Might newfound appreciation for environment be virus’ silver lining?

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, May 5, 2020

short rows headerIt is difficult to see anything positive coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, and yet, the opportunities are there. Not that this is a glass half empty, glass half full analogy. This glass is just about empty. Nothing positive can be said about what has happened to millions of people, to our society and to our economy thanks to this virus. Still, in the dregs at the bottom of the cup are lessons that can benefit all of civilization if we choose to recognize and build on them.


One of the most obvious is something that few of us imagined or recognized until it was pointed out by scientists. The shutdown of commerce and travel throughout the industrialized world has caused huge changes in the environment that surrounds us.

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In a world largely devoid of trains, planes and automobiles, skies are clearer than they’ve been in decades. The haze that has hung over many large cities has, to a large extent, cleared. Water clarity has dramatically improved. In Venice, photographs of historically polluted canals show clear water and even fish swimming. Some of the fish had been there all along, but now you can actually look down and see them.

In short, inactivity has caused a major environmental shift in the span of a few months.

No one in his right mind would have invited such an environmental experiment. The impact on the world’s economy from this drastic lull in human activity has been catastrophic, and the impact will continue to grow in the immediate future.

Gina McCarthy, who was head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency back in the days when that organization trying to improve the environment, was quoted in the British newspaper “The Guardian” as saying, “This isn’t the way we would’ve wanted things to happen, God no. This is just a disaster that pointed out the underlying challenges we face. It’s not something to celebrate.”

But it is something from which we can learn. If we still needed proof that modern society is degrading the environment, the past several months have provided it.

There will continue to be naysayers — those who deny, in the face of all evidence, that man is causing environmental degradation and ultimately, global warning. This new evidence seemingly destroys such baseless arguments, but those who oppose efforts to battle global warming are flexible. They will simply argue now that modern civilization is worth far more than the environment, a position closer to their honest opinion than outright denial ever was.

The biggest risk, however, isn’t that the naysayers will win the argument. They haven’t and won’t. The biggest risk is that the rest of us will do what we have done repeatedly in the past — shrug our shoulders and move on. For the sake of future generations, we can’t afford to do that.

Poor air quality is not only causing the warming of the earth. It is also creating an unhealthy environment in which to live. It causes respiratory problems which, among other things, makes people even more vulnerable to viruses like COVID-19 that attack the lungs.

Chemical pollution in waterways and, more specifically, drinking supplies, is well-proven to be hazardous to the health of people. We need only look to Flynt, Michigan, for an example.

And in our own backyard, traces of the deadly pesticide Kepone, released into the James River more than four decades, remain in the riverbed today.

Improving the environment has never earned the full-throated support of the general public that it deserves. Environmental improvements are hard work and expensive. And the things that we can do as individuals to improve the environment often conflict with our desire to have larger homes, lush yards and muscular automobiles in the driveway.

Stay-at-home orders are unpleasant, inconvenient and even economically disastrous, but they may also provide an opportunity for reflection, and we would be doing ourselves and neighbors around the world a favor if we spent a bit of time reflecting on what our attitude toward the environment will be when the shutdown ends.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. He can be reached at j.branchedwards@gmail.com.