In the city of Lopburi, Thailand, residents experienced an unusual side effect of the coronavirus: thousands of monkeys took to the streets of the once-bustling urban center in search of food. Weaving through pedestrian traffic, climbing over vehicles, and sitting on park benches—there seemed to be no limit to the monkeys’ reign over the city. Yet the anomaly in Thailand is not unique: in Llandudno, Wales, wild mountain goats descended from their natural habitat to explore the seaside town; in Santiago, Chile, a wild puma’s curiosity led it on a journey through the nation’s quiet capital; in Kerala, India, an endangered civet was spotted using a zebra crossing; and on the desolate beaches of Brazil, hundreds of endangered sea turtles hatched free from fear of human disruption. In less than a month after the coronavirus confined people to their homes, these images went viral on the web, igniting new interest in the environment.
While these images represent minor changes in animal behavior amidst our distressingly dynamic world, they also make a compelling case for climate action in the coronavirus age. They remind us that the natural world is around us at all times, affected by human activity even when we cannot see or know it. More importantly, they remind us that human activity and encroachment on animal habitats have had adverse impacts on natural ecosystems that continue even as the virus rages on. Despite the brief popularity of these videos, the pandemic occupies the global consciousness, and climate change spurred by humankind is too frequently ignored. As this health crisis constantly reminds us, time is of the essence: the virus is no excuse to ignore the environmental ills that plague our society. Rather, the virus has the potential to offer us new perspectives on climate action by way of revealing how a deteriorating environment rebounds when sustainable measures are enforced.
This paper examines how the environment reacts to a rapid dissolution of human social, economic, and environmental activity to determine whether, and to what degree, sustainable measures are appropriate for addressing climate change. The pandemic, though a tragic health crisis, offers an informative case study on the effectiveness of sustainable energy use, product lifecycles, and human-environment interactions. With stay-at-home orders restricting travel, the coronavirus has impacted the environment in an unprecedented and boundless manner: many ecosystems are reaping the benefits of decreased human activity, and the environment as a whole is getting a breath of fresh air as carbon emissions plummet. Based on this evidence, along with insights drawn from previous instances of decreased human activity, the rebound effect observable in various ecosystems makes a case for sustainable measures aimed at restoring or maintaining harmony throughout the environment at large. Measures that promote either direct or indirect, proactive human influence in ecosystems, notably low-to-zero net carbon policies, circular economic models, and strengthened environmental protections, can help to achieve this goal. These policies reflect the environmental gains made throughout the pandemic, and if implemented effectively, can set in motion a chain of events that would preserve our planet for generations.
While many environmentalists point to the adverse impacts of human activity to necessitate climate action, few regard as equally illuminating the positive impacts of decreased human activity. In fact, my research process revealed this intriguing point: there is an astonishing lack of scientific inquiry into significant human exoduses from ecosystems. Although the environmental shifts evident amidst the coronavirus are not in and of themselves immense changes, interpreting them is conducive to expanding our knowledge. When we consider the pandemic’s impact on the environment, it is apparent that its scope is unprecedented. According to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, measures to contain the coronavirus, which resulted in “a fall in oil and steel production, and a 70% reduction in domestic flights,” were so substantial that “from February 3 to March 1, CO2 emissions were down by at least 25%” (Wright). Similarly, environmental researchers at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands reported that nitrogen dioxide levels in the atmosphere over China plummeted by roughly 35 percent on the aggregate when compared to the levels from the same period in 2019, and between 50-60 percent over some individual cities (Georgiou). These data are especially significant because they demonstrate the profound relationship between human economic activity and emissions, which have the effect of accelerating the greenhouse effect and, subsequently, climate change. This decrease in greenhouse gases proves that significant modifications to our economic activity, even over a short period, can have considerable positive implications for environmental well-being.
In terms of animal behavior, diminished human social activity in urban centers and ecotourist destinations has altered movement patterns and scavenging tendencies. Though the examples depicted at the introduction of this paper are oversimplifications, they allude to more significant modifications of traditional animal behavior and habitat structures in light of our evolving global situation. As human and animal systems are deeply interconnected, we should expect that drastic changes in our activity will ripple through natural ecosystems. In his Slate article entitled “The Pandemic Is Giving Animals a Temporary New World,” Russell Jacobs contextualizes this issue: “every animal exists in the wider food web. In urban settings, rats, squirrels, and pigeons are prey for larger animals like feral cats and raptors, which might have to adjust their behavior as their food sources fan out” (Jacobs). Essentially, the decrease in human activity triggered by the pandemic may impact animals that rely on humans for food, and any “change in behavior even in a single species could set off a chain reaction that affects animal behavior in countless unpredictable ways” (Jacobs).
