A few weeks ago, I was looking through the sparse February light from the confines of my bed. Rushing around the bare boughs of a tree outside my window was a pair of grey squirrels. These critters are one of many monuments to humanity’s ecological recklessness. They are American invaders who largely replaced the UK’s native red squirrels by employing superior brawn and a gung ho spirit.
Still, I found no energy to sneer at these foreigner conquerors, eyeing each other cautiously and circling like vultures. Suddenly, to my considerable delight, they launched themselves at one and other, grappling and twisting and yanking each other with combinations that would even impress a master of jiu-jitsu or aikido. Their tails swished like dueling feather dusters, as they spiraled after each other in a hypnotizing display. Eventually, the battle concluded, and I felt distinctly charmed.
Surely I’m not the only one. According to a survey released by the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs in September, nine out of 10 British adults value their relationship to the natural world during this time of pandemics and lockdowns. This should come as no surprise. Everywhere, people are confined to their homes, and their only smack of freedom may be a walk in a park or a ramble in the woods.
Yet it is not just stretching our legs that we enjoy, but nature itself. I for one feel suffocated after a few days in central London, where skyscrapers do their best to block out every vestige of blue sky available. Parks, where there are parks, are normally saturated with atrocious, gibbering hordes of fellow hominids. It is an immense privilege to be based in the countryside, where I am, and to take looming oak trees, mossy canals, and flocks of chubby sheep for granted. These scenes are a tonic for one’s nerves, which often get frayed as we approach landmarks like a full year with COVID-19 restrictions.
The psychological strain of the pandemic has been intense, and unfortunately, the serene scenes that I enjoy are not available to everyone. The poorest people tend to have limited access to nature, and society’s burdens stack heaviest at the bottom. Working-class people already suffer disproportionately from mental illness, and the added mental pressures of the pandemic will no-doubt hit them the hardest. People experiencing poverty will also suffer the worst of COVID-19’s economic impacts, which will only further damage their physical and psychological health. These difficulties will drill into the hearts of destitute communities, which can expect no respite without intervention. Greater access to nature could act as a salve for these growing hardships.
This isn’t only my romantic sentimentalism speaking. Incorporating the natural world into people’s lives produces numerous positive outcomes. For example, planting trees in inner cities bears a strong relationship to declining crime rates. Exposure to natural environments also seems to have a powerful effect on mental wellbeing, reducing stress at a far greater rate than urban settings and facilitating higher rates of concentration in individuals. One study investigating forest-bathing in Japan discovered that visiting a forest to unwind, relax and recreate bolstered the subjects’ immune systems and even resulted in an increased number of intracellular anti-cancer proteins.
There are also purely practical advantages to interspersing nature into built environments, like using trees for stormwater management and as deterrents for illegal dumping. As coronavirus continues to wage war on the health and happiness of communities across the globe, strategies that develop the presence of nature in towns and cities will help combat these issues while establishing benefits that will outlast the pandemic and germinate for decades to come.
The pandemic has also highlighted alternative, accessible ways in which people interact with and benefit from nature. Pets are a great example. Pet sales have soared during the pandemic, presumably fueled by consumers’ feelings of isolation and a growing desire for companionship. Companion animals are wonderful aids to our lives. They can help reduce stress and loneliness, improve mood and provide a feeling of social support. To use my own dog as an example, not only is he a perennially cheery and affable presence but he also forces me, inured as he is to my grumbling, to go for daily walks and participate in a minimum of exercise, another booster for mental health.
Humanity derives abundant value from nature, a fact that can be instantiated both anecdotally and statistically, and coronavirus has reinforced this relationship. Yet if nature provides us with so much, does humanity possess a duty to give anything back? The answer must be yes, even from a wholly self-interested perspective. The considerable contributions nature makes towards our wellbeing can hardly be enjoyed if nature itself is destroyed, reduced, and spoiled. Nations around the globe have, generally speaking, failed miserably to adequately protect their natural heritage.
Lake Erie has been plagued by toxic algal blooms caused by runoffs from farms that grow animal feed. The animal industry continuously fails to manage and contain its waste, leading to appalling situations like that in New Zealand, where two-thirds of the rivers are now un-swimmable due to E. Coli infestations. Similarly, with the Great Barrier Reef, humanity is destroying through climate change not only a thriving ecosystem but an artistic marvel. If plague and lockdown have heightened humanity’s appreciation of nature, we would do well to convert this appreciation into action before we mutate our environment into shapes too squalid to admire.
This is as true of forests and landscapes as it is of animals themselves, whose delicate lives humanity has complete dominion over. People cherish their pets, who have provided such comfort over months of confinement. Yet animals have discrete psychologies, personalities, and needs of their own, and they too are expressing heightened anxiety and duress during lockdowns. It is worth sparing a thought for the 6.5 million dogs and cats that go to shelters in the U.S. every year, and of the 1.5 million animals of these creatures who are euthanized.
However, even life at a shelter would be envied by the billions of pigs, chickens, and cows put through factory farming. Creatures crammed together, barely able to move, with no space for socializing or play, grow so restless, anxious, and fidgety that they peck and bite each other, leading to serious injury and cannibalism. If humanity values the freedom and elegance of nature, benefits from companion animals and detests feeling entrapped and unable to socialize, is it just to subject animals, with similar biologies and psychologies to our own, to stifling boredom and abject pain? Try and relate to the experience. Permanent lockdown for your entire life, except you are not in a bedroom or home but incarcerated in a tiny cage or a baren warehouse, jammed together with thousands of others for months before meeting a violent death.
If empathy fails you, then appeal to your own self-interest. Animal agriculture is a hotbed for disease and an engine of environmental destruction. You need only value the superficial image of nature, or your own freedom from pandemics, or indeed the continuation of human life on Earth, to concede the importance of a vegan diet. Adopting a plant-based diet is the largest single contribution an individual can make against climate change and towards protecting nature and all the auxiliary ways it sustains us.
Our responsibility to nature is inseparable from our responsibility to ourselves—in caring for one we care for both. Yet at present, society is choosing to neglect these duties. COVID-19 has revealed the deep interconnectedness of our planet, where an outbreak in China can lead to curfews in California, exposing the fragility of global health systems. Scientists now believe that this pandemic probably originated in the trade of wild animals, and the far deadlier Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 spread to humans from a poultry farm. Six out of every ten infectious diseases can spread from animals, and three-quarters of new human diseases originated in animals. It would be unwise to rest on our laurels once coronavirus is defeated.
The natural world has provided refuge for many in an otherwise tense and listless year. Ultimately, that value is immeasurable and demands protection. If you have benefited from the presence of nature during this pandemic, make sure to give back. Take your admiration for flora and fauna and forge them into conviction and action.
UK based writer opposed to the unnecessary suffering of all beings. Dissecting our treatment of animals in history, philosophy and culture. Founder of The Liberator online magazine.