In the slow of social distancing – with the COVID-19 pandemic herding masses of humans indoors – the Earth finally has some room to breathe.
Air quality has improved dramatically across the globe, as a result of lighter foot, vehicle, and sky traffic. These effects have been best observed in major cities and countries where air pollution has long been a problem. Examples range from China where residents from densely populated cities are reporting blue skies for the first time to India where people can now see the Himalayas from their homes.
Corvallis has seen its own decrease in traffic. Annette Mills of the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition confirmed that Corvallis folk “aren’t driving as much and air travel has definitely decreased, as our residents stay close to home. On its own, that translates to reduced use of fossil fuels and better air quality.”
As no small aside, Mills adds, “Local residents are making more use of our many multi-use paths, and urban areas in general are seeing much more wildlife. Here in Corvallis, birdsong is heard more frequently than car traffic.”
Mills made clear that her remarks represent her personally and not her affiliated organizations, and continued hopefully, “For the moment at least, it appears that we’re reducing our transportation-based carbon emissions and discovering the joys of our local natural areas.”
She offers a more ambiguous example in the realm of local waste production: “While we’re producing less commercial and institutional waste, our local waste hauler, Republic Services, reports a 20% increase in residential waste. We’ll have to wait until after the current crisis before we can make a true assessment of whether we’ve wasted less.”
Like many in her trade, Mills acknowledged that the effects we’re seeing are only temporary. “Only after the ‘stay at home’ orders are lifted, will we see whether we’ll resume our pre-pandemic choices. It is the long-term shifts that will matter.”
A Little Too Ironic
While National Geographic reported that COVID-19 lethality appears to be correlated with air pollution, a study from Harvard University pending peer review found that small PM2.5 pollutant particles breathed over many years greatly increased the likelihood of fatality due to COVID-19.
Data was analyzed by researchers at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health from around 3,000 U.S. counties. The death rate was found to be 15 percent higher in counties averaging only one microgram per cubic meter more of PM2.5 in the air.
The study begs the question: what will humans do to ensure their own survival while striving to maintain improved environmental conditions when the quarantines subside – seeing as the two go hand in hand?
Like the climate crisis, humans have long predicted the likelihood of a pandemic to the scale of the one we’re now facing.
Eerily, the Netflix series “Explained” aired a Pandemic episode, exploring animal agriculture and meat markets in relation to the spread of disease, in November of 2019 – just before COVID-19 began its journey across the globe.
Prior to that, author David Quammen published his book “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic” in 2012, detailing the likelihood of a virus spreading globally after being transmitted by animals. Quammen has detailed how human interference has disrupted Earth’s biodiversity, citing urban sprawl, pesticides, and international trade as eco-disturbers helping disease to culminate and spread.
COVID-19 is not the first virus to have spread via animal and human contact – before it, there were Ebola, SARS, and bird flu. According to the CDC, an estimated three-quarters of new human diseases come from animals.
What fosters disease is the environment the animals are raised in – an environment bred by the excessive supplies and demands of human consumption.
The “Explained” episode detailed the 2003 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak, which originated in a live, wet animal market in China. Coronavirus is a result of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 or SARS-CoV-2, and originated in a similar marketplace, where varying species are crammed together, “their blood and meat mixed, before being passed from human to human,” the show’s narrator explained. “All the while, their viruses are mixing and mutating, increasing the odds that one finds its way to humans.”
Beyond meat markets, our relationship with animal agriculture is one that employs deforestation – destroying biodiversity and native habitats – for the sake of creating superfluous farmland that robs the Earth of its resources. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, animal agriculture is the single largest source of methane emissions in the U.S.
Animal agriculture is responsible for 75 percent of historic deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, and nearly a third of biodiversity loss to date.
Human encroachment has come with a devastating loss of plant and animal life, and scientists say we are heading toward the 6th mass extinction event in the history of the planet. Fifty percent of animals that once roamed the earth alongside humans are now extinct, and up to one million more plant and animal lives are headed toward the same fate.
Plotting Our Return
A popular phrase these days is “humans were the virus all along.” Our current circumstances shine a light on a warnings our world’s been showing signs of for centuries.
“Our response to this crisis provides an opportunity for us to practice how we will respond to a much greater existential threat: our changing climate,” Mills remarked. “The personal lifestyle changes we make and strong community connections we develop in response to COVID-19 may be exactly what are needed as we prepare for the impacts of climate change.”
As the climate crisis is deeply entwined with animal agriculture, biodiversity, and the expected mass extinction event – all caused by humans – we should take this time to analyze how we intend to keep living in this world, for the sake of our own survival.
By Stevie Beisswanger