The world is a complex series of interactions. Chemicals, bacteria, fungi, viruses, a riot of genetic code and physical laws all work to create an illusory ‘self’ that is you or me. This individual person moves through the world caught within its own web of complex interactions.
Do you know the different transactions it takes to bring the banana, coffee, toast and cereal to a breakfast table where you can consume them? After you’ve thrown out banana peel and coffee grinds, what becomes of them?
These pedestrian musings on the complex ecology of everyday life is all to say that even the most mundane actions have far ranging and unforeseen consequences. What, then, are some of the consequences of shutting down much of the world’s economy to deal with a global pandemic?
I’ll start with some good news. With people sequestered in their homes, wildlife have become temporarily emboldened.
Italy’s canals are usually a mess of churning sediment stirred up by endless tourists frantic to ride a gondola on the famed waters. During the COVID-19 shutdown, the murky waters have cleared and jellyfish have been seen from the surface swimming in their beautiful celestial way.
In Mexico, beaches usually packed with pasty northerners intent on tanning, but almost certainly earning sunburn or cancer, have been left open. In the space left by tourists, the vulnerable American Crocodile has taken back its native habitat to bask on the beaches.
Park employees have taken note of beautifully quiet conditions full of wildlife in Yosemite National Park. I’m sure there are many more examples. Certainly wildlife in Yellowstone don’t miss tourists. A biologist I talked to told me he came out of the jungle in Nepal after the shutdown started, only to be stranded for a few days until he could arrange transportation. Usually the park he was in is a popular destination for people looking to spot a tiger, wild elephant or Asian rhinoceros.
Unfortunately, this isn’t all a good story.
In Africa, tourism has crashed and with it, much of the infrastructure that protects wildlife from poaching. In Botswana poachers have become emboldened and encroached on places usually protected to some degree by numbers of tourists and safari guides. The same has happened in Kenya and elsewhere.
At Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, twelve rangers were killed by poachers. (Technically the poachers are rebel militia involved in poaching to fund their cause). Virunga is best known for being home to the famous Mountain Gorilla. In the case of Virunga, I’m not certain that COVID-19 plays a major role in the attack, but the pandemic is taking up enormous amounts of media attention. In my opinion, a threat on Mountain gorillas and the people defending them is more important than the current pandemic (argue if you want but consider that we’re comparing the potential extinction of a species against a disease killing a small percentage of us already overpopulated humans).
Of course poachers aren’t the only ones taking advantage of our distraction. During this time, Trump and his cronies have been doing their best to turn a profit while environmentalists are looking the other way.
During the shutdown, I contemplated visiting Organ Pipe National Monument to see a special desert pupfish found on a tiny perennial pool in the Sonoran Desert. Interestingly, some of the roads in Organ Pipe were closed, due not to COVID-19 but border wall (and other) construction. The border wall is continuing on full speed, despite the corona shutdown and despite the impact on wildlife. If you’ve spent any time in the Sonoran Desert at all, imagine the impact alone of being suddenly separated from a water source by a wall. It’s not just Organ Pipe either of course. Water used during wall construction will probably have a big impact as well for fish and other animals. In Arizona, the wall will also go through San Bernadino National Wildlife Refuge. The whole wall will make certain jaguars no longer lope into the US, stop movements of any large animals in fact and cut in two populations of indigenous people who’ve lived here much longer than Europeans.
As an extra little ‘fuck you’ to people who care about breathing, Trump’s people have rolled back clean air emission standards for US cars. The EPA has also put a hold on environmental regulation enforcement. For this last one, there’s a petition I encourage you to sign.
That’s some of what’s been happening while we’ve been lost in our own homes glued to the latest news headlines. Ideally we’d be less concerned about what jackass told us to inject household cleaners into our bodies and consider the bigger world around us. For myself, I’m going for a night hike in the desert tonight.