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The Dark Search for a “Silver Lining” to the Coronavirus

Fewer humans does not a healthier planet make.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Goats roam in LLandudno, Wales.

Goats have taken over a tiny Welsh town. Los Angeles is free of smog. And the Taj Mahal is sparkling again. The environmental consequences of the coronavirus have been swift and, at least on their face, significant. In February, analysts reported that carbon emissions in China, the country where the virus originated, dropped 25 percent. So too did nitrogen dioxide, a by-product of fossil fuel combustion and a key component in air pollution. While global carbon emissions were supposed to rise this year, the Global Carbon Project now estimates they will fall by 5 percent.

“Nature is healing,” one tweet claimed, kicking off a troubling meme. All it took was a novel virus that’s infected millions and killed more than 235,000 people and counting. 

Some have called the shutdown’s environmental effects a “silver lining—an  “unintended benefit perfectly suited to the American appetite for good news. But the discourse has also slipped into darker territory. Coronavirus is Earths vaccine,” read one viral tweet from Thomas Schulz, a designer. Were the virus.” (Schulz subsequently clarified he was NOT saying all humans should die.”) In a now-deleted tweet, the actress Jameela Jamil said she “couldn’t help but wonder if this virus is the clapback from Mother Nature we were waiting for.” Quarantined tweets and Instagrams of the natural world, Amanda Hess recently observed in The New York Times, have been not “pastoral” but “post-apocalyptic”: “The nature images that have captured our imaginations rest on total human exile.”

That’s a troubling trend. In addition to some of these images being fake, and none of them likely to have any bearing on the larger challenges of climate change, they also fall into a long tradition, particularly in wealthy countries, of insisting that our species is a scourge and population reduction a viable solution. Sometimes it’s argued in scholarly treatises, sometimes in thoughtless tweets. But it always involves flawed and harmful assumptions about humans and the environment—assumptions climate activists and environmentalists are going to have to tackle as humanity tries to mitigate damage in a warming world.

In 1798, as the global population approached one billion, cleric Thomas Robert Malthus anonymously published his bestselling treatise An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he argued that humanity would soon exhaust its ability to feed itself. The promised crisis never arrived. But a certain segment of the population has subscribed to this crude environmentalism ever since. 

Malthusian thinkers have advocated  some pretty disturbing “solutions” to the perceived problem of overpopulation. Paul Ehrlich, a respected Stanford University conservation biologist and the author of the 1968 book The Population Bomb, recommended sterilization. Ecologist Garrett Hardin developed a theory of “lifeboat ethics,” which argued that if the poor must die for the wealthy to stay afloat on a planet with limited resources, so be it. And modern ecofascists have coalesced around the authoritarian notion that people should sacrifice individual interest for the good of the “land”—usually with a dash of ethnonationalism and a genocidal imagination mixed in. The 2019 Christchurch mosque shooter and the El Paso Walmart shooter he inspired, for example, were driven by the belief they were helping to “preserve” the land. “If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can become more sustainable,” the Texas shooter wrote in his manifesto.

But few who espouse population-based environmental rhetoric are actually avowed ecofascists. They’re not even necessarily right-wing ideologues. Jane Goodall, the widely revered primatologist, declared at the World Economic Forum in January that “all these things we talk about wouldn’t be a problem” if the world population was still around 500 million. She wasn’t representing a fringe belief but, rather, indulging in what David Wallace Wells has called “climate brutality” or what Samuel Miller McDonald has termed “boring old liberal capitalism”: In polite society, the most radical solutions for the population problem, like forced sterilization or mass shootings, are shunned, and targeting any individual group is unacceptable. But the basic premise of Malthusian thought—that humans and, more specifically, their numbers, are problematic—is acceptable across the political spectrum. It’s a way of avoiding what, in affluent circles, may seem a more destabilizing possibility: that the capitalistic lifestyle, not poorer countries’ population growth, might be what needs to change.

In addition to being morally repugnant, these ideas are also predicated on flawed scientific assumptions. Earth’s carrying capacity—the maximum number of people it can physically hold—is limited. But researchers—like those at the Future of Food project at Oxford University—have shown the bigger problem is not the number of people on the planet but the lifestyle those people lead and the systems we create to support them. The Earth already produces enough calories to feed nine billion people—those calories just aren’t evenly distributed. And though everyone’s diet has some environmental impact, wealthy meat-eaters and those who can afford fancy imported goods have a far larger impact on the planet than the poor. That’s the irony of arguments like Goodall’s: The crowd at Davos that nods congenially about the population problem consists, as Greta Thunberg pointed out last year, of some of the world’s biggest polluters.

Disasters like the coronavirus feed into our wish for a fresh start—a world in which the pressure is eased a bit, making it easier to do what’s right. At first glance, past disasters may support this belief in the climate benefits of chaos. Research indicates the Mongol invasion and the fall of the Ming Dynasty resulted in carbon reductions. When the Black Death put a temporary end to mining and smelting, atmospheric lead pollution dropped. And the European conquest of the Americas, causing 56 million deaths in a century, contributed to a demonstrable decline in global temperatures.

But death doesn’t “really work as a climate mitigation tool,” Alexander Koch, a climate researcher at the University of Hong Kong, told me. Even after European colonizers’ appalling acts of genocide led to the reforestation of large swathes of North and South America, the resulting global temperature reduction was only 0.15 degrees Celsius (roughly one-third of a degree Fahrenheit), Koch and his colleagues concluded in a 2019 analysis. Since 1975, human emissions have caused more than 0.15 degrees Celsius of warming per decade.

In terms of present-day climate change,” Koch said, the coronavirus “will have basically almost zero impact, unfortunately.” While an intentional 5 percent reduction in global carbon emissions would be rightly celebrated (it’s just shy of the 7.6 percent reductions we’d need every year through 2030 to meet the terms of the Paris climate agreement), what we’re experiencing now is likely a blip. As markets rebound, and manufacturers make up for lost productivity, emissions will surge. In the last three months in China, for example, officials have already approved more coal power plants than they did in the last year. As the coronavirus struck the United States, the Trump administration continued its regulatory rollback, claiming the measures were necessary to help struggling businesses. The Environmental Protection Agency recently relaxed already-lax rules for polluters, essentially allowing power plants and factories to judge their compliance for themselves. The coronavirus will likely prove to be just as bad—if not worse—for the environment than business as usual.

Building a broad, global coalition to fight climate change and preserve a habitable planet requires a respect for human life. It also means pushing back against the myriad narratives that encourage complacency (If “humanity” is the problem, nothing can be done anyway); false comfort (If humans are gone, it’s as if we never destroyed anything in the first place); and evil (Pull up the drawbridge and let the rich survive these crises, while the poor die).

In 2017, Sam Kriss and Ellie Mae O’Hagan wrote in The Baffler that when it comes to our futilitarian approach to climate change, “the problem, it turns out, is not an overabundance of humans but a death of humanity.” While the twentieth-century environmental movement sought to convince people that the earth and its biodiversity are independently valuable, one of the primary goals of the current climate movement is to reduce human suffering, conscious that humanity’s and the natural world’s interests are frequently aligned. Given what we know about how environmental degradation leads to disease outbreaks and how global warming is likely to exacerbate that, it’s a lesson we should be taking to heart right now. Death and destruction are a by-product of unmitigated climate change—not a solution for it.