I’m about a week late in writing about Earth Day, but this subject seems to fit, so consider it my offering.
Recently, someone challenged me to consider the COVID-19 outbreak from a non-human-centric point of view.
The basic nature of the argument was this – if nothing else, the human tragedy associated with a global pandemic is a reminder that we’re not necessarily invulnerable to the forces of nature. From an Earth-centric point of view, we are but one of billions of species on the planet, and we’re running amok. We, ourselves, are the invasive species, the out-of-control bug in the planet’s microbiome. And so if you subscribe to the idea that natural balance is the order of things, it is to be expected that the species that has an extremely large population with lots of demands on limited resources should eventually run into some difficulty. The sense is that we are basically paying the price for excess, that Earth is balancing us out.
I have a couple problems with this point of view, at least as it relates to the coronavirus. This analogy makes a lot of sense, IF the problem we were facing were one of resource scarcity. Say, we were dealing with famine, or climate change-related drought/flood/heat and the side effects of all those terrible things, or contaminated water, or… all those things where the problem can be traced back to “too many humans doing too many human-centric things and requiring more resources than the planet can provide”. Coronavirus isn’t that, not really – OTHER than the fact that population density certainly gives a nasty virus a LOT of running room to spread far and wide, and you could certainly argue that the impact of this virus wouldn’t have been as bad a hundred years ago just due to population dynamics. So, yeah, it’s all bad for humans, but in a natural pandemic the “Earth is just balancing things out” theory gets a little too close to divine intervention theories and fatalism for my taste.
I’d prefer to think that we have agency, for good and bad. In the same way that some of our choices are having negative effects for which there will be a reckoning, we have choices that can DEAL with some of the negative events in our collective lives. That applies to both the aforementioned reckoning, and the surprise events that nature throws at us and we are forced to respond. And I believe that COVID-19 falls into that category – an issue not of our making, but certainly something we have agency to respond to. To consider it any other way is to throw up our hands, say “c’est la vie” and claim helplessness.
Ultimately, we will move on… but these times are also a good opportunity to measure, to examine, to critically evaluate our own capacity for change and willingness to suppress individual wants for more universal needs. Some of our response gives me hope, and some does not – and I’ll just leave that train of thought there because I don’t wish to get into an idealistic flame war.
Here’s the thing we might be overlooking though, going back to the Earth-centric point of view… this is, at least in my lifetime, one of the most unique opportunities to validate a lot of assumptions about our impact on this planet. With a large amount of the population locked down, we have an opportunity to see what our relative absence means.
I’m sure most of us have seen pictures of the coyote hanging out in a Yosemite parking lot with a beautiful waterfall view. We’ve seen, more generally, pictures of animals suddenly free to roam without human encounters – cougars in streets, bears in city parks, etc. Apparently sea turtles are nesting in greater numbers this year, now that they don’t have to contend with human beachgoers. Personally, I find it extremely reassuring to know how QUICKLY wildlife can adapt to our absence – it actually generates a bit of hope that the natural world is resilient. Some have called it worrisome how comfortably predators re-enter “human” places, but I actually tend to find it enlightening to realize how much we must be changing what would ordinarily be their normal behavior. They’ve actually been showing a lot of restraint, it would seem, and have been patiently waiting for us to get out of the way.
Atmospheric emissions are way down, and air quality (at least, localized air quality in certain urban areas) is improved. This isn’t to the level of “climate change is no longer a problem” improvement, but it’s certainly eye-opening as to what our daily commutes and the industry that drives our consumption are really capable of. As they say – No single raindrop believes it is to blame for the flood – but take away all the raindrops (exhaust emitters) for a month and the effect is noticeable. Again, there’s a bright side here to me – we can make measurable differences, even at a local level, in this short a time. That both amplifies the nature of the problem we’re causing, and demonstrates we have agency to do something about it.
Finally, I read today that Britain just broke their own record for the longest period of time without burning any coal for power generation – 18 days. To put this in perspective, Britain hasn’t gone this long without burning coal since the Industrial Revolution. Also of note, their FIRST coal-free day was only three years ago. Not all of the remaining power generation is renewable – but COVID-related lockdown has resulted in carbon dioxide emission reductions (there) of almost a third. Two good things here – one, technological advancements and investments in alternate energy sources are producing dividends. Two, while nobody wants to live in a full-time COVID lockdown existence indefinitely, this once again shows that we have AGENCY. Our actions do have impacts, and we CAN choose to change outcomes by altering behavior.
Like everyone, I certainly hope that we can return to normal soon, and I hope that we can stem the tide of new infections and unfortunate deaths as soon as possible. But as we fight a viral pandemic from a perspective that is necessarily human-centric, I think it’s valuable that we take note of what Earth is doing without us. There are many things we can learn about ourselves, our societies, AND our planet during this trying time. Let’s see if we can pull some positives out a very negative experience.
Get Out There! (Soon, I hope)