tensions. However, there is a sliver of hope that the COVID-19 threat may inspire all nations to invest in something other than perpetuating war.
- In fact, there is evidence of recent progress in this regard. Amid the perpetual jousting for power and status among countries, COVID-19 is serving to create alliances that, even though temporary, may be a preview of greater international cooperation. One example is the agreement among the United States, Russia, and Saudi Arabia to cut production of oil to stabilize prices. Another example is the way scientists worldwide are collaborating as never before in history to study COVID-19.
- And down to a more personal level, the virus has also put America on a diet, and for good reason. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 4 in 10 American adults are obese. Not only that, the number of the severely obese is rising. It was 1 in 100 a half-century ago; now the figure is 10 times as high. Confined at home, unable often to cruise the rampant temptation in grocery stores and eateries, many of us may return to the old days of cooking more simply and on a reduced budget. If this lasts long enough, we may emerge not only slimmer but also inclined toward a more modest and healthier diet.
There are other ways in which COVID-19 has served the common good while also creating enormous stress. It has reduced crime rates in some areas where access to treasure has been restricted by shutdowns. It has also delivered a “gut punch” to the illegal drug trade, as an AP article put it. As we go forward, amid all the focus on the chaos the pandemic is causing, there will be ongoing evidence of opportunity afoot to learn how to effect change for the better.
And that point brings me back to the beginning. I don’t know how the milk story turned out for my cousin, but there may ultimately have been a feminine voice giving the order to drink milk “Because I say so. It’s good for you.” And how often have we been cowed by authority and convention to “go along to get along?”
In a way, it’s like we (including our bulls) have been herded into a barn to be milked for profit in ways that have helped bring us to this perilous economic moment. Who knew that COVID-19 would use the dairy industry to help make that point?