Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Environmentalism in a Pandemic: The importance of critical, empathetic, and future-driven thinking

About a month or so ago, the grumpy old lady who lives in the not-so-deep recesses of my mind was stirred by social media posts like these:

“Nature is healing! Humans are trash!”

“The COVID crusade is saving the planet from humans doing bullshit.”

“Mother Earth is now healing. Maybe that’s the plan after all.”

“Mother Earth is healing. Don’t panic. Take a break and join her.”

They reek of mindless, privileged, out-of-touch environmental activism that completely misses the important complexities linking humans and the environment. This kind of mindset has led to unethical (or ethically ambiguous) and ultimately counterproductive conservation efforts around the world. The humans who are suffering the most from this pandemic and its socioeconomic impacts are not the ones who are primarily responsible for “defiling” the planet — whereas those who are primarily responsible have more resources that allow them to better avoid infection and destitution. Sure, they still might get infected, but while the virus “doesn’t discriminate,” our systems of healthcare access do.

To be clear: I am pro-environment. For the past 18 years (wait, what?), I have pursued education and work in conservation. I never was a particularly passionate tree- or dolphin-hugger; I simply wanted to make a positive contribution to humanity and the world, and conservation happened to be a good match for my desired lifestyle (save the financial side of things). But I am passionate about equitable, effective conservation. I’m a pragmatic, systems-thinking, social-ecologically-informed conservationist, a pro-environment person who is also pro-human. Even though humans make me grumpy, they also have rights — something that mainstream conservation still tends to overlook (though this is improving).

I wanted to explore my thoughts on this topic, and to share them with friends and colleagues — especially those who work on environmental issues. Now, I am lucky enough to still be working on some freelance contracts, and I do have a number of other important duties and activities that I really should be devoting my time to. So, what follows is not a particularly polished synthesis of anything, but rather a series of considerations and information from various sources that I could cobble together in my unclaimed time. In other words, an elaborate exercise in procrastination, curiosity, and somewhat scattered exploration of my initial reactions, conveniently camouflaged as “Tara practices her non-academic writing skills.”

Environmentalism and the “Humans are Trash” Narrative

It is beyond dispute that humans, in our current state of being, have vastly destructive impacts to the environment. This destruction spews out on different scales — from the localized, individual level to the global, structural level, with complex linkages throughout. It is hard to think of any individual impact that is not at least partially linked to the larger system: the individual who tosses away single-use plastic without a care in the world is part of a system that has made this behavior the most convenient and accessible option; the individual who illegally kills a rare animal is part of a system where people who live alongside rare animals are often economically desperate and where there is a market for rare animals; the individual, say, an aspiring conservation researcher, who hops on a greenhouse gas-emitting plane to go to a conference is part of a system where attendance at such gatherings is considered vital for career advancement and funding-relevant networking.

The implications of this destruction are not spread equitably. The people who drive the destruction — let’s say, corporations and consumers in rich countries — are often not the ones who have to live with the negative fallout, at least not in the short term. One could say that we export our environmental impacts to the rest of the world. This is a key reason why our environmental destruction has spiraled so far: the lack of a direct feedback loop between our own actions and choices and the negative effects of those actions.

Similarly, the implications of how we try to fix that destruction are also usually not spread equitably. An example from my niche in the conservation world: marine mammal conservation in developing countries. Wide-eyed marine mammal enthusiasts in rich countries, horrified by the threats facing these majestic, cute, charismatic beings, will staunchly call for strict and immediate ends to the human activities that threaten these animals… even though these animals and the threats often live in the developing world, where livelihood options are limited and social safety nets are often nonexistent. Who will shoulder the burden of fishing communities having to fundamentally change their livelihoods to avoid accidentally catching porpoises and dolphins (a major conservation threat)? It will be the poor coastal communities who pay, not the relatively well-off conservation activists — who often do not try to also address the social, economic, and political practicalities needed to make conservation-minded changes without violating the human rights and well-being of these communities.

Where conservation seems to succeed without snatching land, ocean, and rights from local people is in cases where the local communities are actively involved — and respected — in the process. Conservation is essentially a human endeavor. And marginalized communities deserve to be treated as humans.

The context that I’m trying to establish here is that environmentalism and conservation have a troubling history (and ongoing habit) of viewing humans as “the problem.” Important questions of privilege, perspective, and linkages are ignored in this worldview. This potentially leads down some pretty troubling pathways.

