Clare Press’ Letter From Lockdown: “I Like the World with Less Pollution”

Image: Wild flowers bloom on British roadsides as councils stop cutting the verges

In the absence of human activity, plants and animals are thriving while pollution levels are dropping all around the world. Now, as the frenzy of Earth day starts to subside, Clare Press contemplates how we can learn from these lessons, and make sure our responsibility towards nature isn’t forgotten for the rest of the year.

Our anxiety is collective and universal. Everyone is feeling the impacts of the virus and the shutdowns in some way. This is a stressful, difficult time, and I don’t want to suggest there’s some “silver lining” to suffering and death. But I do like the world with clearer skies.

We need bright spots of hope in the darkness. Like the news that random acts of kindness are increasing. Or that feeling when everyone claps for the NHS, or the 7pm cheers in New York. The idea that this pause could become a time for reflection, encouraging us to rethink and reset. I also see hope in Nature appearing to flourish in the spaces we’ve vacated.

As we think beyond Earth Day, let’s focus on this.

Image: Goats roam around the quiet town of Llandudno during lockdown, Credit: @VampireGhuleh, Twitter

As we’ve shut down industries and stopped travelling, nature is getting noisier. Instead of the usual traffic buzz and builders’ drills, I can hear a dove cooing outside my window. I like to imagine the whales singing more loudly too. The Atlantic reminds us that maritime traffic stresses whales – these animals are less likely to sing when big ships go by apparently. Maybe there’s a joyful whale choir situation going on in the big blue right now. I hope so.

My local park seems to have more bees as the clover grows higher. The BBC reports that wild flowers are blooming on roadsides across Britain, as local councils stop cutting the grass verges. 

As humans recede, other animals venture out. My Instagram feed is full of surreal snaps of wildlife-about-town. My favourite? These mountain goats taking advantage of a traffic-free street in Llandudno. Globally, there have been sightings of everything from dolphins to deer to foxes and turkeys where they don’t normally roam. In Santiago, wild pumas are reportedly venturing into urban areas in search of food – although that’s not a good news story really; they are hungry after a drought. 

The Guardian warns that “rich, industrialised nations are seeing a temporary recovery of nature because there is so little of it in the first place. Poorer countries, on the other hand…fear an increased threat to wildlife because the pandemic means they have less money and personnel with which to conserve endangered species and habitats.”

ImagePollution levels in Europe decrease during lockdown; Pollution from boat traffic decreases in Venice’s waterways, Credit: United Space in Europe

But reduced air pollution benefits everyone. According to NASA, air pollution over the north-eastern part of the US fell by 30% in March 2020, compared to the same time last year.  And together with the European Space Agency, they’ve detected “significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China.” This CNN story describes people in the Punjab being able to see the Himalayas from 100 miles away for the first time in 30 years.

Does it have to be temporary? Could we not use this moment to fast-track climate action and gain more public support for protecting biodiversity? I don’t want improved air quality to be a blip. We should pressure on legislators to reduce emissions after the shutdowns. And reimagine the tired, old ways that rank money and profits above human and environmental wellbeing.

The theme for Earth Day 2020 was climate action. Organisers urged us not to take our eyes off “the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the life-support systems that make our world habitable.”

Image: The Himalayas become visible from Pathankot, Punjab, Credit: @Parasrishi, Twitter

It is too late to unpave paradise, but we could certainly put up fewer parking lots in future, and take fewer car journeys while we’re at it. Let’s all start working from home more often when it’s not imposed upon us. Let’s do more with less! Look locally, reshore but also rewild. Invest in clean energy and technology! Let’s make this the catalyst for a Green New Deal. 

For a moment, in March and April 2020, we marvelled at the magic of deer and goats wandering across the tarmac. We remarked at hearing more birdsong, and at seeing mountains in the clear distance where there’s usually haze.

I wonder, when the current crisis subsides, how many of us will be content to go back to business as usual? Might we rather choose a new normal, one that’s regenerative and respects nature? One that recognises the need to find balance. I wonder. What do you think?

“Every crisis is an opportunity” – Read Livia Firth in conversation with Satish Kumar

Learn why we need to wake up to the realities of climate migration

Read Clare Press’ letter from Sydney during the fires in Australia