COVID-19 has presented human beings with an unbelievable challenge. The natural environment, on the other hand, must be heaving a sigh of relief. After all, there are almost no planes in the air, much less industry and resource extraction, a massive slowdown in international tourism and fewer cars on the road.
According to the BBC, there has been a drop in carbon emissions generally across the planet. New York’s pollution levels are 50% lower than they were at this time last year, nitrogen emissions across Europe are down and, in China, the use of coal has been cut by 40%.
It is appealing, as we sit in our houses reading the daily death counts, physically and socially isolated, worried about our health and that of those we love, hoping to return to our jobs before too much longer, wondering if we will ever see our friends other than on Zoom, having nightmares about our RRSPs, dreaming of the possibility of attending a summer music festival or two, longing to hug someone – anyone – other than our significant other (wonderful as that person may be), to imagine that perhaps the world’s natural environment will come out a winner.
We should not let ourselves get too excited by this possibility. Many environmental experts say that the environmental good news is likely to be short-lived. In fact, just as China has begun rebooting its economy after getting the coronavirus under control, so the pollution levels have begun to climb.
The great correction
Perhaps one of the best things we could be doing with the time most of us have on our hands because we can’t go out for dinner, to see a movie or have friends and family over might be to turn off the television (do we really need to watch any more episodes of Tiger King?) and think about how we might live differently when we are back on the loose.
According to a 2018 Zurich University study that looked at people’s use of cars versus bicycles, when people did not have the use of their cars and were given free e-bike access instead, they were less likely to return to driving their cars when they got their car back.
“Any possible environmental impact in the wake of this abhorrent pandemic, must therefore be in our changing our production and consumption habits towards cleaner and greener . . . only long-term systemic shifts will change the trajectory of CO2 levels in the atmosphere.”
Rewilding the wild
Efforts to restore forests and stop deforestation are not new; nor are efforts to create sustainable models of agriculture. John Liu, for example, at one time a journalist and filmmaker, has spent the past two decades developing ecosystem restoration and regenerative agriculture projects around the world, starting with China’s Loess Plateau. The Ecosystem Restoration Camps he has established bring together farmers, landowners, environmental experts and volunteers to build healthier natural environments that include sustainable farming.
Rewilding efforts are underway in many parts of the world, especially those where industry and population density have pushed the natural environment to the side. Dr. Vandana Shiva, of the International Forum on Globalization, notes that agriculture can, and must, be rewilded, too:
“Real farming, farming with nature, in nature’s ways, which are the laws of ecology.”
Creating a new normal
We talk about “getting back to normal,” even as we know that our new normal is bound to be different from the old. But just how good was that old normal anyway? Rebecca Solnit wrote recently:
“One of the things most dangerous. . . is the lapse into believing that everything was fine before disaster struck, and that all we need to do is return to things as they were. Ordinary life before the pandemic was already a catastrophe of desperation and exclusion for too many human beings, an environmental and climate catastrophe, an obscenity of inequality.”
What we really mean, I think, is that we desire the familiar, the comfortable, the known. Julio Vincent Gambuto wrote recently:
“The need for comfort will be real, and it will be strong. And every brand in America will come to your rescue, dear consumer, to help take away that darkness and get life back to the way it was before the crisis.”
Will we, collectively and individually, have the strength to resist this capitalist pull to comfort and familiarity? The illusion that the old normal was good enough?
Will we be able to build a new normal; one that includes and values all of us and the environment?