The decrease in pollution that has sprung from the decrease in human activity has caused many to rejoice at the environmental impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. For these “brightsiders,” the coronavirus is the “cure” for the environment, Mother Nature’s vengeance for our wrongdoings committed against her. Besides the horribly unsettling fact that this international celebration is occurring simultaneously to hundreds upon thousands of deaths from the virus, many continue to draw the positively spun parallels between coronavirus and the Earth. This type of ideology is dangerous for more than just outright ignoring the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on humanity, but additionally for opening up a demoralizing discussion space for environmental fascism and racism. As an extreme form of environmentalism in combination with authoritarianism and discrimination, the beliefs sprung from this both illuminating and dark moment in history will lead to a perpetuation of atrocity which will further, and similarly, come at the cost of human lives.
Many have likely seen the circulating pictures and stories of empty city streets, smog-free skies and wildlife returning to their preindustrial origins all around the world. While some of these stories have their merits, their existence may still create a discussion space spawning hazardous theories. The general area that scientists are noticing the most significant difference is in air quality. It’s true that China, a country that normally places high on the global emissions scale, has emitted 35 percent less carbon since quarantine measures have taken effect as compared to the same period in the previous year. Such a dramatic decline in polluting emissions was an almost unintentional consequence of China’s strict nationwide quarantine regulations. Differing from America’s response, China’s uncompromising “zero contact” policy was enforced through door-to-door health checks by authorities, forced isolation of any sick suspects in makeshift hospitals and quarantine shelters, drones policing those wearing inappropriate protection outside and security guards posted at larger building complexes to monitor the temperature of residents. Although China’s radical response was successful in dramatically “flattening the curve” of coronavirus infections, a focus on the ecological effect of their measures takes the narrow issue out of the greater current context.
Italy’s industrialized areas have similarly seen a strong decrease in air pollution coming from the reduction of traffic and activity, though their newly vacant waterways have received the most attention. As many pictures plastering social media feeds can seemingly verify, the iconic Venetian canals have become eerily clear, with everything from swans to dolphins appearing to return to its waters. However, many of these stories are misleading for a variety of reasons. For one, some of this news is outright fake and is actually taking place in other regions than originally claimed, while others are simply framed to make natural occurrences, like wildlife encounters, seem out of the ordinary for certain areas. This is particularly the case for the stories concerning Italy, as the Venice metropolitan area has long been frequented by swans, and the “Venetian” dolphins were actually filmed in a port in Sardinia, hundreds of miles away from the claimed sighting.
Various researchers have begun to argue against the proposed connection between coronavirus and our ecological salvation. Scientists insist that many positive environmental effects are most likely temporary. To their understanding, the coronavirus hasn’t realistically created both decreased and long-term impacts on the environment. Underscored by simply not knowing, the environment’s fate rests on the human response to the virus, such as the political, economic and societal decisions to follow this period. As several distinct governments all intend to return to “business as usual” the first chance available, positive environmental effects may not only be confined to the short term, but may also be entirely reversed. Still, regardless of whether these effects may only be temporary, the positivist perspective aids in obscuring all of the ecological destruction happening due to the coronavirus, simultaneously to its apparent rejuvenation. For example, cities internationally are currently drowning in their own waste from used medical supplies like face masks and gloves to consumer necessities born from changed times, like plastic bags and single-use cups. The comprehensive societal turn away from reusable and recyclable products may be valuable for slowing and preventing the spread of the virus, but inarguably does absolutely no favors for our environment.
The most important impact of imagining COVID-19 as the environment’s saving grace is that it creates a false silver lining within our deeply devastating present. Such ideas produce a narrative in which humans are at fault, as observed in stories that aid in legitimizing the idea that “humans are the virus,” and “coronavirus is the vaccine.” Emboldening an extremist environmentalist position, this dangerous narrative conflates a total lack of human activity, and humanity generally, to the preservation and restoration of the Earth. The dark ideology of ecofascism not only separates the Earth from its human inhabitants, but prioritizes it above human lives. To them, any reduction in pollution deserves to be celebrated, regardless of its reasoning. No cost is too great to cure the viruslike infection that is humanity. Global pandemics are narrowly posed as a type of divine intervention that inherently make the world a better place. All the lives lost are simply a means to further an end as a justified sacrifice for the sake of the planet. Ecofascist rhetoric conveniently overlooks the disproportionate impact different groups in society have on the environment and reciprocally the way their environments affect them, thus consequently fueling a solution like pandemic-fueled population control. While disguising the depressing reality that the Earth’s true ruin lies in capitalist and militaristic motives, the disproportionate effects of environmental hazards on the most impoverished and marginalized communities remain hidden.
The fact that these institutionally underprivileged communities are most often the home to a majority of people of color ignores a rich international history of imperialism and industrialism, the factor traditionally creating and since perpetuating impoverishment in these communities. While replicated on microscales within national and state borders, such exploitation is evident through the past and perpetual profiteering of smaller, non-Western nations by dominant global powers. The disproportionate means and environmental resources needed to face epidemic shocks like COVID-19 obviously have left certain groups more vulnerable than the others, but intentionally so. The Eurocentric roots of ecofascism flow along the same vein as eugenic thought, mutating into an ideology in which fascism is essentially harnessed as a genocidal tool justified in the fight for environmental restoration. In the current case of COVID-19 and the United States, the health disparities and preexisting conditions which primarily afflict minority populations have led to immensely disproportionate rates of infection and deaths from virus complications. In Chicago, black citizens have accounted for 72 percent of coronavirus-related deaths, although they contribute less than a third of the city’s total population. In New York City, black populations are dying at a rate almost double to that of white people, while Latinx citizens are similarly dying at a rate that is more than double. The reasoning for this excessive imbalance in coronavirus victims is far from natural, as it is the result of traditionally systematic factors following a fatal doctrine. Above all else, the belief champions that those who must die have done so for the greater good, regardless of whether they might overwhelmingly be people of color.
This period of continuously and blatantly exposed societal shortcomings must be utilized as an incentive for widespread institutional reforms for those shortcomings to be truly corrected. As environmentalists-turned-fascists are seduced by a radical position at odds with humanity’s suffering, it’s essential to dismantle these alienating belief systems permeating our global discourse and serving as the greatest barrier to our collective recovery.
Miranda Jackson-Nudelman is a junior majoring in political science.