As our society adapted in the wake of a global pandemic, various lessons emerged about what the COVID-19 response could (and could not) teach us about fighting climate change.
In March 2020, a tweet by Thomas Shulz circulated on social media, namely Twitter, that explained that with humans locked away indoors, the planet improved. The original tweet wrote that air pollution had slowed down, water pollution had cleared, and natural wildlife had returned home.
And, to a certain extent, this might have been true.
For starters, there’s evidence in a report published by Carbon Brief that, at least temporarily, the lockdowns imposed due to COVID-19 cut global greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in China where emissions had dropped by at least 25% in February compared to the same period in 2019.
Even before this tweet became a running joke exclaiming that unicorns and pizzas had finally returned to the environment, there was evidence that COVID-19 demonstrated the ability of the world to evolve in the face of a large and imminent threat. COVID-19 showed that it was definitely possible for people to change their behavior (something that climate activists have been trying to do for decades) and the shift to online services can have many climate benefits in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in years beyond the crisis.
Nonetheless, despite most environmentalists clearly stating that the social tragedy of coronavirus vastly outweighed any marginal environmental benefits, the narrative that the “Earth is better off now” and that we, humans, are killing the planet continued to go viral.
Here’s where the meme goes wrong.
Jacqueline Klopp, co-director of the Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University, declared that COVID-19 should not be celebrated for its effects on the environment. It should serve as a warning.
She explained, “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.”
Inger Anderson, Executive Director of United Nations Environmental Protection, furthered that the pandemic should not be praised by explaining that people fail to recognize that the virus “will also result in an increase in the amounts of medical and hazardous waste generated and this is no one’s model of environmental response, least of all an environmentalist’s.”
Aside from the error in seeing a pandemic as the cure for our climate issues, there is also an issue with viewing humans as the virus killing the planet since the reality is that we aren’t as separate from nature as we would like to lead ourselves to believe.
It’s important to recognize that our actions such as dredging oil, agricultural failures, pollution, and over-cultivation (to name a few) all threaten to upend our world and everything in it – and that includes us. In fact, each molecule of excess carbon into the atmosphere or single-use plastic straw that ends up in the ocean ties our fate ever tighter to that of the planet.
Thus, saying that “we’re the virus” throws all of that out of the window. It erases our agency. It discards the fact that now, more than ever before, we need to acknowledge our partnership with the planet and that we are just as much a part of nature as the biodiversity that we are so desperately trying to save.
Even further, the notion that COVID-19 “helped the planet” is misplaced and potentially harmful because labeling COVID-19 as a “cure” can distract attention away from bigger policy solutions and, in some more extreme cases, potentially tread dangerously close to authoritarian ideologies such as eco-fascism.
Eco-fascism is defined as a totalitarian ideology that advocates for authoritarian governance for the greater environmental good. Those who ascribe to eco-fascist philosophies are usually in favor of Malthusian ideas of human population control — often in the most marginalized communities — as a means to preserve the planet. Therefore, minimizing or even encouraging human death and suffering to help the environment is an excellent example of this dark ideology that is perpetuated by the “coronavirus is good for the planet” rhetoric.
Returning to the tweet, there has been some push back that recognizes the eco-fascist undertones of the meme with one user responding replying: “The problem is not people – that’s some ecofash [idea] that leads to genocide.” In response, the author of the tweet wrote “My intention was to show that there’s some positive in this incredibly bad and dark situation.” He clarified, “I am NOT saying all humans should die.”
And although most of those amplifying the original message would likely agree with the author’s sentiments and intent, this does not take away from the fact that such philosophies on the relationship between humanity and nature have coexisted with environmental activism for decades (and will continue to surface unless they are adequately addressed).
In Sienna Garcia’s Grist article We’re the virus’: The pandemic is bringing out environmentalism’s dark side, she highlights that fighting overpopulation for the sake of conserving Earth’s resources became a mainstream preoccupation in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Garcia adds that Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb warned society of mass food insecurity as people “overwhelmed the Earth’s resources” and he recommended sterilization as part of the solution. Even further, Garrett Hardin, an influential environmentalist, suggested against food aid during famines, arguing that if poorer governments could not feed their populations then it would be in the best interest of the planet’s resources to let them starve.
Thus, the seemingly benign narrative that intends to optimistically highlight the benefits of human absence on the planet by declaring that “we are the virus” echoes the disturbing eco-fascist perceptions of humans as a disease that needs to be cleansed. Beyond the implications for genocide and sterilization, there is also evident racism and classism as human impacts on the planet are not evenly distributed as every person does not have the same access to resources. For this reason, it is not fair to justify overpopulation control, often in poorer regions, as a means to benefit the planet as this shifts responsibility away from the role that the wealthiest countries and corporations play in causing climate change. Thus, whilst poorer black and brown communities contribute the least to climate change and often experience the most of the harmful effects, they will be the ones most likely to suffer as they make the easiest targets.
To this end, it is essential to recognize the potential harm and divisiveness of our narratives that humans are “trash” and that the planet would be much better off without us. Instead of using COVID-19 as a means to encourage the minimization of human populations for the sake of the planet, focus those efforts for optimism onto what COVD-19 teaches about the possibility of mobilization and large-scale change for future climate efforts. Let COVID-19 spark the hope that society will be able to learn from this, grow from this, and rebuild as a global community.
I will leave you with the words of Thich Nhat Hanh from his 2014 Statement on Climate Change for the UN (who summed this up far more eloquently than I ever could):
“Our love and admiration for the Earth have 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.”