Earth Day 50 During COVID-19

(Should that “During” in the post title be capitalized or not? For once, I’m gonna let it go without looking up the right answer.)

So, it’s the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. And it’s an interesting moment for Earth Day to be happening.

I mean, you’ve seen the before and after pictures right? BC and AL*?

Screen Shot 2020-04-22 at 8.57.26 PM

The cessation of travel and commuting and non-essential manufacturing has caused a undeniable drop in air pollution during these COVID days.

And you may have seen the memes in response to this all:

Humanity is the real virus!


What kind of asshole are you to wish death and destruction for your species? Capitalism is the real virus!!**

I’m going to pointedly ignore the foolishness of rhetoric that is based on denying the actual objective reality of SARS-CoV-2‘s existence as an honest-to-goodness real-and-true virus. Instead, I’m sufficiently intrigued by the apparent environmental benefits of this pandemic that I wanted to do a little bit of noodling around that.

For starters, I’m troubled by the Thanosian Economics*** that’s riding just a nanometer or so underneath the “Humanity is the real virus!” talk. I know that homo sapiens—‘specially us super-wasteful industrialized types—has a beyond shitty track record as far as protecting other species on the planet is concerned.

Nevertheless, I still want to believe there will be a path towards global sustainability that doesn’t require chronic outbreaks of plague to “thin the herd” of humanity. Indeed, the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, Inger Andersen, suggests that COVID-19 (and any hypothetical future plagues) is more likely to be a symptom of climate change rather than the solution for it:

With respect to the disease itself, part of the challenge ahead is understanding where such diseases come from, because the health of our planet plays an important role in the spread of zoonotic diseases, i.e. disease originating from pathogens that transfer from animals to humans. As we continue to encroach on fragile ecological ecosystems, we bring humans into ever-greater contact with wildlife. Further, illegal wildlife trade and illegal wet markets are not infrequent causes of such diseases. Around 75 per cent of new and infectious diseases are zoonotic and, in fact, about 1 billion cases of illness and millions of deaths occur every year from these diseases.

Also, here’s an unpleasant truth: whatever short term environmental benefits we’re seeing are most likely going to evaporate in the effort to help the global economy recover. In researching for this blog post, I came across this interesting factoid about those newly-clear canals in Venice:

Venice’s typically murky waterways have turned clear since the sediment remains on the ground without boat traffic. The water quality in the canals is not necessarily changed…

Meaning: as soon as that first family of tourists hires a gondolier, those clear waters will re-murkify.

Even in places where we have seen real improvement—like air pollution—those improvements are likely to roll back once the economy starts up again. In fact, I’m seriously worried that the effort to create economic recovery is going to make green initiatives even less of a priority than they’ve been. (And I’m not alone.)

But hey, it’s Earth Day 50, so I’m gonna try to end on more of a hopeful note.

UN secretary general, António Guterres, [. . .] said post-pandemic recovery should focus on six goals: the creation of clean, green jobs; taxpayer support for sustainable growth; an economic shift from grey concrete to green nature; investment in the future rather than the past with an end to fossil fuel subsidies; the incorporation of climate risk into the financial system, and international cooperation.

A new opinion poll suggests there is strong support for this view. Sixty-six per cent of Britons believe the climate is as serious a long-term crisis as Covid-19 and 58% agree it should be prioritised in the economic recovery. The survey of 14 countries by Mori found even higher levels of support in China, Germany, France, India, Italy and Japan. Even in the least enthusiastic nations – the US and Australia – a majority supported green priorities in stimulus programmes.

Maybe we can find our way through. Take the learnings from one global crisis to solve the bigger one?

Here’s hoping.

Oh, what a world. Including you. All of you.


* “Before COVID” and “After Lockdown”—the new eras I’m using to divide my life in this historical moment.

** Okay, those latter memes don’t read precisely like that. Chalk it up to wishful thinking on my part…

*** I know, I know: I could call out Thomas Malthus and sound that much smarter. But hey: #nerdcore till the day I die.


Image credit: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio, licensed for non-commercial use.

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