While food scarcity is a significant motivator for changes in animal behavior, so too are factors such as decreased noise pollution and less obstruction of movement by busy highways and streets. According to Jacobs, who draws from the expertise of Kaitlyn Parkins, a senior conservation biologist for New York City Audubon, “as those barriers come down, animals will suddenly find their movements less inhibited […] Ranges will expand, and some animals that were suffering from constricted habitat[s] might find themselves in a more secure situation” (Jacobs). Animals will feel liberated to expand their habitats and diversify their movements as the pandemic progresses. With these behavioral changes in mind, we can acknowledge the importance of establishing boundaries between humans and natural ecosystems. In other words, positive and lasting modifications to human activity in animal systems through environmental protections could have restorative power.
We must be cautious, however, not to make hasty assumptions from these insights alone about the profoundness of the environment’s ability to rebound. While the observable impacts of the coronavirus are compelling, they are most certainly not permanent. Multiple factors contribute to them, and an even greater number can reverse them. Parkins and Matthew Combs, a research scientist at Columbia University, remain hesitant to make bold predictions about changes in animal behavior attributed to the pandemic. As Jacobs asserts on their behalf, “there’s no reason to believe that the factors that initially put stress on those animals won’t come roaring back whenever people head outside again” (Jacobs). This point is plausible: when human activity resumes, as it most certainly will, animals, especially those in urban centers, will be driven back to their old habits. Luke Denne of NBC News, drawing from climate experts from the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, expresses similar uncertainty about the permanence of the decreases in greenhouse gases: “the changes could easily be wiped out by efforts to quickly ramp up economies, including governments around the world that may be more willing to relax regulations to jump-start companies” (Denne). These efforts could cut through regulatory red tape that previously limited corporations’ carbon emissions. The result, Denne claims, could be an environment that emerges from the coronavirus crisis in worse shape than it entered.
Regardless, the reluctance to accept the permanence of these environmental changes only supports the need for increased sustainable measures. Because of the fragility of the environmental gains, we are forced to reckon with our lack of commitment to, and sense of urgency towards, our climate situation. If we wish to preserve the environmental gains we have made, we must remain committed to effective sustainable efforts. The adoption and expansion of low-to-zero net carbon emissions production processes and circular economic models could serve to maintain and strengthen the decreases in greenhouse gases. Establishing occupancy restrictions on protected land and expanding environmental protections following the behavioral changes in animals would promote healthy boundaries between our worlds. Sustainable policies that reflect the recent social, economic, and environmental changes in human activity are effective in the short term, as the recent environmental gains have shown. In contrast, the impermanence of the gains encourages efforts to enforce sustainable measures in the long term. Although the coronavirus’s impact on the environment is illuminating for our pursuit of climate action, it is limited by its time horizon. The observable impacts of the virus have only occurred over several months. This shortcoming makes it challenging to extrapolate insights about our climate future from the recent decrease in human activity alone.
Therefore, it is crucial to analyze similar, more prolonged instances of rapid decreases in human activity and their impacts on the environment in order to gauge with greater certainty the effectiveness of the proposed sustainable measures. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, for example, presents a similar environmental case study to the coronavirus pandemic: following the explosion of the reactor, harmful levels of radiation were emitted into the surrounding area, forcing roughly 350,000 residents to relocate (“Chernobyl Accident 1986”). Over the subsequent twenty years, relocation efforts back to the area were sparse, and the environment was permitted to recoup on its own. Mary Mycio, author of Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl, lived in the area for about ten years before publishing her extensive account of the disaster’s environmental impact. In his review of her book, Andrew M. Greller presents Mycio’s claim that “Chernobyl’s (human) exclusion zones have become a wilderness of forests, shrubl ands, fields, ponds, and rivers [with] growing populations of once-rare mammals, birds, and other members of the eastern European fauna” (Greller 431). Mycio’s claim is astonishing, especially in light of the presence of harmful radiation in the Chernobyl exclusion zones. In essence, the rebound of the environment following the Chernobyl disaster and human exodus from the area is compelling. In just over twenty years, the environment has recovered in extraordinary ways without human interference. Indirect sustainable measures, or policies that regulate and restrict human interaction with the environment through protections and laws, are appropriate means of pursuing effective climate action.
However, the similarities between the Chernobyl disaster and the coronavirus pandemic stop once we consider the presence of radiation in Chernobyl. Scientists have vigorously deliberated over the significance of radiation on the environment’s ability to rebound in Chernobyl, but to no definite consensus. In contrast to Mycio’s depiction of a “thriving” ecosystem devoid of human activity, a recent BBC study of 1,570 birds and 57 mammals suggests that ‘“species richness, abundance, and population density of breeding birds decrease[s] with increasing levels of radiation’” (Greller 431-2). Indeed, it was the presence of radiation that severely inhibited humans’ ability to reclaim the area, allowing natural environmental cleansing and restoration to occur. Yet the radiation also has the effect of damaging the health of the flora and fauna that inhabit the area. In this manner, the Chernobyl disaster proves the effectiveness of decreased human activity within natural ecosystems, while at the same time casting serious doubt on humanity’s commitment to remain out of these ecosystems without extenuating circumstances.
