Are bluer skies, cleaner air and waters, and resurgent wildlife a goal worth fighting for once the lockdowns ease up?
Islamabad is well known for its green vistas and scenic beauty. But even here, residents may have noticed nowadays how perfectly blue the sky is on clear mornings. It is a pure undifferentiated hue, a pristine joyful blue I’ve only ever seen before years ago when I was a student in Australia. One can see the Margalla Hills in sharp relief now, brooding darkly in the backdrop, without a trace of smog or dust or haze. The lockdown is doing wonders for the atmosphere.
Social media confirms that something is indeed different. A friend in Lahore commented that far more stars are now visible in the night sky. Another shared readings of particulate matter concentration in the atmosphere, extremely positive even by international standards. This trend is global: some may have seen the viral video clip of a rare civet strolling on the streets in Kerala. Vibrant wildlife has returned to the canals of Venice. Mountain goats have invaded a Welsh town. Pandas in a Hong Kong zoo are mating for the very first time in 10 years. The Himalayas are suddenly visible in India. Feel-good stories abound. A marine ecologist, Michelle Fournet, recently told The Atlantic, “Nature is taking a breath when the rest of us are holding ours.” And the result is glorious to see.
It is not surprising that the slowdown is registering a positive environmental impact; but who anticipated seeing such tangible results so quickly? And it is only fair to wonder: when this crisis resolves, do we really want to go back to business as usual? We know Covid-19 is deadly, we receive daily updates of the body count, but what is the true cost of a capitalist/industrial economic model? Is there more to this than just an aesthetic appreciation of nature?
We don’t have a detailed picture yet, but encouraging data has started to come in. For instance, the raging bushfires and massive floods in Australia, and the unprecedented forest fires in Siberia and Alaska, indicate that climate change can exacerbate natural disasters. Likewise, Harvard scientists have identified a significant correlation between long-term exposure to air pollution and “the most severe Covid-19 outcomes”.
Their model indicates that a single point reduction in average particulate matter levels in Manhattan over the last 20 years would have caused 250 fewer Covid-19 deaths in the borough.
A more revelatory exercise is to quantify pollution’s own body count. Marshall Burke, a professor at Stanford monitored the drop in pollution during the lockdown in Wuhan and estimated the corresponding drop in mortality. He writes that the pollution reduction over just two months “likely has saved the lives of 4,000 kids under five and 73,000 adults over 70 in China.” Even with conservative estimates, “the lives saved due to the pollution reductions are roughly 20 [times] the number of lives that have been directly lost to the virus.” This number, if true, is staggering. It is critical that we have this conversation.
Murmurings have already begun in some circles. A recent opinion piece by Shivali Fulchand, an editor at the British Medical Journal, urges that Covid-19 should be properly understood as “the vital wake-up call” for the far greater challenge of climate change. When this current crisis concludes, there will likely be a massive push to restart the global industrial machinery and make up for lost time. We must resist this call to jump back into business as usual. We need to urgently find ways to translate the lessons of this lockdown into reality.
There is no shortage of ideas here. There are mountains of reports, guidelines, and frameworks put together by international experts, urging governments and industry to serious action. Last year The Lancet laid out a blueprint for a wide-ranging overhaul of agriculture and food production systems to save the planet. A major scientific review published in the research journal Nature this month claims that with the right effort, we can restore the oceans to their majestic glory within a generation. At home, Dawn recently featured a piece by Khurram Hussain on seizing the renewable energy initiative in Pakistan.
What is desperately needed, though, is action from government and thought leaders to promote and incentivise such practices as a matter of urgent priority. There needs to be this realisation in the highest circles that the old ways of doing things simply won’t do anymore. We no longer have the luxury of copying the Chinese model for rapid growth — it is an environmental deathtrap. We need policies that are far more substantial and integral than grand tree plantation drives and electric vehicles. There is constant talk of harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution to magically resolve all our woes, but this is meaningless — even dangerous — without an all-encompassing vision that puts sustainability front and centre.
We already have some indication of what such a vision might look like. This month, the city of Amsterdam announced the adoption of an alternative economic model to rebuild their local economy after Covid-19. This ‘doughnut’ model is generating considerable buzz. Formulated by an economist at Oxford University, it derives from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and sets firm limits on the exploitation of the environment. The environment itself now features as a key stakeholder in the city’s decision-making processes. Time will tell if this is more than mere optics but, at the very least, it forces a welcome new dimension to current ways of thinking.
It is disappointing to see how limited our national discourse is in this regard and how out of sync we are when it comes to radical new ideas. But we should appreciate that crisis situations can serve as crucibles for intense change. There’s a famous quote by John F Kennedy, not entirely accurate but well-worn to the point of becoming a cliché: “When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters — one represents danger and the other represents opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger — but recognise the opportunity.”
Let us get this particular conversation started.
Continue reading: A MOMENT OF CLARITY
Header image: A bird sings sitting on a tree in Russia. Wildlife is enjoying a noticeable presence in many cities around the globe because of the lack of traffic on the streets and humans in city centre parks | AP
The writer is an assistant professor at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 10th, 2020