As the world was plunged into varying degrees of lockdown in the early months of last year, the news was dominated by images of chaos and horror. Covid-19 patients desperately waiting to be ventilated, exhausted health care workers, panic buying and empty shelves in supermarkets.
Yet, amongst the pandemonium, another type of image emerged. Amongst the horror, these images were something to marvel at, to restore hope, and soon they too began to wind their way through the internet much as the images of Covid-19 horror were doing.
We saw clear skies above previously smog-filled cities, goats descending from the mountains to frolic on the empty streets of a Welsh town. Of course, many stories and images purporting to document nature’s miraculous recovery were the product of exaggeration or fabrication. Furthermore, the notion ‘nature is healing’ quickly became an easy-to-parody meme.
Yet, the internet frenzy—the misguided hope born of often fabricated stories, and the parodic backlash—hid a deeper message.
Geologists have proposed naming this time in which we live the Anthropocene, so called because of the dominant significance of current human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecology. For the space of a few short months at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, we, the dominant species on Earth in this era of the Anthropocene, were at a loss, our impact diminished. On the other hand, nature knew exactly what to do. Nature continued to thrive in places it already flourished, and in some cases started to reclaim that which had been ravished through pollution, exploitation, and overuse.
Despite anecdotal changes of animal behaviour and a measurable fall in CO2 emissions, these few short months are still a drop in the ocean compared to years of human-driven environmental impact and climate change. The Covid-19 pandemic didn’t ‘heal’ nature. But what the pandemic gave us in this regard was an insight into the effect of human actions on the environment. We have glimpsed a world less dominated by human impact, a world we may or may not see again, depending on our collective actions and our ability to implement lasting structural changes now and in the future.
The question remains what we do with this insight. Already, there are some signs our habits are changing. Writers in this section have contributed their rediscoveries of their local areas, their new appreciation for what is on their doorstep. Many of us have found the experience of the pandemic has led us to buy less, to travel closer to home, to think twice before committing to a long wait in traffic on a busy commute. Yet, we know that changes cannot only be behavioural, but must be structural, systematic. As the engines of international travel start to fire once more, and workers are being increasingly driven back into their offices, as economies seek to catch up on what has been lost, it remains to be seen whether our ‘new normal’ will include a ‘new nature’.