Who, precisely, is “the trash” or “the problem”?

Several others have commented on the worrying parallel between this “COVID is saving the planet!” and tone deaf comments on overpopulation as the main threat to the environment. Though I greatly admire them and am inspired by their considerable and ongoing legacy, even the otherwise wonderful David Attenborough and Jane Goodall are guilty of contributing to the white-/western-centric narrative of “there are just too many people on this planet!”

I am not suggesting that these two giants of conservation are actively racist. What I am suggesting is that this narrative often focuses on populations in developing countries in Africa and Asia, despite the fact that it’s those of us in developed countries — e.g., the US, with its #1 ranking (we’re #1!) in per capita greenhouse gas emissions — who actually have the most profoundly negative impact on the environment. “There are just too many people who consume too much on this planet, screwing everyone else over,” is more accurate. And also: “There are just too many corporations that benefit from unsustainable practices! There are just too many politicians skewing the system so that it promotes unsustainable industry!”

In the extreme, this “humans are the problem” thinking justifies some pretty horrific ideology. Enter ecofascism, a term I’ve only recently learned, though it’s a concept I’ve known about for a while. It uses environmental concerns to justify authoritarian rule and nationalism and racial supremacy; if overpopulation is the problem, well, then, genocide could be a solution — and they’ll tell you who should be the first to be eliminated. It’s a bizarre, and horrific, marriage of environmentalism and nationalism. Here’s a nice, brief video that provides an overview of the ecofascist take on COVID19. I will say that the term is used fairly loosely on social media, but even the most strict and extreme definition of ecofascism is along the same spectrum as the “humans are the problem!” narrative. See this Current Affairs piece for more thoughts on the label of ecofascism.

For most of you reading, I’m assuming that you find the idea of genocide to be horrifying. So, if you were to learn that the decimation of Native American populations due to disease and genocide in the 15th and 16th centuries led to increased carbon storage as their previously cultivated lands rewilded, would you call that a silver lining? I hope not. (Ecofascists, however, might use it as justification for their warped worldview.)

As this Grist article by Sierra Garcia explains: “Environmentalism has long danced with xenophobia and eugenics.” Similarly, it is fairly obvious that mainstream conservation operates on neocolonial assumptions and approaches, where the rights of local people are ignored in the quest for environmental protection in the process of “Green Grabbing”. I saw a mind-opening talk on this by Patrick Christie, in which he refers to modern, mainstream conservation as representing the “misanthropocene,” where humans (who happen to live near the places and things the rest of us want to protect) are treated as obstacles or opponents rather than entities with rights and agency in conservation.

In simple terms: these ways of thinking, whether it be about overpopulation or a pandemic, whether it be a single thoughtless Facebook post or a hate-filled manifesto, contribute to the message that the lives and suffering of others — the most marginalized — are negligible, if the outcome for our precious environment is positive. Perhaps I am hypersensitive and imagining that the slope is much more slippery than it actually is, but I have seen even moderately “anti-human” conservation mindsets bring harm to marginalized communities while generally failing to meaningfully protect the target animals.

When we say “humans are the problem,” we need to be honest. Some humans are much more a part of the problem than others, but rarely face the harsh consequences of our impacts to the environment. By treating humanity as one uniform mass — and not instead examining the inequitable human-created systems that drive environmental destruction — we could be interpreted as saying that all of humanity (including the most marginalized) should pay for the crimes of a relative few. This mindset pitches human against human, while the harmful systems remain unquestioned and unchanged.

Again, from Sierra Garcia in Grist:

Broad calls for limiting population, or rejoicing in the pollution-stunting effects of the world’s economy grinding to a halt, are indirect endorsements of mass suffering for people who are already most vulnerable — and incidentally, those who contribute least to climate change. Blind applause for environmental progress without acknowledging who’s bearing the cost is simply a rebranding of white supremacist ideals.

Signs of a healing Earth? Environmental Impacts of the Pandemic

“Stop preaching, stop lecturing, don’t be such a downer,” you might be thinking. “Can’t we celebrate the positive impact to the environment, even as we feel sorry for those who are hurting now? I’m no Nazi! I just love trees!” I suppose that’s a personal question of etiquette; for me, it feels awfully tone deaf, but as has been covered, I do have a grumpy old lady taking up space in my brain. However, I do fully agree that we should be observing and learning from what’s happening in the environment now, and I believe that this could lead to less ethically-fraught positive outcomes in the future.

