Where there is smoke, there is fire. And where there is misinformation, there is feeling.
One key thing I have learnt from my time in climate and energy is that if someone is skipping skepticism and going straight to both accepting and spreading something either false or illogical, they’re doing it for a reason.
Corona virus has triggered many reactions around the world – some ugly, some nice. One example from the ‘ugly’ side fits this pattern of strong feelings justified using false information. It is the resurgence of something loosely (and perhaps, too loosely) referred to as ‘eco-fascism‘. Generally, it means wildly authoritarian and often deadly solutions to environmental protection (often uttered by people with specific ideas about which race of people should be wiped out first).
In the context of Corona virus, it means that a neat way of protecting the environment from human beings is happily accepting a gargantuan death toll on the grounds that more dead humans equals a better environment. It’s less authoritarian and a bit more ‘let them die’, but for our purposes, it is well and truly under the umbrella of ‘eco fascism’.
It is becoming prominent across social media, particularly in the past few weeks. Quarantines around the world have resulted in a big reduction in human presence on streets alongside reduced operation of industry, transport and heavy machinery. In China, for instance, air pollution has fallen, along with carbon emissions.
Here’s the thing, though: crises, pandemics and economic downturns are not good tools for decreasing carbon emissions in the long term. They make a dent, but that’s all it ever is – a dent:
Corona virus will have some lasting impact on global emissions. Many activities once thought necessary will be permanently reduced. People will adapt to not flying to conferences or driving into work every single day. Some bits of Corona quarantine lifestyle change will stick.
But they won’t reduce our lifestyles to zero emissions, and even then, these personal lifestyle factors only make up a fraction of total emissions. Companies, industries, businesses will all reset to normal once this is over, if not completely wiping out any gains with a rapid ramp-up to full operation, as we saw post GFC.
There will be many hundreds of thousands of deaths from Corona virus over the coming months. For what? A potential blip in eternally rising global CO₂? Some small improvements to commuting habits? It’s nowhere close to the systemic, long-term change that’s required to push down on the emissions curve, and if you think that that is a great reward for an incredible loss of human life, you’ve lost all of your humanity.
Ditto for air pollution impacts. Some estimates compare the lives saved from cutting out air pollution to lives lost to Corona virus – it’s deeply faulty math, because even in China, this game isn’t over. Quarantines will soon be lifted and many outbreaks might still re-emerge. We are still in the early stages of this disease, and so these calculations are wildly unreliable.
Even outside of that, there are ways to saves lives from air pollution without requiring the death of millions. We know how to reduce air pollution (more public transport, stricter regulations, electrification). We know how to reduce emissions. We can do all of those things while enriching human life rather than cruelly celebrating its erasure.
“Emissions in China are down because the economy has stopped and people are dying, and because poor people are not able to get medicine and food. This is not an analogy for how we want to decrease emissions from climate change.” – Gernot Wagner, NYU
Happy swans and dead people
The slightly more direct way that this has manifested has been in a collection of viral tweets that each highlight some ‘return to nature’ for an area that has seen reduced human activity. Most of these viral tweets involve some small or significant deception. There is the clean water and swans of Venice:
Unfortunately, the ‘clearness’ of water isn’t a good metric of pollution. Boats – whether combustion or unpowered – kick up dirt from the shallow floor of the canal, decreasing visibility. Fewer boats means clearer water, simply because less dirt is disturbed. Weirdly, this has been either implicitly or explicitly presented as some sort of decrease in pollution:
“It’s because there is less boat traffic, [which] usually brings sediment to the top of the water’s surface” – Venice City Mayor’s Office
“The mayor’s spokesman said Venice’s water pollution has not decreased” – Business Insider
The confusion here – repeated across many, many, many media outlets – is a conflation between ‘clear’ and ‘clean’, which are not necessarily the same thing.
Journalist Guadalupe Gonzalez spoke with the author of the pictures, who was furious they’d been used without credit. “It is transparent but not clean. Pollution is still there, decreased of course in these days but are different concepts”, he told her.
As for the swans, an ex-resident who grew up in the region the photos were taken pointed out that the photographs are in fact of a small town named Burano, not Venice, in which swans have lived since at least 2013:
Accompanying this meme – and hundreds of news articles repeating the claims without interrogating whether “clear water” = “less pollution” (or even asking whether it is people – instead of industry and business – that causes water pollution) – was this weird thing about dolphins frolicking in Venice thanks to the clearing out of human life:
Yeah, you guessed it. The video of the dolphins was not taken in Venice – it was filmed in Cagliari, in Sardinia (around 870 km from Venice). And yes, there are examples you can find of dolphins in the same region in the past. At the absolute minimum, you could argue that those creatures are playing closer to a marina thanks to lower boat usage, but that’s hardly a return to the natural order, considering the pointed artificiality of, you know, a marina. And the humans filming the dolphins. And the boats sitting there, idle, ready to be reengaged once the threat of pandemic passes.
This mistruths, half-truths, lies and exaggerations were all brought together for a very specific and clear purpose: framing the emergence of the Corona virus pandemic as the Earth’s ‘natural defense’ system:
You can find many thousands of these tweets, from people with both large and small followings on Twitter. Almost all of the examples above – particularly the animals-returning-to-human-spaces ones – feature a variation of “humans are a virus” in the replies, in addition to many viral tweets explicitly taking this position.
One consistent problem with these tweets – in addition to the fact that they’re celebrating the impending deaths of tens of thousands of human beings as a reasonable way to make three Italian swans slightly cheerful – is the fact that oceans are not being cleansed. Things are still bad, because the machine that makes things bad has been paused, not replaced.
Carbon emissions, air pollution, noise pollution, water pollution – all of these things continue to be yoked to human economic activity. Once things return to normal, environmental harm will ramp up accordingly. This is a fantasy that pretends locking humans inside their homes fixes the problems with capitalism, with human systems of technological harm, with corruption and with misinformation. It is a deadly, dangerous fantasy, most often repeated those who presume they’ll be protected against the deadly consequences of disease.
What matters most here is not the lie, or the faulty logic. It is the sentiment that is driving these people to happily accept that tens of thousands of dead human bodies are a reasonable price to pay for 100 happy fishies.
At its core, it’s a laziness. Instead of breaking the yoke between the operation of human life and the destructiveness of environmental harm, it’s easier to submit to that coupling and simply turn the dial down on the number of living humans.
This ‘coupling’ between human existence and environmental harm is weak – but it is a link that industries like the fossil fuel industry, or the combustion engine industry like to pretend is unavoidable. The cruel corporate and political players are deeply pleased when people are driven into deeply fucked up areas, like ‘Corona virus is the vaccine to the human virus’. They lean back and kick up their feet up and grin broadly when they see that the only two options the lazy cling to are ‘kill people’ or ‘keep killing the planet’.
Want to do some good, during what will easily be a decade (if not century) defining year? Think about breaking that link. Let this moment teach you how to life a less impactful life, but never forget that that is insufficient, that the hardest work is yet to come and that any “positives” come at the cost of millions of people screaming with grief for many months to come – people you know, and people you love.
And once the storm passes, we pick up our tools again and get back to work chipping away at the coupling between human life and environmental harm, which is far more fragile than the lazy, the complacent and the privileged advocates of both fossil fuels and eco-fascism – on a unity ticket for human destruction – would have us think.