Last spring, nature was apparently healing.
COVID rates were spiking internationally and across many states across the country. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide cases were creeping into the millions. Deaths reached over 300,000 by May 2020. As emissions-heavy air travel came to almost a grinding halt, emissions began to drop across China and several European countries. By late March, Europe’s electricity usage sunk— Spain and France had decreased by 10 percent, and Italy dropped about 20 percent. As New York City entered its first phase of lockdown at the end of March, carbon monoxide levels decreased as much as 50 percent after a decrease in traffic.
The initial lockdown also encouraged animals to roam and take up space in cities and towns across the planet, which rarely happens with regular foot traffic from locals and tourists. Lions in South Africa took it upon themselves to lounge in the middle of an empty road, and goats had a night out feasting on unattended shrubbery in Wales.
As the animals came out of their hiding, so did the memes. A popular message online for a few weeks was that the environment was sorting itself out and as people were shuttered away inside their homes. Some posts even declared that humanity and overpopulation itself was the virus—a similar message to what a fake profile of climate change organization Extinction Rebellion tweeted. “The Earth is healing,” the tweet read. “The air and water is clearing. Corona is the cure. Humans are the disease,” to the dismay of other Twitter users.
For some corners of the internet, it seemed that the virus came along to “heal” the environment after years of degradation and urban expansion. But researchers and environmental organizers, including political educator and organizer Hilary Moore, were quick to call out why the virus was not the “cure” to climate and population woes. Humanity’s relationship to the environment is way more complicated than that.
Last spring’s initial lockdowns led to what researchers call an anthropause, Moore says, or a slowdown of modern human activity. COVID-19 isn’t the only time the lack of human interaction changed a location’s landscape—some researchers have considered Chernobyl as one of the first officially studied anthropauses.
“[It’s] the idea that nature would take back or take over if human activity were to stop, or in some imaginations, if humans would disappear,” Moore says.
A slowdown of everyday human activity like car and airline travel brought about the anthropause, but humans themselves are not “the virus.” New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this past April revealed that humans have sustainably lived and managed communities all over the earth for over 10,000 years—the vast majority of the human timeline. It wasn’t until “the appropriation, colonization, and intensification of use in lands inhabited and used by prior societies,” the authors write, that environmental degradation problems began to arise from human activity.
The presence of people isn’t the underlying issue itself. Lifestyles and systems that allow for inequality and overconsumption are. Placing the blame on people, particularly from poorer countries who contribute the least emissions, allows culprits like large corporations to go unchallenged.
The seemingly harmless “Earth is healing” dialogue fed what Moore calls the “myth of overpopulation,” and this is hardly the first time the ugly ideology has reared its head. Past conservationists and environmental activists have blamed environmental issues on communities of color and poor populations. Famous American 20th-century conservationist Madison Grant launched various conservation programs in the country. But his work also included writing that eventually led to restricting Eastern European and African immigrants into the United States. Other early 20th-century conservation efforts had founders and supporters that believed in eugenics and blamed immigration and overpopulation for environmental issues.
Throughout history, this idea is often to criticize people from poorer countries in the Global South who happen to have larger families than richer countries—even when it is wealthier countries with giant per capita carbon emissions.
“We too often let extractive capitalism off the hook … the focus becomes people’s individual habits or where they live, rather than the mechanisms that keep ‘profit over people’ in place,” Moore says. “This keeps the systems that brought us to crisis completely intact.”
Eco-fascism is the idea that human lives that happen to be under authoritarian leadership and repressive governments are expendable for the greater good of nature. Those lives are often marginalized communities such as racial and ethnic minorities despite many of those communities being less likely to contribute to the larger problem of pollution and environmental degradation.
The marginalized communities accused of hurting the environment are more likely to be violently targeted. For example, before seeking to kill Latinos near the Mexican border, the El Paso shooter blamed immigrants for environmental problems. Environmental right-wingers have also blamed an influx of immigrants and communities of color to issues like urban sprawl and litter, ignoring the complex systems that cause communities to immigrate.
Moore emphasizes that the “we” in the phrase “we are the virus” places collective blame on all communities that are continuing to struggle from the pandemic, even if certain lifestyles contribute very little to the spread.
“We know that communities of color and poor communities are already disproportionately cast as threats to the environment … blame has already been prescribed into our society, a society in which racism thrives,” she says. “[The phrase unveiled] that the kinds of racism usually associated with the far-right, were actually alive and well within the mainstream.”
The global megacities network C40 Cities suggested creating “15 Minute Cities” as part of an agenda for “a green and just recovery” after the pandemic. The proposed intentional cities are environments where residents could meet most of their immediate needs by just walking or biking a mere 15 minutes away from home. Unlike the problematic demonization of a growing population, the initiative plans to tackle the increasing inequality in many cities during shutdowns by creating shorter commute times for residents, better accessibility, green infrastructure, and less pollution.
“Building with nature to prioritize ‘nature-based solutions’ such as parks, green roofs, green walls, blue infrastructure, and permeable pavements, to help reduce the risks of extreme heat, drought, and flooding, and improve liveability and physical and mental health,” the C40 website reads.
Moore explains that challenging the language and attitudes we hold towards the pandemic and how it connects to environmental issues and population growth is part of addressing inequity and the misunderstandings that come with it.
“All environmental crises, at their core, are actually social problems,” she says. “Move conversations into action and to take action alongside the people at the frontlines of the crisis.”