To mindfully understand the environmental impacts of the pandemic, we need to think about the system — the different scales in space and time, and the connections driving human behavior and larger scale human activities. I like how this opinion piece by Kaitlyn Radde in IDS News puts it:

The destruction of the earth for the massive profit of a handful of individuals and corporations is not part of the human condition, but it is a part of the capitalist condition, especially in the face of ineffective regulation. Nature is resurging because of the absence of unsustainable profit-chasing, not because of the absence of human life

It’s also important to think not only of what’s happening now, but what will happen in the future: how we resume our activities after the pandemic eases, and how governments choose to regulate and support various industries and sectors, will determine whether we can (1) sustain or magnify positive impacts and mitigate negative impacts (through mindful, far-sighted decision-making), (2) return to “business as usual” with the temporary positive impacts quickly disappearing into the past, or (3) even devolve into a frenzy of rebuilding and consumption and perverse incentives that make things even worse than before.

Below I’ll summarize what came up when I thought about the environmental implications of the pandemic, and did some poking around for more information:

Air pollution and climate change: I will admit that it is impressive to see photos of crisp mountain views visible from cities for the first time in years. Air pollution is down, and carbon emissions are down. However, the previous dip in emissions brought about by the 2008 recession was followed by a quick bounce back, and the current stockpile of products that is building up would allow for a fast resumption of industrial activities (here and here).

· The renewable energy sector is being hit hard by the pandemic’s economic slowdown and disruption to supply chains (also, see here). The plummeting value of oil could is certainly hitting the oil and gas industry hard, but it also is an incentive for consumers to take advantage of a now super-low priced energy source.

· Funding and interest in sustainable industry might diminish as the economic situation grows more dire and rapid, urgent resumption of industrial activities is prioritized. Also, if this drastic lockdown is taken as a model for reducing environmental impact, it certainly will be broadly unappealing (to put it lightly); as Martha Henriques writes in BBC Future: “It’s safe to say that no one would have wanted for emissions to be lowered this way.”

· What is being put into momentum now will shape the future of air pollution and climate change. In the US, we see the Trump administration’s rollbacks of environmental protections and commitment to bailing out industry — such that the very entities that are the worst for the environment are those that might recover most quickly.

Plastic pollution: Masks, gloves, medical waste, single-use plastic to avoid contamination — obviously these are being massively consumed and disposed of. Recycling programs are on hold in some countries. The pollution itself is a negative, of course, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if this also triggers a shift back away from the “reuse!” mindset that environmentalists have worked so hard (and rightfully so!) to spread.

Food production: I didn’t go so far as to look into analyses on how this has been affecting global food chains, and the linked impacts of food production on the environment (deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, shipping traffic). However, communities in the US are starting to see the importance of having a more reliably accessible, resilient, and self-sufficient food supply; local farms in San Diego are more popular than ever, overloaded with subscription for their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes. This seems like an important boost to the local food movement (though what you eat might have more environmental ramifications than how far your food had to travel to you). Something similar has been noted in Kenya, where local fish markets are thriving as consumers turn away from imports from China.

Biodiversity conservation: With less traffic (on land and water), it makes sense that wildlife has been spotted in formerly heavily peopled areas. It’s an encouraging indication that habitats can be made attractive for these animals after a very short period of reduced human activities — this is a good lesson to learn. Other considerations include:

· Great ape researchers are concerned about the possible risk the virus could pose to endangered ape species.

· The reduction in wildlife tourism, while perhaps being a positive in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, is a big negative for conservation efforts and communities who depend on it.

· There are concerns that poaching might escalate, as poaching patrol teams might need to reduce their monitoring due to health concerns and reduced funding, and as rural communities become desperate due to serious economic impacts from the pandemic. Though this uptick hadn’t yet been reported in Kenya, reports from South Africa, Cambodia, and India suggest that it’s a valid concern.

· Other stories on this: here, and more below under “Conservation Operations.”

