The Environment After the Pandemic

by Fernando Briones, CSTPR Faculty Affiliate
Nexos, Spanish version

The new coronavirus pandemic has prioritized health and economic crises, despite the fact that we should already be thinking about our long-term survival, not only as a country but as a species. The environment has to take a central role in the public and private agendas for three basic reasons. Firstly, because the appearance of the new coronavirus is related to the way in which we interact with nature, since we cannot rule out new threats and risks if we continue to limitlessly expand the human presence in natural environments. Secondly, due to the amount of information circulating in the media, including the internet, which has served for the renewal (polarized and incomplete) of social representations about nature, 1with a narrative that goes from conspiracy theories to the idea that confinement has a “positive” aspect for the planet. Third, because a return to normality can close the window of opportunity for current social change; that is, the economic reactivation processes have to be calculated to improve, not to worsen.

The anthropization of nature and the new virus

The impacts of human activities and the transformation of the environment are not new since, in order to survive, humans have historically made use of different ecosystems. Today, virtually the entire planet has some degree of intervention. The anthropization of natural environments is simplified, for example, in major transformations such as the conversion of forest spaces into spaces for agricultural use, urban expansion, mining, infrastructure and climate change. Not surprisingly, the scientific community has accepted the use of the term Anthropocene to designate the current geological epoch that recognizes the impact of human activities on ecosystems. 2The anthropization of the environment has been part of the development of humanity, with positive and negative aspects. The view we have on nature, although it has been transformed with iconic images of climate change (melting of glaciers, hungry polar bears, turtles stuck in plastic bags), remains fragmented and short-term. The flora, fauna, atmosphere and ecosystems seem alien to us. In addition, we are unable to perceive the limits tolerable by the environment or we think that these are unlimited resources. 

The appearance of the new coronavirus shows us that if we do not change the way we relate to nature, our continuity as a species, as we know it, is at risk. Although investigations into the origin of the new virus are still ongoing, the most serious hypotheses point to the interaction between species of wild animals and humans. 3 This interaction occurs mainly due to human expansion and the transformations of natural environments where animal species live with pathogens that we do not know and for which we do not have antibodies. On the other hand, the representations of each culture, which assign different meanings and uses to animals, are also part of the anthropization of nature: the human desire to domesticate the wild world.

In an emblematic case of natural selection, SARS-CoV-2 found a highly efficient carrier in humans, but it was us -as a species- who looked for the virus. An outbreak like this can occur in any environment under pressure such as the tropical forests of the Great African Plateau, Southeast Asia or Central America, including Mexico, but also in increasingly accessible and exploited environments such as the Arctic and the deep sea. 

Dolphins in Venice and a bear in Monterrey

One of the social phenomena of the great confinement has been the images in social networks of nature recovering before the protection of humans. Since mid-March , dolphins in Venice , herbs grown on the cobblestones of formerly pedestrian squares, bees pollinating wildflowers, raccoons in New York’s central park, and a black bear walking in a residential area of ​​Monterrey. The comments that accompany these images – by the way, some false and others true – have several nuances. First, the legitimate recognition that humans have spread in spaces where flora and fauna previously inhabited and that therefore we need to find a better way to coexist with the environment. Second, ingenuity stands out for not having noticed the urban nature before or for believing that in a few days the ecosystems return to a quasi-pristine and balanced state. Finally, there are the cruel comments that consider the epidemic to be “good” for the planet.

Although confinement has shown us part of the resilience of ecosystems, in a few weeks the planet has not recovered from years of devastating production systems. It is unacceptable to rejoice in the pandemic, considering the costs in death, unemployment, trauma, and crisis, to name a few. In any case, these expressions show our separation from the environment. The narrative that without humans ecosystems regenerate quickly is a black and white scenario: either it is us, or it is nature, but there is no room for cohabitation between the wild world and the human being. The confinement and our access to information have triggered communication phenomena that show the nostalgic, romanticized and detached gaze that we city dwellers have, the main Internet users, about the environment. However, it also shows, albeit in a disorganized way, that there is a concern for a cleaner environment, which is an opportunity to move to more sustainable models of development. Likewise, the pandemic is showing us that the perception of nature is generated on the internet, which can be a conjuncture for positive social change, if we manage to place the environment as a priority on our agenda.

The return to normality, another opportunity that we will waste?

In disaster risk management to reduce potential impacts and costs, prevention is essential. 4However, investment in prevention is almost systematically stopped due to lack of prospective capacity, and because the period of return on investment is too long for political times. Just as measures had to be taken since January to mitigate the pandemic, so now, before the crisis ends, recovery measures have to be taken with a long-term perspective. The post-pandemic is a watershed moment: the focus on recovery strategies will define our ability to limit exposure to new environmental threats that are directly related to our ways of interacting with nature. Relocating the environment as the highest priority is an act of survival. Otherwise a return to normal will be a wasted opportunity, one more step in our involution. This does not mean that we must seek the black thread and reinvent a new environmental agenda, but rather ratify the commitments already signed and strengthen it through its pillars: government agencies, educational systems, science and technology, non-governmental organizations, cooperation, intermediaries and local actors, as well as strategic sectors such as tourism, the energy sector and territorial management.

Today more than ever we witness the fragility of our economic systems in the face of risks that we ourselves build. This unprecedented situation is an opportunity to re-educate ourselves, to reconsider us as part of the environment and not outside it. What vision of the future of the planet do we have after the pandemic? Relocating nature to the center of our priorities, investing in prevention and education, as well as an injection of resources into the environment can not only be profitable and useful to revive the economy, but the opportunity to generate citizens more integrated with the environments. To build a better future we have to think about calculating and preventing the existing and new risks related to human expansion that, under the current development model, could arise sooner or later. Otherwise, we will not have learned anything.

1 Sammut, Gordon, Eleni Andreouli, George Gaskell, and Jaan Valsiner, eds. 2015. The Cambridge Handbook of Social Representations. Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

2 Crutzen PJ (2006) The “Anthropocene”. In: Ehlers E., Krafft T. (eds) Earth System Science in the Anthropocene. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

3 Andersen, Kristian G., Andrew Rambaut, W. Ian Lipkin, Edward C. Holmes, and Robert F. Garry. 2020. “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2.” Nature Medicine 26 (4): 450–52.

4 Wisner, Ben, Piers M. Blaikie, and Terry Cannon. 2003. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters . Edition: Revised. London; New York: Routledge.

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