Thursday, April 23, 2020

Earth Day in the time of the virus

Michel - Thursday

Street art for Earth Day
Yesterday, 22nd April, was the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day. Probably the focus on the broader environment was catalysed by Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic Silent Spring. After that there were many initiatives that tried to focus public attention and activism.  The first Earth Day event reached twenty million people in the US, and twenty years later it was ten times that number worldwide.  Now over one billion people participate in the day in some way. So, by any standards, it’s been a success at focusing people’s attention and that’s unquestionably valuable. Actual changes to policies and behaviours have been less noticeable. 

Although, one year we had an hour blackout of electricity to mark the day, and South Africa’s hopelessly managed power utility, Eskom, liked the idea so much that it started turning off the power at random times from then on.

Earth Day aims to reduce carbon emissions, improve air quality, muffle noise pollution, be more nature friendly in general. Well, for the fiftieth anniversary, we did all of those things. But we did have some help from our enemies...

China pollution before and after the Covid 19 outbreak
Satellite images show the way pollution has cleared over big metro areas. Although some of that is the result of industrial activity being dramatically reduced, a significant fraction is because of the massive reduction of motor vehicles fighting their way through gridlocked cities and pouring pollution into the atmosphere. Carbon emissions too are dramatically down—from the reduction in industry and motor vehicles, but also because of the slump in air traffic.

Noise pollution is way down for all the same reasons (although a lot of noise and air pollution still finds a home on Facebook). On CNN yesterday, David Attenborough noted that in recent weeks birds were singing louder. Not just that they sound louder because the background noise is down, they actually do sing more and sing more loudly, apparently because they don’t have as much competition. They also gather in larger numbers. Even after only a few weeks, they seem to be adapting to a more welcoming environment. A few birds may actually miss it, though. The video below links David Attenborough and a very special bird singing a very special song. Take a listen.

And many animals are learning to relax in areas usually choked with cars and people.   
Civet in the street in Malabar, India
Penguin in the road at Boulders near Cape Town
Lions relaxing on a main road in Kruger National Park
They could do this anytime, but they'd be surrounded by disturbing cars
Fox using a deserted pavement in England
Coyote with a great view in San Francisco
Goose family wanders down the road in Las Vegas. Yes, Vegas!
Mountain goats pop into Llandudno, Wales
Of course, some animals have come to rely on crowds of humans.

Sika deer at a restaurant in Japan missing their handouts.
Susan has written about them several times

Monkeys making a good living in town

Some zoos have noted that the animals miss their human watchers as they're used to interacting with them to relieve the boredom. The keepers now have to make rounds of the zoo to entertain them.

Is there a moral to the story? I don't know, but if there's any silver lining to our current cloud, it may be this. The thing we miss most is human contact and the ability to pursue our everyday lives freely and safely. Can we live without exhausting, traffic jammed commutes to offices? It seems a lot of people can. Do we need to take multiple plane trips for business and pleasure? Maybe not so much. Can we cut down on car travel? Clearly. (After the first period of the lockdown in South Africa, someone noted that his fuel consumption had improved to three weeks to the litre!) Perhaps now that we’ve proved we can do these things, and thought about what we really missed over this period, we can behave a bit more as though Earth Day is every day.


  1. Hear, hear, Michael! All good words.

  2. Thanks, Everett. We'll see. I wish I was an optimist!

  3. Thank you so much, Michael. What a treat this post is. The lovely animals! That magical bird!! And the ray of hope at the end. It's a gloomy day here in sad NYC. I am so grateful for this lovely ray of sunshine.

  4. I love the thought of Earth Day as everyday.

    By the way, regarding that photo of Canadian geese traipsing through Vegas, are you sure that wasn't meant to be the goat photo? After all, Vegas is known for shearing sheep.