Part III: Gaia’s Revenge
What does the world look like without our human presence? For decades, movies, TV shows and video games have offered their apocalyptic and dystopian visions on alternative timelines featuring cities and societies devoid of humans. Zombie plagues, global wars or environmental collapse are among the most popular culprits for the absence of people. In 2020, this fictional scenario exists in reality in many cities and communities the world over. Covid-19 has brought truth to what was once speculation and the topic of entertainment. Our new reality created by shelter-in-place orders has brought a strangely unexpected serene and assuring beauty to the world. The natural world with much less human intervention has thrived, not unlike the long term results seen in Russia following the Chernobyl disaster and Japan, Fukushima meltdown. The message is clear: the Earth does not need us.
Recent studies by oceanographers have observed that sea life has also benefited from less water traffic during the pandemic and normally quiet whales, dolphins and other organisms have increased their vocal presence without the booming vibrations of boat engines and turbines fouling their territory. Additionally, there are obvious signs of less human activity; cleaner air, less noisy city centers, lower light contamination at night and visibly less crowded streets and public areas. Many communities have even reported an increase in animal and wildlife activity as our absence makes them more comfortable occupying spaces where they once grazed and foraged. It has become very evident that not only does human activity degrade the environment and its resources at every turn, but that the forces that were in place before they were submitted by “civilization” are all too eager to reclaim what was once theirs. With most of the world’s National Parks closed, park rangers and researchers have documented reclamation of these already naturally preserved areas. Because of their inherent nature, little is needed for these preserves to revert to the state in which they have existed for thousands of years. In just a few months biologists have discovered amazing recoveries by ecosystems and the quality of natural environments. If we are to disappear after a few more years the rest of the world would never look back.
Did we deserve this or bring it upon ourselves? Is it a punishment wrought by nature as an act of revenge or simply natural selection and evolution? There isn’t an easy answer to this question, but one thing has been determined: Covid-19 primarily affects human beings the way it does and other organisms so far have appeared immune to the illness it results in. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that this disease is the latest to emerge after humans have seen the highest populations ever supported by the planet. Also it has come during a period which has seen rampant and virtually unobstructed destruction and pillaging of natural resources. The result has been one of the most rapid mass extinction events ever recorded, dramatic sea rise and temperature increases, depletion of vital supply chains and forced mass migrations of humans and other organisms alike. All while nations and governments remain separated by imaginary borders established through race, gender, economics and paranoia. Humans, unlike many other species, are capable of deciding what and who lives and dies. And now, we may have put into motion a force that will make that decision for us on a global scale.
The Earth will be fine, however.
What’s really essential for happiness? People living in developed nations have come to think that it’s a house full of things: endless hours of media to watch and listen to on giant screens, the latest video games, the nicest car on the block, art on the walls, sports team banners, a great man-cave, remodeled bathroom or kitchen, garage full of tools and toys, and so on…
The pandemic has shown us what really matters to a larger extent. It has done this by taking away many of these luxuries and even some basic aspects of life we never thought we would be lacking for. Now that we are confined to our homes (full of things we thought would make our lives better), and in some cases only to the interiors, we are quickly discovering how the ability to watch endless hours of binge marathons, participate in multiplayer video game campaigns and listen to unlimited music leaves us lacking. Those toys in the garage can’t be taken to the mountains or trails, that custom granite counter in the kitchen doesn’t seem so appealing unless you are cooking for guests, and the bathroom sanctuary is still just a bathroom. The most essential component of human society has been stunted from our lives, the simple act of direct interaction. People are rapidly longing for their weekly trips to the local watering hole or favorite restaurant for entertainment, live music or just a change of scenery. Even a trip to the park is loaded with the anxiety necessary for social distancing and possible exposure to the unknown.
Waiting lines at supermarkets, shuttered bars and restaurants, take-out only options, closed theaters, live-streamed concert events and empty fields and stadiums have become the new norm. The “Happiest Place on Earth” is now the “Most Empty Place on Earth”. The simplicity of the most mundane trip to a store or even library is a thing of the past. Schools are taught online which drives parents crazy and has even kids asking when they can go back; 2020 will be the longest Spring Break in history. The job you hated waking up to go to is suddenly looking like a great place to be. Millions in every city in the world are wondering if they will still have a home to live in at the end of the month. I have news for you, your favorite teams aren’t playing and won’t be winning any championships this season. Your favorite show or movie will be put on pause while studios and productions have been closed. Get used to reruns for awhile, and those new movies you looked forward to might be delayed in release or alternatively released directly to on-demand services.
