Happy Earth Day
April 22 was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.
In December 1970, the U.S. government established the Environmental Protection Agency (or EPA) – tasked with protecting the environment.
Reflecting on its purpose, and the recent effects of climate change – glaciers melting, animal extinction, over consumption, deadly forest fires, deadly hurricanes and tornadoes, floods, heat waves, and now, the novel coronavirus – it’s easy to see the state of affairs for Mother Earth is dire.
The onset of a deadly virus…
And now, worldwide, we are under lock-down.
Some believe COVID–19, the deadliest pandemic of the 21st century (and one of the top 10 in history) is Mother Nature’s way of self-preserving. As a result of this contagion, there has been so much devastation associated with the loss of life. And the loss of our way of life. Yet, despite the devastation, we find ourselves trying to find a deeper meaning in all this.
History in the making
Could this be our planet’s way of controlling population growth? It has been estimated that the Black Death plague (1347 – 1351) killed half the global population. It eradicated 75-200 million people in Europe and Asia. COVID-19 has also been compared to another rampaging virus, the 1918 Spanish Flu. Like our current pandemic, it attacked the respiratory tract. It infected 500 million people and killed 50 million worldwide. We’re seeing some of the same projections for COVID-19. So, would the planet self-preserving through population control be a reasonable argument?
But does this crisis improve our planetary health in some way? Will we see a positive impact on climate change?
Social media has been quick to say YES while pointing out the “silver-linings” such as cleaner canals in Venice and wildlife becoming more visible.
To an extent, it’s true. While we have been trying to flatten the curve, we have also inadvertently been healing the environment. Somewhat. As a result of less car and plane traffic, we’ve reduced air pollution. Cities like Delhi and Beijing have blue skies again, reporting unprecedented decline in pollution. Los Angeles is seeing smog free days. Even in Vancouver, as I look across the ocean to the view of our downtown city skyline, I see clear blue skies where a thick layer of brown smog used to be.
Not to mention in Europe, satellite images show nitrogen dioxide emissions disappearing over Northern Italy, Spain and the U.K.
This is all good, right?
Susan Anenberg, professor at Environmental and Global Health at George Washington University says, “vehicle traffic is down 50% due to coronavirus restrictions, which has improved air quality.”
More validation…On April 3, CNN reporter Harmeet Kaur reported that “Around the world, seismologists are observing a lot less ambient seismic noise [fewer] vibrations generated by cars, trains, buses and people going about their daily lives.” Therefore, seismologists can now detect smaller earthquakes they couldn’t previously due to colossal noise levels.
Additionally, fewer people on the beach and fewer cruise ships in the ocean also means that marine life gets a break.
Because more people are at home, baking and cooking are said to be at record highs, food waste is down, and vegetable gardens are being planted all over.
This is all great.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that we’ve been forced to stop. COVID-19 has us frozen in our tracks. And because of this societal paralysis, we’ve noticed improvements here and there. But mass isolation isn’t a sustainable way to heal the earth. It’s pretty unanimous among experts the pandemic is not an environmental silver lining.
Leah Stokes, Ph.D., a climate policy expert and assistant professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, says, “carbon emissions could fall 4% in 2020—a historic decline in a single year, but hardly worth the price of a pandemic.”
Anenberg agrees, “these [positive] changes are temporary… a pandemic is not the way to achieve long-term environmental changes. Once the lock-downs are lifted, things will probably go back to the way they were and, [or] could potentially get worse.”
“This is a short-term positive,” Tom Steyer, the environmental activist told Vogue in a Zoom interview. “What’s really necessary is to re-create our society in a way that dramatically reduces emissions, and rebuild [a world] that is much more sustainable.”
We’ve left a mark
As a global population, before the onset on COVID-19, we had turned a blind eye to our deteriorating environment and our impact on climate change. Due to our shortsightedness, our planes, cars, buses, and ships have been spewing pollutants into the sea and sky. Our mass production and consumption in everything from agricultural goods to manufactured products has created insurmountable waste. As a result, our carbon footprint has taken a toll.
What’s the Solution?
We shouldn’t need a pandemic to achieve blue skies.
“Climate policy would be a lot less expensive, and a lot less disruptive,” says Stokes, “if we had electric cars and buses in Los Angeles, the air would be clean every day.”
The UN News Environment Chief, Inger Anderson has reported, “we need to take on board the environmental signals and what they mean for our future and well-being, because COVID-19 is by no means a ‘silver lining’ for the environment.”
Anderson goes on to say, “any positive environmental impact in the wake of this abhorrent pandemic, must therefore be in changing our production and consumption habits towards cleaner and greener.”
We must remind ourselves this pandemic, while not without environmental bonuses, has mostly been a detriment to the health of the planet. Consider, for example, during its Wuhan peak, Wuhan hospitals produced two hundred tons of medical waste daily (compared to fifty tons prior).
Major global epicenters stopped recycling due to risks of spreading the virus. Many businesses are using single-use plastics again. People infected in hard hit areas aren’t allowed to sort their own garbage.
Healthy planet, healthy people
Basically, a healthy planet produces less disease. Our survival depends on nature’s balance, clean oxygen to breathe, predictable weather patterns, etc. We need to change our ways moving forward. According to the UN News, “human activity has altered almost 75 per cent of the earth’s surface, squeezing wildlife and nature into an ever-smaller corner of the planet.”
Knowing this, it’s not so crazy to think a bat virus has turned our world upside down. This is proof of how interconnected we are as species on this planet. Saving this planet and making an environmental change is our only option.
Old Life and New Beginnings…
During this lock-down, among other things, I’ve missed my nature hikes through neighborhood forest trails. The smell of the trees, the sound of the river, breathing in deep, the fresh, crisp air. Without a doubt, I took it for granted…
The environmental “silver-linings” have been a reminder of the ever-constant threat climate change poses to our survival, and the planet’s survival. This threat is just as elusive as this new virus.
We can see now the direct link between the coronavirus crisis and our ailing planet. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health released a study recently showing that people living in certain areas with higher pollution rates were more likely to die of COVID–19.
Which brings me back to my first point: perhaps the deeper meaning behind this virus is that in its aftermath, after we’ve cured our population, we need to find a way to cure the planet.
Here’s to hope and new beginnings…