A curious genre of telling the story of the pandemic is emerging – one that is centred upon accounts of the resurgence and healing of nature. I am using nature here broadly to include the “return” of nonhuman animals and birds as well as the cleansing of air and the reduction of pollution. There has been an explosion of writing on the return of animals to spaces otherwise colonised or polluted by humans. These range from fishes in the canals of Venice to dolphins on the shores of Mumbai to inebriated elephants in China to goats in Welsh towns. There is also a profusion of writing on the bluer skies, cleaner air, and the sighting of the Himalaya in towns far away.
What, one might ask, might be the problem with such a form of telling the story of the pandemic? Isn’t the “healing of nature” a fact occasioned by lockdowns across the world whereby regular human activity has come to a screeching halt? Aren’t the animals in the videos that we are all watching on social media or reading about in cooing news items, “emissaries of hope and possibility, letting us dare to dream of a better world when this nightmarish darkness is gone”? Isn’t it also important to capture what an exemplar of this pandemic-genre-in-the-making in the New Yorker described as “how the world looks from inside the silver lining”?
It is noteworthy that much of this form of writing on the pandemic is well-intentioned and, in fact, reaches for a greater earthly consciousness. Yet, there are serious questions of facticity of these accounts as well as their temporality. These ways of narrating the pandemic are also riding on a breath-taking privilege that they mistakenly think by merely acknowledging (“I know I am lucky *but*…”) they are overcoming.
On their own these criticisms – of falling prey to fake/misleading news or even being the musings of the 1% – don’t really warrant a serious engagement. What does occasion a deeper thinking is that such narratives mimic traditional modalities of describing the world and are, thence, inimical to the development of a radical climate politics.
Animals are ‘returning’
Let us first take the nonhuman animal accounts. Right from the start of the imposition of lockdowns, we have been seeing – or thinking we are seeing – images and videos of animals returning to spaces recently emptied out by humans. Many of these digital ecological encounters are, we eventually find out to our collective dismay, fake news. But even those stories that are real – for animals are behaving in somewhat different ways than before due to human quarantining – the interpretations of these sightings follow similar logics.
The pandemic is being presented as a time to relish the “return” of animals to lands that have been so unjustly snatched away by humans. While there is no doubt that humans are colonising more and more space on the planet, this account is troubling for several reasons. In the first, it isn’t as if these nonhumans don’t even in non-pandemic times inhabit the very same spaces. Much research has established the fact that animals are very much part of the urban with even large predators like leopards and tigers thriving in human-dominated landscapes.
Arguably, all that we are witnessing on those viral videos and stories that are true, is a movement further afield and at times of the day when animals normally wouldn’t venture out as such.
Consider also those animals that are suffering due to the absence of humans – the starving monkeys in India and Thailand or the deer in Japan. Similarly, there are fears of increase in poaching under the cover of lockdowns. Both these sorts of effects – of seeing animals wandering in human-dominated landscapes and the negatively impacted ones that are, such as out-of-work elephants and lonely garden eels missing human company – should be read as indicators of our deep and complex entanglements with nonhumans. These are indicators of how profound the effects of human actions are and how they are coming to powerfully shape the planet.
If anything, this should be a moment to reconsider human relationships with animals and understand that the pandemic “emerges out of an increasingly dysfunctional relationship between human communities, other animals, and the broader environment”. The real story of this pandemic, especially when viewed in relationship to animals, is that we humans are the beasts who have caused this particular zoonotic disease as with several in the past and – in all probability – others in lying ahead in the future.
The “animals are flourishing in the absence of humans” also has a deeply troubling history, one that has played out – with not a small amount of violence – in much of the world. Implicit, if not explicit, in these narratives of animals enjoying spaces devoid of human presence is the long shadow of a still-strong tenet of conservationism – that humans and animals cannot co-exist. In order to preserve animals and birds we need to carve out spaces of pure wilderness in which no humans can continue to live. The impact of the American wilderness movement and Northern brands of environmentalism on the global South are by now well-documented and critiqued.
A belief in the creation of pure animal spaces devoid of any human presence in order to protect wildlife has had hugely deleterious effects in India. Adivasis and other marginalised communities have been removed – through active coercion or by the making of false promises of ‘rehabilitation’ – from newly-designated national parks and sanctuaries, especially those created to protect charismatic mega-fauna like tigers, elephants, and rhinos. Not only is the injustice of such actions condemnable, but also there is no evidence that humans and animals cannot, in fact, co-exist in the same space with equanimity.
Finally, these feel-good stories of the increase in tiger sightings in the Sundarbans or the pretty pink flamingos descending upon Mumbai seem to entirely forget – and thus do the work of effacing – that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction. It is quite one thing to gasp in wonderment at the sight of these charismatic nonhumans and to use these undeniably pleasurable visions to think about our complex relationship with the nonhuman world. It is quite another thing to elevate these sights to the level of a political and moral argument as a sign that nature is returning during the pandemic.
