This post was written by Luna Williams, the political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers based in the UK and Ireland. 

As the UK enters its sixth week of lockdown (following in the footsteps of several of its European neighbours), discourse across public and political spheres is still understandably dominated by the coronavirus pandemic. People across the country are simultaneously gripped by the unparalleled situation we have found ourselves living in, closely following the latest developments in the hopes that these might offer some clarity. But the fact that most news is now comprised of death-tolls, public warnings and worst-case scenarios makes keeping up with it challenging, to say the least. 

As a result, it is naturally tempting to want to find something positive to cling to amongst this. And it is with this attitude that many journalists and members of the public have taken to different platforms to report the impacts global lockdown measures appear to be having on the natural world.  

Countries across almost every continent have shown signs that humanity’s temporary absence from the world has had its benefits on it. Images of clear skies – not pictured for decades – in cities like Delhi, Los Angeles and Shanghai have surfaced. NASA has reported huge drops in nitrogen dioxide levels, matching the closure of factories and businesses and travel restrictions. China’s emissions are down by 25% compared to this time last year; New York alone has seen an almost 50% reduction in pollution levels since Trump implemented restrictions; and the UK has seen a nationwide improvement in air quality, with emissions down by up to 60% in some cities

Other reports have shown wildlife ‘returning’ to urban spaces around the world. From wild boars in Barcelona and goats in Llandudno, to bobcats and bears in Yosemite’s now-closed national park; wild animals are seemingly exploring formerly human-held spaces in the new-found quietness. In fact, whole eco-systems are being replenished – even the presence of wildflowers have reportedly increased since restrictions were implemented in Britain.

In response to this news, members of the public have taken to social media, sharing pictures and videos which demonstrate these findings. To this, many people have responded with celebration; perceiving the Earth’s ability to take a breath of fresh air as one of the few positive side-effects of the pandemic.  

This response is understandable. With almost every area of our daily lives thrown into a state of uncertainty, there is of course an appeal in finding a ‘silver-lining’. While this should certainly be used as a moment of reflection, however, there is a danger in the kind of thinking that revels in destroying human life as a means of preserving the environment. Such arguments tiptoe on the borders of eco-fascism, a school of thought that encourages draconian restrictions on (and in some cases the loss of) human life for the sake of environmental progress.

In the midst of a crisis such as this one, it is easy to understand why this happens. It’s very easy to slip between reveling in nature’s triumphs and seeming ability to bounce back, and effectively suggesting that a global pandemic may in some form be a tool to tackle – or even a reaction to – the climate crisis. And lots of people are unknowingly slipping. This is no better epitomised than in reporting that asks whether coronavirus “could save our planet” as well as in statements which describe the outbreak as nature’s way of “sending us a message”

But a global pandemic cannot and should not be used as a model for fighting climate change. It is neither ethical nor is it feasible to do so. Of course, it is important to try and draw positives from this situation, not just for motivational purposes, but also for the sake of learning how we can move forward and make positive changes in the future. Rather than reveling in our own demise, then, we should use this moment of pause to reflect and ask ourselves how we might use our experiences to address the climate emergency once restrictions are lifted. 

We have built up a new vocabulary since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus at the end of the last year. ‘Self-isolation’, ‘social distancing’, ‘herd immunity’, ‘stretch and release’: these have all become commonplace phrases, parts of our everyday vernacular. The hallmarks of a new language we must use to navigate this strange, new world. But it is not just new vocabulary that has been born out of this pandemic.  In some cases, old words have shifted to take on new meanings. The concept of what “essential” means, in various contexts, is a prime example of this.

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, and the societal changes which have ensued as a result of it, wealth and consumerism were very much at the heart of our core values as a society – in Western culture at least. Access to cheap, fast, and convenient goods and products have been the focus of both consumers and businesses; and historically this has usually been pursued at the expense of the environment. ‘Essential’, in this context, has been inextricably linked to this pursuit. In terms of business, the word is synonymous with profit and economic growth. ‘Must-have’ items are marketed at consumers, and the idea of essential, for the public, is then tied into acquiring this item – be it the next iPhone, or a Big Mac. It is this concept which fuels most of humanity’s wrongdoings against the environment. Palm-oil harvesting, battery farming, plastics, food waste — the list is endless. 

What the coronavirus pandemic has done is forced us to reconsider what the word ‘essential’ means. Now, with governments around the world restricting all ‘non-essential’ activity, the very concept of ‘must-haves’ has shifted; people have been forced to differentiate between what is actually essential and what is luxury. Moving forward, we can take this new mentality and apply it to the way in which we approach the climate emergency; on a personal, corporate and policy level. There are various ways in which this could be done. 

For instance, once lockdown procedures are eased businesses may be able to reassess their policies in terms of remote working, using this time as an effective trial. Where it is possible and viable, cross-department/company remote working schedules could be implemented. This would mean that staff would be able to limit their travel to and from the offices, which may help to preserve some of the drops in emissions we have experienced since restrictions were implemented. This could even be encouraged at a policy level; the government could offer rewards for business that are able to cut their combined workforce travel-times by a certain amount annually, for example. 

On a personal level, it may be beneficial to use our new understanding of essentiality after the pandemic has subsided, and life returns to normal. Many people have adopted new measures to cut their household’s food waste since lockdown measures were implemented, something which has been sparked by a combination of rationing mentality and having more time to cook and be mindful of this. In the same way, reusing items and ‘up-cycling’ have also been on many people’s stay-at-home agendas. These kinds of attitudes would certainly be beneficial to take into lifestyle choices in the future to help create a more waste-free society. 

Equally, many people around the world have also cited lockdown measures as being responsible for helping them to reconnect with nature. People have taken the moment of temporary pause to spend more time outside – be that cycling, running, walking or simply sitting in the garden – and with little to distract us, it has been able to connect to the sounds and sites of the natural world while they do this.

This pandemic has wreaked havoc on humanity, with people from all walks of life losing loved ones and facing hardship as a result of COVID-19. It is important that we do not forget this when looking to find positives to hold on to. However, what we can and should do is use this time and the signs the natural world is giving us as a way of reshaping our future into one that is more appreciative and attuned to the environment and the importance of preserving it.