Humanity and Nature: What happens when we take ourselves out of the equation

Humanity and Nature: What happens when we take ourselves out of the equation

Recently framed as the “Anthropause”, a term used to describe a break in the “Anthropocene”, the global COVID-19 pandemic has presented scientists with a unique opportunity to gain unprecedented insight into how human activity affects wildlife.

How significant is our influence on this planet? What are the observable effects when we take ourselves out of the equation? What lessons can we learn to help build towards a sustainable future where humanity and nature can co-exist?

As expanding human populations transform their surrounding environments drastically, understanding the diverse nature of the human-wildlife interactions is key to preserving and maintaining the integrity of ecosystems. This research is worth billions, and has the potential to uncover a path that will progress towards a sustainable future.

I had the pleasure of working with an international working group known as PAN-Environment that is pioneering the search for answers.

Over several months, we collated and organised 877 anecdotal reports from all over the world, through PAN-Environment’s extensive scientific network, that documented nature’s response to the anthropause and revealed the extent of humanity’s impact. We categorised each observation against a COVID-19 impact index to rank each anecdote, separating the inconsequential animal movement stories with the more interesting and impactful observations.

Over half the reports were unusual animal sightings related to the lockdown, from wild boars overtaking the streets of Barcelona to goats roaming cobbled Welsh roads. There are hundreds of examples of increased sightings of rare species, dolphins forming “superpods”, and birds storming empty beaches by the thousands.

These sightings make for good articles and photos, but these rosy depictions of wildlife rebounding reflects a reporting bias. The reality is that the impact of human confinement is more mixed.

Impacts on nature around the world.
Charismatic species shown here represent a small proportion of the various reports of abundance and distribution shifts of the 275 species documented by PAN-Environment

Positive outcomes

Unsurprisingly, this study found multiple examples of nature ‘bouncing back’. Reduced pressure from anthropogenic sources allowed some ecosystems to recover. In a few short months, there have been several instances of improved ecosystem resilience and population growth. The most notable narratives uncovered demonstrate a level of optimism for the environment that has been missing in the literature for decades.

Negative outcomes

We are so intertwined with nature that removing ourselves can also prove to be disastrous. Conservation programs and research expeditions around the world have been postponed or cancelled. Protected areas and World Heritage Sites are losing their funding, particularly at sites that rely on ecotourism.

In addition, the economic insecurity posed by coronavirus increases biodiversity threats as conservation spending is reduced, humans seek to support themselves through hunting and fishing, allowing for poaching and exploitation to reach some record-breaking highs:

What lessons can we learn from this?

Habitat destruction is the most significant cause of biodiversity loss and an ever-increasing human population threatens our natural world. But when we are absent, nature demonstrates extraordinary resilience. 

It’s no surprise really, the evidence for this has always been there. For 30 years animals in the Chernobyl exclusion zone have been thriving, despite the dangerous radiation levels, because humans simply cannot exist there. Same goes for the Korean Demilitarised Zone and the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama.

However, we can’t just take ourselves out of the picture. Populations and ecosystems rely on us to restore and conserve them from years of past exploitation.

The global human confinement experiment shows us the dual role humans play as both threats and custodians of biodiversity. It provides hope that it is possible to reduce our resource consumption, reduce emissions, minimise mobility and change how we approach life on Earth. If we continue to adapt to a working from home environment, perhaps we can learn to give nature the respite it needs. 

No-one wants to remain in a state of permanent lockdown; minor changes in our lifestyles could mean major benefits for global ecosystems and the human race.

Inspiration for a more sustainable ‘post-anthropause’ world is already forming. For example, urban planners are redesigning major cities to create the 15-minute city, where no cars are needed, everything you need in a ‘village’ around you.

Emerging from lockdown, there needs to be advocacy on the global political stage to normalise home offices and allowing workers who can afford to stay at home to do so. We need better international communication and coordination to allows us to control which environments can be used for their services, and which ones need a break from human interference.

If we’re serious about our aspirations as a species, we need to leave this adolescent phase of our evolution, overcome our petty differences and work together for a sustainable future where humanity and nature can co-exist peacefully.

Marc Shellard
Marc Shellard

BSc Marine Biology

Leave a Reply