Can the COVID-19 pandemic help us learn how to save our planet?
By Elizabeth Hogan
My every day during this strange experience of quarantine and pandemic is largely spent – as it is for many of us – in front of a laptop. Almost all of my time at my computer has been focused on combatting the latest efforts of the plastic industry to exploit COVID-19 to reverse regulations on plastic bans and fees, which limit ocean plastic pollution. The plastic industry is asking state and city governments to reverse the laws that do so much good for the environment and wildlife, claiming that plastic is more “hygienic” and “safe” than other materials. Actually, the reverse is true – coronavirus can last longer on plastic than any other material.
I’ve spent my career working to raise awareness about how plastic impacts marine wildlife and seafood. My anxiety about this global pandemic, the tanking economy – and my inability to actually see other human beings — is compounded by a roiling anger at the willingness of a spiteful and greedy industry to exploit people’s fears and cause more harm has overwhelmed and motivated me. This isn’t just my personal soapbox. This is my job, how I’m spending my time and how I earn my living.
The uncertainty of what the world will look like when this is “over” – if such a time exists – infects my thoughts and distracts from my work. Worries about my parents’ health, my own career, the community that I love, my nieces and their future, the stories I hear of people dying painfully and alone and wondering what on earth I can do to help beyond just sitting in my house – all swirl around in my head.
This is mollified by the images and reports that I see of a planet slowly recovering; once polluted water becoming clearer by the day with less trash floating on the surface. Species on the brink of extinction, due to our carelessness and exploitation, suddenly have a brief window of recuperation. I’m trying hard not to feel guilty at my relief that our dying world seems to be getting a small chance at a recovery, while knowing that it comes at a great price to humanity. I would not have wished this disease or the accompanying economic strain on anyone, yet my greatest hope during this time comes from the miraculous ability of our planet to heal itself from so much damage in so little time.
It simultaneously makes me sad for what our planet could be if we only gave it the chance. I’m ashamed of my excitement to see what our world might become at this great cost, at this opportunity for it to thrive and other species to breathe because their apex predator is taking a break from its usual relentless pursuit. But I also want to embrace any source of optimism that I can. I think about the satellite images of cleaner air in China and Italy, stories of wildlife returning to places once avoided due to human activity, and the crash in the value of petroleum.
What humankind has learned from all the recent changes forced by the pandemic – things like working from home, virtual conferences instead of travel, and limits to consumerism as we prioritize what we need versus what we want – all have the potential to change our standards and behavior long after the threat of coronavirus dies down.
I realize that this is highly unlikely; most of the world eagerly awaits a return to life from “before.” But some positive changes have potential to become permanent: Fewer airlines exist now, once “temporary” road closures have become permanent, and regulations on wildlife markets and trade are being established or enforced. And perhaps most importantly, the visual reminders of how the natural world and wildlife can thrive without human interference has raised critical awareness to protect habitats and migration corridors. We simply have to be willing to learn the lesson that is right in front of us and allow it to inform how we will live beyond this time.
Elizabeth Hogan ran the Oceans and Wildlife program of World Animal Protection in the United States for seven years, specializing in marine wildlife entanglement and sustainable fisheries. She now works as a consultant on ocean conservation for organizations including USAID, Pew Charitable Trusts, CSIRO, and the Aquarium Conservation Partnership on marine wildlife conservation and ocean plastic pollution.