Stories of nature reclaiming the planet can end up diverting attention away from not just from the rapidity of species extinction, but also from the more worrying news items of the day. For instance, in India the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has been swiftly and silently pushing through policies and programmes that will cause even more environmental and wildlife-related catastrophes. Perhaps it is the types of acts that the pandemic is conveniently providing a cover for that should merit greater attention than dubious feel-good stories?
We can see the Himalaya!
There is no denying that there has been a massive drop in air pollution in India. But, yet, to celebrate the vastly improved Air Quality Indexes and wax eloquent about being able to see the Himalaya in distant Indian cities due to the clearing up of the smog is to feed into a dangerous account of the story of the coronavirus.
In the first place, the drop in air pollution doesn’t mean carbon emissions are globally down. The latest figures note that there has been a 17% drop in daily emission of the greenhouse gas. While this is unprecedented in recent times, we need to note that 83% remain on and that we are still very far off from reaching the Paris agreement figures.
Another estimate on carbon emissions notes that many of the accounts that are pointing to clearer skies and cleaner waters as evidence of the differences being made are conflating air and water pollution with carbon emissions. They are also focusing too much on the issue of transportation (20% of total global emissions are caused by travel) and individualised personal actions, instead of wider structural changes that need to be urgently made.
Much like the animals are returning stories that can serve to hide the reality of rapid mass extinction, this extolling of cleaner air is overlooking the fact that the current situation is still not adequate to the combating of the climate emergency.
There are two further aspects of this “purer-air” and “healthy AQI” discourse that I find ethically, intellectually, and politically problematic.
The first is a consideration of the cost at which this cleaner air has been arrived upon in India. The number of dead and seriously ill due to the coronavirus are obvious enough. In addition, what of the hardships caused by the world’s largest and harshest lockdown? From where do we find the language to describe the many horrors visited upon the most vulnerable? The visual imagery of the mass exodus of migrant labour and the poor out of urban areas mimics the displacement of the Partition. At least 742 people have been killed and it is very possible that hunger might kill many more than the coronavirus will in India.
As the rich and privileged in India wax eloquent about breathing city air deeply, millions are left bereft. There is a direct line of causality between the bluer sky that we are seeing – caused by the sudden and intense lockdown – and the deaths and mass suffering unleashed by a hastily imposed, ill-planned, and ultimately failed lockdown. In that sense the cleaner air that we are now inhaling in big Indian cities is being paid with quite literally through the blood of the poor. In such a scenario, to say “I know I am privileged and how very dreadful that poor people in India are adversely affected *but* let’s enjoy the clean air in Delhi or Bangalore” is quite simply unacceptable.
Development vs. conservation
Celebratory narratives of lower pollution levels in this period of the Indian lockdown also play into the hands of a long-standing debate, which pits “development” against “conservation”. A variation of this very same thinking is one that we now see politicians, policy-makers, the media voice all the time in India – that the objectives of saving the environment and moving the economy along (“economics” versus “environment”) cannot ever be co-terminous. After all, this cleaner air and lower noise levels have been achieved by bringing all economic and other forms of human activity to a grinding standstill.
My proposition is that this genre of resurgent nature writing ends up subtly re-enforcing these flawed binaries: between what is development and what is conservation and sharpens the divide between economics and the environment. The pandemic and the climate crisis that we are submerged in should, instead, be pushing us to radically reform the very terms of this debate. Development should be redefined – for instance through a turn to degrowth or by pondering a feminist green new deal – to not stand as something that can only ever be attained through the destruction or at the cost of the preservation of nature, resources, and biodiversity.
The pandemic should awaken us to the fact that there can be no development without conservation as the destruction of the planet is precisely what has brought the world to its knees through this pandemic. If the environment continues to be harmed at the pace and scale at which it currently is, then there can and will be no humans left to construct and speculate on matters “economic”.
As Arundhati Roy has pointed out this pandemic is a portal, and we can walk through it dragging along with us the dead ideas and practices of today. “Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.” To be able to imagine this other world we need to carefully consider how the story of the pandemic is being constructed in this very moment.
To restate, this pandemic has emerged from the destruction of nature that is wrought by a thinking premised upon binaries of development/economics vs conservation/the environment respectively.
In the emergent literature on the climate crisis – academic and fiction alike – there has been a repeated call made to find new ways of telling stories. The reasons for this injunction to devise new storytelling techniques couldn’t be clearer than in the beastly tale of the coronavirus pandemic. How we construct and narrate these tales is not easy, as is evident even from this brief essay on the problems with one genre of telling coronavirus stories.
This essay is not aimed at prescribing a story of this pandemic. Rather it is aimed at gently cautioning against a genre that is gaining currency that carries with it shadows of scholarship that are in urgent need of subversion. Telling stories of a healing nature might make for cheerful reading in these dark times, but such tales are ultimately inimical to the birthing of the very progressive climate politics they hope to espouse.
A longer version of this article first appeared on Somatosphere
Nayanika Mathur is Associate Professor in the Anthropology of South Asia at the University of Oxford. Her new book, Crooked Cats: Beastly Tales from the Anthropocene, is forthcoming.