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Earth is Talking and We Must Listen: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic

For many of us, the past ten months have felt more like several years. The COVID-19 pandemic turned lives upside-down and put the health and well-being of people at risk across the globe. Stark changes to daily routines, new stressors, and the seemingly never-ending stream of news updates make it feel like this state of life will never end.

But it will. And then comes the opportunity to do better.

Our goal cannot be to return to ‘normal.’ Like many climate-induced natural disasters in recent history, this pandemic has made it very clear that normal isn’t working. It has shown us that we are strongly dependent on and connected to nature. As the Director of the United Nations Environment Program, Inger Andersen, said, “If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves.”

We depend on nature for clean water and air, food, a wide variety of materials, a sense of well-being, and countless other ecosystem services. Nature also significantly contributes to human progress, from technology that mimics a spider’s eyes to discovering compounds used in life-saving medications. Approximately 37% of pharmaceutical sales are drugs that were derived from plant or microbial life. Enzymes from hydrothermal vents and freshwater hot springs have even proven key to diagnosing COVID-19. The natural world holds invaluable information and resources; and we’ve only explored a small portion of it to date. We risk losing the knowledge embedded in natural systems and are putting lives in danger from pandemics, natural disasters, and pollution if we continue on our current path.

Human behavior and exploitation of natural resources degrade ecosystems, putting species and their habitats at risk, as well as diminishing the long-term availability of natural resources and ecosystem services. Moreover, exploitative activities, such as deforestation, oil and mineral mining, and the wildlife trade all bring wildlife into closer contact with humans, allowing diseases to transfer from wild animals to people.  A startling 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, that is, diseases emerging from wild animals. To save ourselves, we must think of the wellbeing of nature, including the oceans, as part of public health and reconsider our relationship with the natural world.

During this period of extended quarantine, we’ve heard numerous stories about nature rebounding and pollution dissipating due to decreased human activity. There are clearer waters in the Venice canals, increased wildlife sightings in Yosemite National Park, fish coming out of hiding in Hawaii, and even mountain goats wandering  the streets of a small Welsh town. Air pollution has decreased across the globe (Indian citizens can even see the Himalayas), and the world is quieter – both on land and at sea. These examples show just how significantly humans have reshaped the planet – but also, just how quickly we could fix it.

Nature is demonstrating its remarkable resilience before our eyes. When we step back – drive less, fly less, consume less – the natural world’s ability to bounce back is remarkable. But these short-term impacts won’t last if we don’t carefully consider the actions and political decisions that would keep nature healthy. It’s time to stop putting power and profits over the well-being of our planet, humans, and the diversity of species that inhabit it. We need to listen to the advice of scientific experts, some of whom predicted this pandemic. We must transition to renewable energy and slow climate change. We need to protect habitats on land and in the ocean, marine life, and all of the Earth’s incredible biodiversity. We have to look at nature for long-term sustainable solutions to our problems, not focus on short-term profits that usually come at the expense of nature.

Right now, we must focus our attention on limiting the spread of the virus and the medical and socioeconomic needs of ourselves and our neighbors. At the same time, our planet is making it clear that the time for ‘a sea change’ is here. The pandemic and recent natural disasters are warning us that we have gone too far, but they have also taught us that we can act quickly and decisively in times of need. For all of our sakes, we must not return to normal.