Think the Pandemic has been Good for the Planet? Think Again.

Despite 2020’s reduction in air pollution, plenty of worrying environmental trends need our attention.

Aerial view of Market Street in San Francisco, during the Covid-19 lockdown, devoid of people and cars.
Photo by Christopher Michel via Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Covid-19 pandemic may have temporarily reduced pollution from cars when the streets of cities like San Francisco emptied out, but it has exacerbated plenty of other worrying trends.

I almost got hit by three cars yesterday. One made an aggressive left turn while I was in the middle of the crosswalk. As I crossed another street, a woman turned right toward me, batting her hand back and forth to say “Move! Move! Move!’’ The last person just didn’t see me, even though I was wearing a bright yellow jacket. A jacket I bought so I could be seen by drivers.

Because of this pandemic, many of us are perpetually anxious and focused on our own needs and survival. These people weren’t thinking about others while driving, not even vulnerable pedestrians in high-viz outerwear. Basically, this pandemic has revealed humans to be egocentric toilet-paper-hoarding jerkholes. We can see this selfishness play out in the environmental sphere too.

People and the corporations they run are taking advantage of this disastrous situation. In Brazil, the Amazon rainforest is being logged illegally. The country’s space research agency has satellite data showing that 64% more land was cleared in April 2020 than in April 2019. Ane Alencar — director of science at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute — told National Geographic, “You can do whatever you want in the Amazon and you won’t be punished.” She also said illegal loggers are using the pandemic “as a smokescreen.”

This pandemic has revealed humans to be egocentric toilet-paper-hoarding jerkholes.

Other bad environmental news came from Africa, where there was a huge uptick in poaching early in the pandemic due to the loss of tourism. “A major source of income for rural communities has suddenly been cut off,” said Jeremy Radachowsky, an executive with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), in an interview with the Washington Post.

Matt Brown, the Nature Conservancy’s regional managing director for Africa, told ABC News that conservation groups are seeing poachers shoot and snare wild antelope on their lands, “either to sell the meat at a local bushmeat market in the capital city or … to feed family.” (“Bushmeat” is a term for wild animals hunted as food.) Across the Indian Ocean, in Cambodia, three critically endangered giant ibis birds were killed for their meat early in the pandemic according to the WCS.

Photo by Matthew Spiteri via Unsplash
One environmental bright spot is that elephant poaching is down in Africa.

On the other hand, South Africa’s environment department recently reported that poaching was down overall for 2020, primarily due to travel restrictions preventing illegal poachers from smuggling goods out of the country. The reduction in travel seems good for the environment in many ways — less flying equals less pollution, etc. But it’s also harmful, given how much conservation depends on ecotourism to fund it.

Meanwhile, in Kenya, Dickson Kaelo from the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association told the Guardian that “While elephant poaching may not escalate owing to the current suppression of international travel… demand for bushmeat will go up if there is nobody to monitor activities within the conservancies.” If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how interconnected we all are, and that for every piece of good news, there’s usually a less-good trade-off.

Joe Walston, another WCS executive, told the Post, “Hopefully, people will also recognize all of these environmental issues are related to each other and will take fewer trips but spend more time in the places they visit. In the short-term, we must do what we can to see rural communities and wildlife through.”

Many environmentalists (including me) got excited when the lockdowns began, because we read reports that pollution had decreased significantly. Compared with the year before, New York’s air pollution levels in March 2020 were reduced by about half because of measures taken to control the virus. The shutdown of heavy industries in China resulted in a nearly 50% reduction of nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide.

However, since lockdowns have been lifted, factories have worked extra hard to make up for lost time, and air pollution levels bounced back up quickly. And then there’s the growth in online shopping, which is increasing demand for lots of products manufactured in China and presumably leading to more pollution. Online shopping also leads to more packaging and garbage. Jeez people, can we not just stay at home and listen to our own thoughts for one measly year? Oh yeah, no. No we cannot.

Between people staying home, and opting out of shared transport when they leave, public transit use in cities worldwide has fallen by 50–90%.

Another seemingly good pandemic development is that more people have taken up cycling and bike sales have surged. Again, part of the motivation is self-preservation, specifically avoiding crowded public transit. And that’s the downside. Between people staying home, and opting out of shared transport when they leave, public transit use in cities worldwide has fallen by 50–90%. The resulting revenue losses mean that these systems — which were already under-supported in many places — now face job cuts, fare increases, and decreased service. The loss of public transit will affect society’s most vulnerable, and lead to more cars emitting greenhouse gases on the road.

As I wrote in a recent column, the plastics industry took advantage of the pandemic too, pushing back on plastic bag bans with the idea that disposable bags were safer. “[Plastic industry executives] were misusing a lot of studies to make people afraid and think they were going to contract coronavirus and die from bringing reusable bags to the store,” Greenpeace’s Ivy Schlegel told Frontline. We now know that transmission from surfaces is a minimal risk.

Some of this selfish behaviour is what author Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism,” when the private sector takes advantage of a public crisis to expand wealth for top earners by exploiting the most vulnerable. To protect against this predatory behaviour, we need government intervention in the form of social programs, universal basic income, and green energy investment. In the USA, Joe Biden’s stimulus package looks like a step in the right direction.

Individual responsibility has received a lot of attention this pandemic: we’re told to wash our hands, avoid groups, stay home if we’re sick. But individual action isn’t enough in the face of workplaces with poor conditions and no paid sick leave — ahem, Amazon warehouses in Ontario. Governments that took a more collective approach had better results eliminating the virus — we’re all looking at you, New Zealand.

We need a focus shift, away from individualism and toward collectivism. We need to care about vulnerable people, whether they’re crossing the street in front of our cars, or living in poverty halfway around the world and forced to kill endangered birds in order to eat.

We need to figure out how to put high visibility jackets on environmental issues for our leaders and communities.

I know that you, dear Asparagus reader, are someone who cares about the environment and the people in it. I don’t have to tell you this stuff is important. But just because we aren’t stuck deciding between protecting endangered animals and feeding our families, doesn’t mean we aren’t operating from a mentality of self-preservation and selfishness these days.

We need to figure out how to put high visibility jackets on these issues for our leaders and communities. How you do that is up to you. Maybe it’s sharing this article, writing to your elected officials, or donating to conservation projects. There are so many ways we can take care of each other and the planet right now. The important thing is not to let ourselves be blinded by pandemic anxiety, or the smokescreen of disaster capitalism.

Asparagus depends on readers.

Support our work by subscribing, donating, or buying sustainable swag.