Flattening the Human Curve

Steven Klein – 17.6.2020 

If there is one thing we have learned from this coronavirus pandemic it is the importance of flattening the curve. What most of us don’t realize, though, is that flattening the curve works both ways. Just as we are extending the life of the coronavirus consciously by social distancing, coronavirus is indirectly extending the life of humanity by causing us to cut down pollution-inducing activities and greenhouse gas emissions.

While we humans love to have stories about fighting wars against our enemies, coronavirus is not one of them. It is simply doing the same job every living organism on this planet does, which is to survive and reproduce. It doesn’t mean to kill its human hosts – in fact, doing so goes against its self-interest to survive. Then again, coronavirus doesn’t have the capacity to regulate its activity. Otherwise, it would engage in social distancing in order to avoid reproducing so much lest it overwhelm its host. It would thus flatten the curve; it might not reach its maximum capacity, but it would survive longer as a species unto itself.

As sentient beings, we humans can make choices about our behavior. When it comes to coronavirus, we have voluntarily stayed at home and tanked our economies in the name of survival. But that ability to make conscious decisions is a two-edged sword. We can imagine stories of our invulnerability. That ability allows us to deny the folly of not flattening the curve when doing so harms our perceived self-interests.

Imagine if the coronavirus had a president of a large nation as its advocate. If you tried to tell him that coronavirus particles around the world should slow down, he’d tell you, “No way, we’re making coronavirus great again.” He’d boast how we’ve got some 2,000,000 active cases, “an all-time record.” And what about the places where the virus seems to be disappearing? “Fake news.” Yet we know that as thriving as coronavirus is with no end in sight, this pandemic will end badly for it.

Consider, thus, human beings as the coronavirus of Planet Earth. We mean no harm. We mostly want to grow and thrive, but in so doing we are slowly using up the planet’s resources. Eventually, we will kill our host, we just don’t know when. The longer we can spread out the exhaustion of those resources, the longer we can keep civilization going as we would like it to be. The problem is that Earth cannot engage in social distancing in order to flatten the curve for us. We have to do it ourselves.

What are our options? The most popular story we like to believe is that we can use innovative technologies like sustainable energy resources to avoid a catastrophic end. That is certainly a worthy endeavor but ultimately limited. Some solutions like bio-fuels have turned out to be as harmful if not more so than fossil fuels, and even renewables like solar and wind energy leave a substantial carbon footprint in order to construct the panels and turbines to generate power. Even recycling can be problematic, as multiple news reports have revealed, with a lot of “recycled” garbage ending up in toxic dumps in southeast Asia.

We also face the dilemma that developing countries want the right to raise the standard of living so they can close the economic gap between them and the developed world. Doing so will necessarily stretch the world’s resources.

The ultimate albeit less satisfying answer is to reduce our impact – buying less, traveling less and slowing population growth. As Alon Tal points out in “The Land is Full,” we should not be measuring the carrying capacity of a country, or this world, in terms of how many people can be sustained within it, but rather how many can be sustained while maintaining an acceptable level of quality of life.

The fact that addressing overpopulation is the only effective way to flatten the curve when it comes to sustaining humanity on earth is an inconvenient truth that only people who believe that a messiah will save us can deny. It is hard to accept this fact because it requires looking not within our own lifetimes or even one generation down the line but several generations. Technology does push the date back of when we will run out of resources, but if we don’t plan ahead the crisis will hit us like the coronavirus on a scale that will make the coronavirus look like a little sniffle. That day is certainly coming faster than we think – we are in danger of running out of fish stocks and rain forests within a century. Global warming will create environmental refugees within decades.

Learning to flatten our own curve is truly the most important lesson we can take away from this pandemic. 


Steven Klein is a senior editor at Haaretz English Edition as well as an instructor at Tel Aviv Unversity's International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation and at Ben-Gurion University's Overseas Student Program.