Communities: As mentioned above, economic desperation might drive communities to unsustainable resource extraction for their own survival. I have seen reports that small-scale fishing communities are suffering during the pandemic. It’s a broadly touted (if not completely accurate) conclusion that desperate people are often less situated to make long-term, sustainable decisions. Once market chains start to open up again, will there be a rush of overfishing to make up for substantial economic losses? Will people be fishing more for their own subsistence needs now that available food from other sources might be less accessible?

· However, in response to difficulties posed by the pandemic, fisher organizations in Brazil have set up an emergency network to exchange information and mobilize support — community-strengthening steps that could carry over to post-pandemic fisheries management (and social resilience).

· Also, there are fears for what might happen to indigenous groups if the virus tears through their communities — on top of the obvious human tragedy this would pose, this holds significance for conservation because many indigenous groups are active protectors of their natural resources and hold important traditional and local ecological knowledge.

Conservation operations in general: The poaching patrols mentioned above are one example of conservation efforts that might be compromised during the pandemic. A survey of conservationists showed that nearly 80% of those surveyed faced negative impacts from the pandemic. Many conservationists are under “stay at home” orders, like the rest of their communities; going into the field is simply not possible, and the momentum of many projects is stalled. However, many groups are working hard to develop online outreach materials, and I know my colleagues are taking this time to step back from our usually frantically packed schedules to reassess strategies and build up core skills among young staff through online trainings.

· Zoos who do important work on endangered species research, including breeding programs, are running low on funds.

·This just-out paper touches on the impacts of coronavirus on the field of conservation

· Mongabay covers diverse issues on this topic in various articles on various impacts of COVID-19 on conservation and the environment

Appreciation for nature: It’s possible that concern for nature will diminish, for some, in the face of a more immediate threat to lives and economic well-being. On the other hand: from what I’ve heard of protests to re-open parts of San Diego (I cannot stomach watching the footage…), people are missing their access to green space and the ocean big-time. I’ve seen many posts from friends of flowers from their gardens, or of splendid landscapes from previous travels. Social distancing from nature seems to make the heart grow fonder, and hopefully our newly-deepened appreciation for nature will last beyond reopening and will influence our own behaviors — and how we push our decision-makers to act.

Changed behaviors: Though, as mentioned above, this is not the ideal way to promote environmentally-friendly behaviors, we might develop and practice more sustainable behaviors through this experience (of course, see above for the counter to this re: plastics, but also see above re: food systems). Research shows that behavior change tends to be more effective and lasting during times of change, so behaviors we already defaulted to — e.g., reduced commuting — as well as behaviors we consciously choose during this time could set the stage for better habits (as suggested here). Additionally, businesses will be pushed to examine their resilience, thus opening the door to changes that could also be better for the environment.

What happens from here?

As alluded to in the sprawling series of ideas and resources above, the post-COVID19 pandemic environment depends on the decisions and actions that we put into place, even now. Sure, personal actions and behaviors are important, but we need structural change that embraces environmental justice and social justice, so that human lives can be protected alongside the environment. This section will feature several block quotes, because many people have already articulately and beautifully expressed these ideas, and I am falling farther and farther behind on work that others are waiting on (heh).

The head of the UN Environment Programme, Inger Andersen, wrote:

… as we inch from a “war-time” response to “building back better”, we need to take on board the environmental signals and what they mean for our future and wellbeing, because COVID-19 is by no means a “silver lining” for the environment… Visible, positive impacts — whether through improved air quality or reduced greenhouse gas emissions — are but temporary, because they come on the back of tragic economic slowdown and human distress.

That’s more humane, substantive, and useful than the closing point from this piece from the Guardian that I read earlier today:

A poster to mark the first Earth Day featured the quote: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Fifty years on, will this be the year we collectively stop taking the planet for granted, degrading and exploiting its resources? Will we now, also, realise how vulnerable a species we actually are?

This is not necessarily incorrect, but it is oversimplified to the point of being banal. Not all of “us” are the “enemy,” and deciding to “stop taking the planet for granted” very much lies in the hands of those of “us” who have the most power and inflict the most impact. Plenty of “us” do not take the planet for granted — just talk to any small-scale fisher who has seen their catch plummet over the past decades, who has witnessed the havoc wreaked by illegal industrial fishing boats, coastal development, and climate change, as well as ineffective social and economic development programs. Plenty of “us” realize all-too-well what it means to be vulnerable, on the edges of survival. A better set of questions would be: Will this be the year we step up and fight, earnestly and urgently, to push our governments to do better? Will we also realize how we need to work to protect the most vulnerable among us?

