What COVID has Shown Us About Our Lifestyles (Hint: Nothing New)

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated what can happen to the atmosphere when everyday activities are brought to a halt. The results are not to Thanos’ liking.


The COVID-19 pandemic has been hugely disruptive, and we’ve all had our lives change. Yet that disruption, as unwanted and disastrous as it is, has provided us with a wide-scale demonstration of what happens to the environment when regular human activity is brought to a near standstill.

Scientist Helen Worden referred to the pandemic as an “unwanted atmospheric experiment.” With countries going into lockdown came an observable effect on the environment. Following China’s lockdown, for example, the level of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere decreased by 36%. As the country began to recover and the lockdown eased, those levels rose again. Whether the pandemic will result in any lasting environmental impact is unknown. However, we were able to see in real time on a large scale what happens if our everyday lifestyles are suddenly halted: our atmosphere improves.

There was a common reaction to this news: Thanos mode.

What I mean by that is there is a tendency for some to react by saying that humans are causing direct environmental harm (true), and that the virus is some kind of deserved consequence (false). This sentiment can be seen in the following collection of tweets:

“The corona virus is teaching us that we are the ones who should not be on this planet.”

“Humans are the real disease.”

“No it doesn’t mean we all deserve to die, but you can’t deny the fact that the earth would be better off without humans in it.”

“Maybe Mother Earth is just pissed and this is our punishment.”

“When humans disappear, the Earth heals itself. We need to think about that.”

“No matter how problematic COVID-19 was, for me it’s still a blessing in disguise.”

I understand the frustrations many have with our current environmental degradation, and the ease with which blame is attributed to the human race. It is true that we are the only species who has caused as much harm as we have managed to do. However, I urge those who agree with this mindset to consider two things.

Firstly, a pandemic is a pretty inappropriate moral high ground.

Western lifestyles are not sustainable, and they have a fast-paced, negative impact on the environment

Secondly, humanity per se isn’t to blame, but (primarily Western) lifestyles are. Seeing the impacts of lockdown on the environment has only served to confirm what indigenous and local scientists have been saying for ages: modern, Western lifestyles are not sustainable, and they have a fast-paced, negative impact on the environment. This knowledge is not new, but it is newly observed. The lockdown and subsequent atmospheric changes were just further proof of how dramatic of an effect those lifestyles have.

There’s definitely been a shift towards environmentally-friendly living in the West. As an American myself, I’ve seen the number of green-living grocery stores or recyclable packaging or alternative milks dramatically increase in my lifetime. However, the pivot that the U.S. in particular is making is based off of indigenous and local knowledge and technology. Blaming “humanity” as the source of all climatic evil discredits societies that have lived sustainably in the past, and still do in the present. We used to be much better at this, and in many parts of the world, we still are.

Additionally, placing the blame on a collective “humans” implies that we all contribute equally to environmental harm, and that we all do so willingly. And just like that, the problem is seen as species-wide, not system-wide. Most people who don’t live “eco-conscious” lives do not have an alternative. Living a zero-waste, zero-carbon, zero-zero lifestyle is expensive and impractical. Consider, for instance, people who rely on waste-generating technologies or medications to manage health conditions. Certain minorities such as the poor, the disabled, indigenous and Black communities, to name a few, are unfairly blamed. They also suffer the impacts disproportionately.

the virus is not the Earth backhanding us with a healthy dose of karma.

So yes, the pandemic is confirming the knowledge that our lifestyles have drastic impacts on the environment, and changing them has positive atmospheric effects. But no, the virus is not the Earth backhanding us with a healthy dose of karma.

I don’t believe this means we should all stay in lockdown forever, for the sake of the atmosphere. I only want to strengthen the argument that there are better ways of coexisting with our environment, and that those ways should be given due credit and support. They also should not be commercialized into expensive, unattainable lifestyles. None of us should want to be Thanos, but we can’t all live like Ironman.

Tweets used:

@HildaBacigalupo (Hilda H. Bacigalupo). “The corona virus is teaching us that we are the ones who should not be on this planet.” Twitter, 28 March 2020.

@Monituh_m. “Humans are the real disease.” Twitter, 26 March 2020.

@NeroDiavoloDa. “No it doesn’t mean we all deserve to die, but you can’t deny the fact that the earth would be better off without humans in it.” Twitter, 27 March 2020.

@OhNoSheTwitnt. “Maybe Mother Earth is just pissed and this is our punishment.” Twitter, 27 March 2020.

@Archivist1000. “Have you seen the pics of the cana;s in Venice? The water is clear, you can see FISH in there… swans have come back. When humans disappear, the Earth heals itself. We need to think about that.” Twitter, 30 March 2020.

@Jelleyaceee. “no matter how problematic COVID-19 was, for me it’s still a blessing in disguise. Urgh mother nature is healing herself naaaaaa.” Twitter, 31 March 2020.

Image used for art: https://imgflip.com/memetemplate/151078338/Obama-tweet

Art by Alice Vine and Eleanor Clyburn

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