Humans, the Environment, and Pandemics: A Troubling Narrative

Deforested area

Mass deforestation transforms habitat, often with lasting consequences / Contributed photo

Many have most likely heard by now of the seemingly positive impact of the pandemic on the environment. Cleaner skies and wildlife sightings in urban areas have made headlines in the last few weeks as signs that lockdowns and social distancing are granting nature an opportunity to recuperate. However, there is much more to the relationship between humans, the environment, and pandemics. Rather, the narrative linking the three extends into both the past and future, revealing insights and implications for how we arrived at our present situation — and where we must go from here.

The growing ecological footprint of the overpopulated human race has led to our increasing infringement upon wild places — and the wildlife that inhabit them. As humans encroach on such systems, altering and destroying landscapes, we ultimately create a far more dangerous dynamic between humans and other animals. As habitat is lost, species that depend on highly specific conditions or resources may simply die out, eliminating critical food sources. On the other hand, as predator populations decrease, their prey — often rodents, which are main sources of pathogens that jump from wildlife to humans — increase in number. Meanwhile, as the impacts of climate change alter the conditions that sustain a habitat, populations are again either forced to migrate or perish.

Each of these interconnected impacts contribute to widespread ecological disruption, as well as another effect: increased human-animal contact. Crowded or evicted species, migrating species, starving species, and overpopulated species are all desperate species, forced to live in close quarters and compete with human populations. By encroaching on natural systems, we have put ourselves at greater risk than ever for a mutated animal virus to jump to the human population. “We disrupt their ecosystems, hunt them, build houses next to them, grow livestock right next to their populations…” said Columbia University Professor Dr. Peter Daszak. “We allow the viruses they carry, that we’ve never been exposed to in our history, to emerge into our own populations.” The capture, transport, and keeping of wild and domestic animals for trades such as wet markets and factory farming only exacerbates the issue, providing the perfect environment for such virus transmission. Furthermore, according to experts like University of Michigan climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck, our activities have not only made us more vulnerable to starting an outbreak, but have compromised our ability to fight one. “Not only does the fossil fuel pollution lead to many premature deaths every year, it also preconditions people and their respiratory systems to be more vulnerable to potentially deadly illnesses such as COVID-19,” said Overpeck.

This brings us to the present, where human society is currently in the midst of a global pandemic that we have perhaps helped to bring upon ourselves through our relationship with the natural world. Ironically, by destroying the environment we have created a situation that has momentarily turned the tables: out of sheer necessity, we are now benefiting the environment by granting nature and wildlife a reprieve. Drastic decreases in air travel and driving have cut carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide emissions in many urban areas. “This [air pollution] drop stems from the rapid reduction in regional fossil fuel burning associated with transport and industrial activities, which in turn is the result of a rapidly slowing economy,” said Overpeck. According to Carbon Brief, carbon emissions in China dropped by about 25% over four weeks, and in both Spain and Italy, nitrogen dioxide levels fell significantly. Such shifts grant the surrounding atmosphere a chance to “cleanse” itself, and on a larger scale, lower emissions of greenhouse gases could help slow climate change, especially if trends in working remotely, cutting back on travel (especially for business), and reducing international trade, last into the future.

Unfortunately, the negative impacts of the pandemic on the environment appear to match or even outnumber the positive. While emissions may have momentarily stalled, our vast ecological footprint has merely shifted to manifest itself in other ways. While gaseous emissions have fallen, humans are not producing less solid waste; rather, the pandemic has created the opposite effect. The surge in demand for disposable medical and sanitary supplies for both health care workers and citizens has generated excess waste in the form of used masks, gloves, and IV bags. According to the South China Morning Post, medical waste volume per day increased from 40 to 240 tons at the pandemic’s peak. More indirectly, fears of increased likelihood of transmission from reusable bags and packaging have prompted more consumers to opt for plastic and packaged products. Such a trend is likely to only exacerbate the plastics problem in oceans. The shift from in-person shopping to mostly online purchases, similarly, has generated a much greater demand for boxes and other materials used for shipping, most likely turning what was already a heavy stream of waste — 165 billion packages shipped in the United States and 192,000 tons of freezer pack waste each year, to start — to an inundation, much of it ending up in the ocean.

However, it is not just about the pandemic’s impact on the environment, but the broader interplay between humans, the environment, and pandemics. Humans impact the environment, and the environment responds with a pandemic. Human response, in turn, further impacts the environment, and from there it is up to us: do we strike another blow, hoping it doesn’t rebound, or do we reconsider? Focusing on the larger context that frames our current reality, we are able to trace what led up to this moment, and see the implications of our reality on the future. Where does the narrative go from here? Viewing the pandemic as not an anomaly, but the product of a dangerous and unsustainable dynamic between humans and nature, and treating the path forward as both a continuation of this relationship and an opportunity to repair it is critical if we are to prevent future pandemics. “We continue these destructive practices because we prioritize the short-term gains for relatively few of us and ignore the long-term suffering by all the rest of us,” said disease ecologist Dr. Richard Ostfeld. Pandemics are merely a symptom of an unhealthy human-environment relationship on a larger scale, a symptom that is only likely to resurface if we refuse to address the underlying illness. Supporting biodiversity through the conservation of natural areas and interacting humanely with wildlife are more critical than ever.

The path forward, still, is hazy. “The total impact of COVID-19 on our environment will not be known for some time and will depend on how quickly industrial activities and energy production return to pre-crisis levels,” said University of Michigan Earth and Environmental Sciences Professor Chris Poulsen. Either way, we cannot rely on COVID-19 as the solution to climate change and human-created environmental issues; what matters is what we are able to apply to the future. From the pandemic, we are able to learn not only what happens as a consequence of an unhealthy relationship with the environment — if we do not act — but also what happens when we do act. The brief but dramatic outcomes of reducing emissions out of necessity demonstrates what collective, voluntary reduction of emissions could achieve. “There are a number of similarities between the COVID-19 crisis and climate change, including that they demand early and aggressive action to flatten the curve,” said Director of Climate Initiatives Jen Kretser from The Wild Center. “In the case of climate change, it is the emissions curve. There is a significant cost to denying scientific expertise, so we need to act quickly and appropriately.”

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