Whether it’s being able to hear the birds louder than ever before, seeing my garden plants bursting into life, or just feeling the heat of the sun when I head out for my daily walk – the single biggest thing that has cheered me up over the last few weeks has been the natural world. It’s a visceral reminder of how nature can lift and sustain us, regardless of whatever else might be going on – and even when we can’t spend that much time outdoors.
Across the country, it feels like people are taking comfort in the beauty and resilience of the natural world. There have been hundreds of articles about animals returning to places that were previously too filled with humans for them to thrive – from bears and bobcats in urban America to Kashmir goats in Llandudno. Facebook groups, instagram hashtags and Twitter chats encouraging us to absorb the beauty and wonder of nature abound – from RSPB’s Twitter #BreakfastBirdwatch which takes place 8-9am every morning, to the #WildCardiffHour Twitter chat which takes place on Tuesday’s at 7pm, and over on Facebook, Chris Packham’s Self Isolating Bird Club where people can share photos, stories and videos of nature (not just birds) from their local areas.
Whilst our relationship with the natural world can play a huge part in cheering us up at this difficult time, the way we engage with the non-human world around us is exactly what got us into this mess. Our health and wellbeing as a species has always been dependent on how we treat the planet and everything which exists on it, but if this virus has taught us anything, it’s that for far too long we’ve been getting it seriously wrong.
Our dysfunctional relationship with nature
In the case of coronavirus, the finger is being pointed at the sale of bats and pangolins in Asia – both have been suggested as the source of the outbreak. But it’s not just wild animals in distant countries that are being exploited. Billions of dollars’ worth of wild animals and plants are cultivated, manipulated, cut down, killed and traded globally every year. As a species, we pretty much take anything we want. Nature is our own personal larder. And all over the world we have streamlined killing of animals for food with factory farms, pumping domesticated animals with antibiotics to rid them of the sicknesses caused by their living conditions, and in some countries, washing their dead bodies with chlorine just to make them safe to eat.
Whilst it feels like we are going through the worst right now, it could have been so much worse.
Take for example H5N1 (bird flu). It has been widely accepted that this particular virus evolved from factory poultry farms. After a spike of deaths in 2017, the virus’s spread thankfully subsided for reasons that are still unknown, but before it did, it had a death rate of around 60%. Coronavirus is only at about 2% as a global average. It is almost impossible to imagine the kind of hell we’d be living in if it had the same death rate as H5N1.
So what if the next virus’ death rate is even higher? Or is particularly fatal to young children? It’s a hypothesis that is painful to even think about, but we must, because this is not just a one-off – we have created the conditions for this to happen again and again.
There are other ways that this pandemic has highlighted our lack of respect for the natural word, and one example from very close to home.
Just a few short months ago I was busy campaigning via social media for the scrapping of plans to build the M4 relief road. Most of my followers agreed that spending £2 billion on a 14 mile stretch of road that would drive global warming – whilst destroying a landscape known for its biodiversity, rare species, tranquillity and beauty – was absolutely NOT okay. Most of the local business community didn’t feel the same. They argued that the Welsh economy was more important than any so-called environmental impact, and that the relief road was the only effective way to deal with growing congestion on the M4. There was no other alternative.
Fast forward a few months, and business leaders all over the world are suggesting that the Coronavirus crisis could have far reaching consequences on how – and where – we will all work in the future. We have very quickly learned that time-consuming meetings can be replaced by an email. Fly-in-fly-out business appointments can – and should – be a video conference instead. Driving all the way to Bristol, or London, just for a lunch meeting already seems ridiculous. It turns out that those hours spent commuting to and from work can be better spent – meaning more time with kids, husbands, wives and friends.
Then this week, the BBC published an article titled ‘Switch road cash to broadband’ which makes the case for £28bn worth of new roads to be scrapped, as it could be “cheaper, better for the economy, and more climate-friendly to expand fibre optics“. And today, the RSPB announced that population numbers of the crane (a bird which was once lost from the UK for nearly 400 years) have hit record levels in the UK, with the Welsh population living on the exact patch of land where that M4 relief road would have been built.
Suddenly that super-expensive, 14 mile stretch of road on the Gwent Levels doesn’t seem like it was the best idea we could come up with. It’s a good job Mark Drakeford knew it, even if the leaders of the South Wales business community did not.
So what does the future hold?
When this is over, we must all look long and hard at the choices we make, the businesses we support and the habits and routines that we choose to reinstate – and those we wish to completely overhaul. The fact that we know our food system is partly to blame for this outbreak can and should empower us to make better choices for ourselves and our families. As author Jonathan Safran Foer points out, “if we respond with sufficient wisdom, this time that is so marked by death will perhaps also be remembered as a turning point, a time of reckoning, quiet heroism and, as the months pass, renewal.”
My own hope is for a world where people care more about protecting nature rather than simply taking from it; value having time to spend with others and space to breathe more than money in the bank; and look much more deeply into the detail on where their food comes from and how it is made. I also hope that we will emerge more aware of our own ability to change – knowing that we can challenge the status quo in ways that previously seemed impossible, and excited about what that means for our collective futures.
Further reading / listening
Factory Farms a risk to Human Health – The Guardian
We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast – Award-winning book by Jonathan Safran Foer
Covid-19: The Food Dimension – The Food Programme looks at the source of the virus