Climate Change, Agrarian Transformation, and the Origins of COVID-19

The emergence of novel infectious diseases has increased significantly in recent decades, and this is a consequence of climate change and the eco-modernist paradigm of development worldwide. Agrarian transformations are the key nexus of this process. In this lecture, I discuss the origins of COVID-19 and other novel coronavirus diseases (SARS and MERS), focusing on the connections between climate change and the transformation of development paradigms in China in recent decades. I argue that the eco-modernist paradigm seeks to address the growing risk of pandemics by strengthening a technocratic regime of biosecurity. However, this paradigm also expands the human-animal interface in ways that increase the risk of zoonosis (the “spill over” of novel infectious diseases from animals to humans) and the risk that local outbreaks can become global pandemics: particularly the scaling-up and industrialization of agriculture and livestock production (including the captive breeding of wildlife), and the intensification of mining, eco-tourism, e-commerce, and infrastructure construction in biodiversity hotspots, driven by poverty-alleviation and rural development, commodification and privatization of healthcare, combined with the agglomeration of susceptible populations in centralized hospitals and metropolitan areas. In contrast to this paradigm, I promote agroecology as the central pillar of a development paradigm that can be more sustainable, resilient and adaptable to climate change, more just and democratic, and better able to prevent zoonosis and reduce the risk of future pandemics. Dr. Li Zhang is a researcher at the Department of Global and International Studies of the University of California, Irvine. She holds a PhD in Development Studies from the China Agricultural University, and was previously visiting fellow at Cornell University’s Department of Global Development, and assistant professor of development sociology at Henan Agricultural University. She uses ethnographic methods, surveys, and digital archives to examine food safety, security, and sovereignty, gender, race/ethnicity, and indigeneity, health and environmental justice, and climate change resilience and adaptation. She is Co-PI of a USDA-funded national-level study on the impacts of the current pandemic on food supply chains, and author of The Origins of COVID-19: China and Global Capitalism (Stanford University Press, 2021).

18 Feb
17:00 to 18:00
  • Dr Li Zhang (University of California, Irvine)
ODID Special Lectures & Seminars
Queen Elizabeth House, Online via Zoom, 3 Mansfield Road OX1 3TB