Paul Andersen: The biosphere heals while humanity reels

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Last week, I quoted Viktor Frankl, a death camp survivor who was able to salvage his humanity in a world in despair. Packed into cattle cars on a death-bound train, passengers glimpsed the mountains of Bavaria.

Frankl observed, “We were carried away by nature’s beauty, which we had missed for so long. One prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be.’”

Today, dolphins have been spotted in the canals of Venice, where the water is so clear that you can see fish. The air is clean in Brussels, Paris, Madrid, Milan, Frankfurt, and in cities around the world.

In Madrid, the average nitrogen dioxide levels decreased by 56% after the Spanish government banned non-essential travel two weeks ago. Less traffic, fewer cars and reduced output at gas-emitting factories have given the atmosphere a reprieve.

Recent satellite measurements have found that emissions from cars, trucks and airplanes have declined in metropolitan Boston by about 30%, while overall carbon emissions have fallen by an estimated 15%. Aspen has seen a similar decline.

Cutting air pollution is beneficial to people in susceptible health categories, said one scientist.

“It could reduce the spread of disease. A high level of air pollution exacerbates viral uptake because it inflames and lowers immunity.”

Agriculture also could get a boost because pollution stunts plant growth. Reducing particulates and airborne chemicals is a benefit to anyone who breathes air.

A Washington Post columnist wrote that an antidote to quarantine is “to walk or run, to get some sun, to breathe the spring air. And yes, the air is actually fresher. Pollution, in a remarkably short time, has abated.”

This sudden drop in pollution has few precedents in the modern era. According to the British newspaper The Guardian, the coronavirus pandemic “represents the largest scale experiment ever in terms of the reduction of industrial emissions.”

Coronavirus is doing for climate change what social mores would do if we viewed climate change as the global scourge it is. If climate change were taken as seriously as coronavirus, the biosphere could rebound — and in a short time.

Coronavirus may shift our focus to what’s really important — health, well-being, mutually supportive relationships. Non-essential travel is forbidden today, but that will be a choice again tomorrow, when the virus abates.

Recognizing the results of reduced mobility and enforced simplicity, a new ethic could move into global efforts on climate change. A silver lining could appear on an otherwise dark cloud that could underscore voluntary limits for a cleaner, healthier environment.

Millions are now connecting to offices virtually while working from home productively. Millions are rediscovering city parks and nearby public lands. Millions are engaging with their families, exploring creative outlets and enriching their home lives.

Climate change could gain necessary significance if not for misinformation from climate deniers who recklessly sacrifice global security for short-term profits. The fossil-fuel industry is at the top of that list by willfully denying climate science and lobbying against policies to curtail carbon and keep the planet livable.

Coronavirus is a contagion made by nature that’s outside our control. Climate change is a contagion made by man, against man, on which only man can act. Climate change is a pandemic caused by inaction, unaccountability and denial.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration twists the viral crisis into eco-sabotage by abandoning environmental regulations with the rollback of automobile efficiency standards, reported as the “undoing of the government’s biggest effort to combat climate change.”

Both climate and coronavirus represent threats to humanity, but coronavirus is more compelling than climate change because there is a growing body count.

During the Vietnam War, nightly TV reports tallied up casualties. When those numbers were equated with the deaths of American boys, public sentiment came in heavily against the war. It is forecast that climate change will rack up an increasing death toll, which should elicit a similar response.

The world can be beautiful again by self-limiting consumer appetites, reducing unnecessary mobility and acknowledging the well-being of future generations. A modicum of self-restraint would be a gesture of global humility, a sane response to what we see from a new perspective.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at