This is the new norm and it will stay this way if common sense and following the lead of medicine and science-backed research and advice are followed. As a result, many of us are discovering or re-discovering the joys of home crafts and hobbies. Lego’s stock is up, along with workout equipment sales, musical instruments, home improvement supplies and Amazon Prime subscriptions. Those who declared a boycott on Jeff Bezos’ empire are now reconciling their outrage and keeping warehouse and delivery service drivers busier than during the holiday season. The unemployed can only seek jobs where they are needed, stocking shelves in stores, delivering goods for various companies or volunteering to aid their community. Everywhere you look, citizens who need a purpose will find one if they are determined. This pandemic gives humanity a reason to reevaluate what has been sorely missed and needed: selflessness.
“Who Ya’ Gonna Call?”
Perhaps it is cruel irony that in the time that it is needed most, the primary sources of our amusement are just as shuttered as the rest of our communities. During wartimes, citizens have had sports, movies and TV to turn to for distraction and escapism. The Covid-19 pandemic is different in that it has effectively eliminated the possibility of live sporting events and halted the entertainment industry in its tracks. Both of these are mediums that have based their existence on bringing large masses of people together to participate in mutually shared experiences of entertainment. Society has responded to this by disproportionately lauding fame and wealth on those who do not actually provide essential services. What we find in these quarantine times is the millionaires who provide these distractions are rendered just as helpless as us, confined to their mansions and private estates. To be fair, many have the compassion to recognize the suffering that average people experience day to day. Some respond with supportive efforts in public announcements, volunteer efforts and even financial aid. But the overall situation is an embarrassment to society as a whole. Those who really do little or nothing to support our infrastructure and daily essential needs enjoy the luxury of knowing that someone else will take care of them and mitigate the chaos that has become everyday life.
This might appear as a sensitive subject to some, but it should not be. LeBron James, Mike Trout and Patrick Mahomes all may do what they do exceedingly well but you don’t call on them to put out your house fire, resuscitate a patient or maintain law and order. We enjoy the heroic characters that Chris Evans, Brad Pitt and Charlize Theron play on the screen but in real life there are no zombie hordes to battle or otherworldly villains to thwart. None of these aforementioned individuals are qualified to perform the jobs of military service, law enforcement, firefighters, nurses, doctors, or even those lowest paying service jobs required to keep society functioning even if marginally. And it’s not like your grocer, stock clerk, postal worker, Amazon delivery driver or anyone else in those jobs just received a 1000% pay raise. Many of them are still working for the same rate as before all of this happened, except for now the hours are longer and the risks much higher.
Covid-19 has served to humble and embarrass the human race. It has taken our greatest follies which we conveniently ignored for years and brought them front and center. Unfortunately, many of our leaders as well as the countries that follow them fail to see these shortcomings. The disparities of the poor vs the wealthy during crisis is always downplayed. In hospital ERs it is never more evident. The entitlement of a small proportion of elites has been touted time and time again as efforts to “return to normalcy” echo day after day as the body count rises. This begs the question, should this economic crisis really result in thousands of homeless and millions more in debt? What or who will the wealth of the elites actually benefit? You can be sure that the profiteers will not return the favor and the dischord in societies will continue to grow. As the pressure grows to restore order and normalcy, accountability instead of compassion is leveraged. Countries and leaders dig their lines in the sand even deeper while ignoring their own people’s pleas. Humanity is pushed to the breaking point.
In an ideal scenario, this marks a positive turning point for our species. Not unlike the improbable “invaders from space” scenario, the human race is faced with a dire mutual threat; a ruthless threat that can wipe out all of us. Except this threat is contained to Earth and its origin is humanity itself. This has been the subject of stories for decades if not centuries and we now find ourselves living through it again. Once again, the suffering and uncertainty show us more about our species than most would rather consider. Without guarantee, we will likely survive this pandemic to face it again in the near future. The question we need to ask is, are these experiences making us stronger with each passing survival or worse? Our own maligned identity as a species is a hurdle that seems impossible at times. There always seems to be more than enough closed-minded individuals, demagogues, narcissists, bullies and tyrants who are willing to use fear and violence as their tools to conquest. As a young species, humans have millennia to go before we can abandon our primitive behaviour and evolve to be more than individuals. The pandemic is yet another test of humanity, unlike a war, the enemy is invisible. But just as all human crises, we’ve seen the same causes and responded the same way only to repeat them eventually. They say that doing the same thing the same way and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.