It’s important to see the pandemic not as a condemnation of humanity, but of our current systems. From Jennifer Hijazi’s story in E & E News:

Jacqueline Klopp, co-director of the Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University, said the virus should not be celebrated for its effects on the environment. It should serve as a warning. “It is not constructive to treat the pandemic as a policy response in terms of [thinking] it’s helping us with our structural problems around emissions,” she said. “It’s a symptom of us not addressing our serious environmental and social problems.”

The pandemic is the symptom, the system is the problem, and some humans drive (and disproportionately benefit from) the system while most of humanity suffers from the symptom.

To revamp our socio-political and economic systems to be more nature- and human-friendly, we need intensive, informed, and inclusive activism. Environmentalists cannot — morally or pragmatically — promote messages or ideas that pose human rights, lives, or dignity as disposable in the face of environmental concerns. There’s a long and troubled history of conservation sowing distrust among communities around the world, and how the sector reacts to this pandemic could shape — for better or for worse — the impression that communities and the general public have of conservation.

Alasdair Harris, the Executive Director of the NGO Blue Ventures, puts it well in his commentary in Mongabay:

Impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on vulnerable communities in the Global South go far beyond the looming public health emergency. The broader economic and environmental ramifications are of profound importance to biodiversity conservation. How the conservation movement responds will determine our relevance and credibility in the eyes of many communities who depend on nature for their survival.

This a chance to strengthen the all-too-weak alliances that conservation makes with communities, to align environmentalism with social justice to change a system that serves neither the environment nor most humans. The importance of community action is not limited to rural villages in biodiversity hotspots — we can see it popping up in neighborhoods here in the US, for example. Communities are coming together to fill in the gaps in the government’s safety net (NB: though this is inspiring, we shouldn’t have to be doing this!). As Ruth Wilkinson writes in Global Justice Now:

Around the world, people are building community solidarity and support systems, as well as organising to hold corporations and governments to account when their greed endangers the wellbeing of society. We are learning that community, health and social care are vital, whereas corporate profiteering and exploitative work practises can be done away with. When we come out the other side of this crisis, we must work to continue applying these lessons to resist the response of ‘business as usual’.

And herein lies the key to a more resilient, just future for humanity on Earth. Communities working together, out of love for the environment and love for each other. We need long-term strategic planning and decisive action founded on critical thinking and informed by sound science — but also informed by empathy for each other. Sure, it sounds awfully sentimental, but it’s true; the sense of connection, understanding, and trust that empathy brings about is critical to sustained success of complex ventures with many different stakeholders.

Because writing profound endings is difficult, and because he already wrote something wonderful that works perfectly here, I’ll leave you with Thich Nhat Hanh’s words from his 2014 Statement on Climate Change for the UN:

Our love and admiration for the Earth has the power to unite us and remove all boundaries, separation and discrimination. Centuries of individualism and competition have brought about tremendous destruction and alienation. We need to re-establish true communication–true communion–with ourselves, with the Earth, and with one another as children of the same mother. We need more than new technology to protect the planet. We need real community and co-operation.


Please accept as an postscript of sorts this excerpt from the eloquent IUCN Statement on the COVID-19 Pandemic, which resonated with me:

A crisis, especially one of this intensity, inspires reflection and evokes difficult questions. Beyond the human tragedy, much attention has turned towards humanity’s relationship with the natural world and the impact of our activities. With an economic catastrophe resulting from the sudden and drastic halt of activity, many have observed that, beyond the human tragedy, our footprint on the planet has temporarily become lighter. No doubt, this is a sign that we are capable of doing things differently, but to look on this as a positive outcome would be a grave mistake. The cost has been and will be enormous in terms of lost jobs, hardship and suffering. Furthermore, it is clear that the COVID-19 outbreak is also bringing new threats to indigenous peoples and rural communities, as well as exacerbated violence, in particular against women and girls as quarantine conditions make unsafe homes even more dangerous.

We can rebuild, but let us rebuild smarter. As a community we have been speaking of the need for transformational change — let us work together now to ensure we follow a thoughtful sustainable path.



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TS Whitty

Exploring the world of coastal conservation & communities, meaningful travel, and life along the way | | PhD in marine conservation