This limitation questions the nature of human interaction with the environment. As previously established, humans and ecosystems are deeply interconnected—some ecosystems cannot exist without human intervention. However, we must be wary about how we define this interaction: is it natural or unnatural, and how does defining it as one or the other influence our approach to sustainable measures? Malcolm Hunter of the Department of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Maine grapples with this dilemma in his editorial “Benchmarks for Managing Ecosystems: Are Human Activities Natural?” Generally speaking, defining human activities as natural is dangerous because it authorizes the exploitative pursuits of humans in otherwise natural ecosystems. Yet, if we define all human activities in the environment as unnatural, “it would no longer be possible for people who exploit ecosystems to argue that their actions are as natural as the action of any other species using its habitat” (Hunter 696). Establishing human activities as unnatural suggests that we must limit our influence on ecosystems. In the case of the Chernobyl disaster, defining human activity as unnatural serves to undermine the role that radiation played in the environment’s rebounding.
Such a definition casts doubt over the necessity for human activity in particular ecosystems. While it is true that human activity is necessary or beneficial in some ecosystems, it is still the case that some ecosystems would not exist without human influence in the first place. For instance, according to Combs, “rats have among the closest relationships with humans,” one that revolves heavily around food, and the decrease in human activity due to the pandemic will likely force them to look elsewhere (Jacobs). Human activity caused a disruption for rats, creating an unnatural reliance that would not have evolved without humans’ presence. By defining human activity as unnatural, Hunter reveals that maintaining harmony between humans and ecosystems is the ultimate goal for conservationists. We must strive to move human activity toward a “natural pole, recognizing that this would create a better world for all species and that we have moved so far toward one pole that the world is out of balance even from the perspective of human welfare” (Hunter 696).
Sustainability as a principle represents a trend toward Hunter’s natural pole in that it works to establish and maintain the balance between humans and the environment. This approach “takes into account how we might live in harmony with the natural world around us, protecting it from damage and destruction” (Mason). In this manner, Hunter’s philosophy is particularly well-suited to accept the proposed sustainable measures as appropriate and effective since they comply with a definition of human activity as unnatural and work toward establishing an equilibrium. Hunter also recognizes that “designing management practices that will move ecosystems closer to their natural structure and function […] requires fulfilling an array of human needs as well” (Hunter 696-7). This requirement is most effectively accomplished by supporting natural ecosystems in a manner that achieves human goals, but that limits adverse environmental impacts. The sustainable policies I have touted do not demand a complete termination of human activity but rather endorse a style of activity that strikes a balance between what is good for humanity and what is best for the environment.
In conclusion, the recent decrease in human activity says a lot about how we should approach sustainable efforts, and whether those efforts are effective. We have observed phenomenal and unprecedented changes in the environment during the pandemic: greenhouse gas emissions have plummeted and animals have altered their behavior in response to our rapidly changing global situation. Though these environmental impacts merely represent our efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus, they provide a blueprint for sustainable climate action in the future. When compared to similar human-environmental exoduses such as Chernobyl, where twenty years of limited human activity has fostered a sudden resurgence of rare flora and fauna, the decrease in human activity triggered by the pandemic has incredible weight. It proves not only that sustainable measures are possible and far more palatable than previously conceived, but also that they are effective when enforced. In the face of the most challenging health crisis of our generation, the bounds of our commitment to climate action are being tested. Whether we heed nature’s call and adopt sustainable measures is entirely up to us, but as the environment’s immense potential to rebound when left to its defenses proves, mother nature waits for no one. When the human and natural worlds collide, nature will always prevail.
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Denne, Luke. “Coronavirus Lockdowns Have Sent Pollution Plummeting. Environmentalists Worry About What Comes next.” NBCNews, 14 Apr. 2020, www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/coronavirus-lockdowns-have-sent-pollution-plummeting-environmentalists-worry-about-what-n1178326?cid=sm_npd_nn_fb_ma.
Georgiou, Aristos. “Coronavirus Is Having a Major Impact on the Environment, with Reduced CO2, Better Air Quality and Animals Roaming City Streets.” Newsweek, 24 Mar. 2020, www.newsweek.com/coronavirus-major-impact-environment-co2-air-quality-animals-1493812.
Greller, Andrew M. Review of Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl, by Mary Mycio. The Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society, 134.3 (2007): 431-32.
Hunter, Malcolm. “Editorial: Benchmarks for Managing Ecosystems: Are Human Activities Natural?” Conservation Biology 10.3 (1996): 695-97.
Jacobs, Russell. “The Pandemic Is Giving Animals a Temporary New World.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 7 Apr. 2020, slate.com/technology/2020/04/coronavirus-animal-behavior-food-web-pandemic.html.
Mason, Matthew. “What Is Sustainability and Why Is It Important?” EnvironmentalScience.org, www.environmentalscience.org/sustainability.
Wright, Rebecca. “There’s an Unlikely Beneficiary of Coronavirus: The Planet.” CNN, 17 Mar. 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/03/16/asia/china-pollution-coronavirus-hnk-intl/index.html.