What ‘Walden’ can tell us about social distancing and focusing on life’s essentials



Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.
ptwo/Wikipedia, CC BY

Robert M. Thorson, University of Connecticut

Seeking to bend the coronavirus curve, governors and mayors have told millions of Americans to stay home. If you’re pondering what to read, it’s easy to find lists featuring books about disease outbreaks, solitude and living a simpler life. But it’s much harder to find a book that combines these themes.

As the author of three books about essayist, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, I highly recommend “Walden,” Thoreau’s 1854 account of his time living “alone” in the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts. I qualify “alone” because Thoreau had more company at Walden than in town, and hoed a bean field daily as social theater in full view of passersby on the road.

Published in over 1,000 editions and translated into scores of languages, “Walden” is the scriptural fountainhead of the modern environmental movement, a philosophical treatise on self-reliance and a salient volume of the American literary canon. In his introduction to the Princeton edition, John Updike claims that Thoreau’s masterpiece “contributed most to America’s present sense of itself” during the cultural renaissance of the mid-19th century, yet “risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.”

Another reason to read or reread “Walden” during trying times is that it gushes with sorely needed optimism and is laced with wit. And Thoreau befriends you by writing in the first person.

Reality lies within us

Henry David Thoreau, 1856.
National Portrait Gallery/Wikipedia

As governments mandate social distancing to protect public health, many readers may be coming to grips with solitude. Thoreau devotes a chapter to it, extolling the virtue of getting to know yourself really well.

“Why should I feel lonely?” he asks, “is not our planet in the Milky Way?” Elsewhere he clarifies the difference between what we need and what we think we need, writing, “My greatest skill has been to want but little.”

“Walden” doesn’t have to be read straight through like a novel. For readers who have previously given up on it, I suggest rebooting in the middle with “The Ponds,” which opens thus: “Sometimes, having had a surfeit of human society and gossip, and worn out all my village friends, I rambled still farther westward than I habitually dwell…” Thoreau then retreats away from the mindless distractions of community life toward an immersion into Nature, with water at its spiritual center.

Next, flip back to the earlier chapter “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.” Here Thoreau invites readers on a downward journey, from the fleeting shallows of their social lives to the solid depths of their individual lives:

“Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality…”

Our brains build that reality – yours, mine, everyone’s – by integrating external sensory signals with internal memories. Thoreau’s point – which is supported by 21st-century cognitive and neuroscience research – is that the real you precedes the social you. Your world is built from the inside of your skull outward, not vice versa.

‘Walden’ is a book about breaking away and focusing on the essential facts of life.

The elusive simple life

Thoreau’s retreat to Walden Pond is often mistaken for a hermit’s flight deep into the woods. Actually, Thoreau put some distance between himself and his home and village so that he could understand himself and society better. When not in town, he swapped human companionship for the “beneficent society” of Nature for long enough to make “the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant.”

Today mandatory social distancing is wrecking the global economy, based on traditional metrics like gross domestic product and stock prices. Viewed through “Walden,” this wreckage may look like a long-overdue correction for an unsustainable system.

Thoreau feared that the economy he saw was headed in the wrong direction. His opening chapter, “Economy,” is an extended rant against what he viewed as a capitalistic, urbanizing, consumption-driven, fashion-conscious 19th-century New England.

Of his neighbors, Thoreau wrote, “By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book” – meaning the Christian Bible – “laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.”

In contrast, his recipe for a good economy is one of “Walden”‘s most famous quotes: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.”

Thoreau’s family operated a flourishing pencil manufacturing business in the 1840s.
University of Florida, CC BY

That was easier said than done, even for Thoreau. When he conceived “Walden,” he was an unemployed, landless idealist. By the time it was published, he lived in a big house that was heated with Appalachian coal, earning income by manufacturing pulverized graphite and surveying for land developers.

Since then, the world’s population has more than quintupled and developed nations have built a global economy approaching US$100 trillion per year. Human impacts on the planet have become so powerful that scientists have coined the term Anthropocene to describe our current epoch.

Finding perspective in solitude

Some Americans have tried at least halfheartedly to follow “Walden”’s idealistic advice by living deliberately, being more self-reliant and shrinking their planetary footprints. Personally, although I’ve downsized my house, walk to work, fly only for funerals and cook virtually every meal from scratch, in my heart I know I’ve also contributed to the world’s swelling population, burn fracked natural gas and am hopelessly embedded in a consumer economy.

Nevertheless, after several weeks of social distancing, I’m rediscovering the value of two of Thoreau’s key points: Solitude is helping me recalibrate what matters most, and the current economic slowdown offers short-term gains and a long-term message for the planet.

These benefits don’t compensate for the incalculable personal losses and grief that COVID-19 is inflicting worldwide. But they are consolation prizes until things stabilize in the new normal. On my daily solitary walk in the woods, I am mindful of Thoreau’s words: “Next to us is not the workman whom we have hired, with whom we love so well to talk, but the workman whose work we are.”

[You need to understand the coronavirus pandemic, and we can help. Read our newsletter.]The Conversation

Robert M. Thorson, Professor of Geology, University of Connecticut

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus has finally made us recognise the illegal wildlife trade is a public health issue


Simon Evans, Anglia Ruskin University

There will be few positives to take from coronavirus. But the global pandemic may yet prove to be an important moment in the attempts to address the illegal wildlife trade.

The media has generally concentrated on effects rather than causes, in particular the global implications for public health and economies. But it is also vital to unravel the timeline of the pandemic and categorically determine its initial cause.

What we do know to date is that the epicentre of the disease was in the Chinese city of Wuhan, an important hub in the lucrative trade in wildlife – both legal and illegal. The outbreak is believed to have originated in a market in which a variety of animal-derived products and meats are widely available, including peacocks, porcupines, bats and rats. It’s also a market where regulatory and welfare standards are rudimentary at best.

Some of this trade is legal under Chinese domestic law but the existence of a parallel illegal trade – often within the very same market or stall – allows some traders to launder illicit wildlife products into the system. This situation is very difficult to regulate and control.

We are also reasonably certain that the spill-over event involved the crossover of the virus from animals to humans, similar to the situation with previous contagions like the Ebola and SARs viruses. In each of these cases, the existence of large, unsanitary and poorly-regulated wildlife markets provided an ideal environment for diseases to cross over between species. In a country like China, where wildlife consumption is
so deeply embedded in culture, such contamination can, and did, spread
rapidly.

The Chinese government has long advocated a “sustainable utilisation” approach to the country’s wildlife. It nonetheless responded to the current crisis by enacting a temporary ban on such markets, effectively closing down a significant sector of its domestic wildlife trade.

Biosecurity, public health and economic impact

In the longer term, the pandemic may provide the impetus to properly address the issue. This is because, while the illegal wildlife trade was once criticised almost purely in terms of conservation, it is now also being considered in relation to broader themes of biosecurity, public health and economic impact.

It is only in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak that the full scale of China’s industry is emerging, with the temporary ban covering some 20,000 captive breeding enterprises and 54 different species allowed to be traded domestically. A report by the Chinese Academy of Engineering estimates the wildlife farming industry is worth around US$57 billion annually. These breeding centres are allowed to operate under loopholes in Chinese domestic law, arguably against the spirit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

The parallel illegal trade is less easy to quantify, but globally it is valued by the UN at around US$23 billion. Given the resulting pandemic could cost as much as US$2.7 trillion, even on purely economic grounds there is a strong case for increased regulation.

There are compelling arguments for dismantling the trade anyway: animals are kept in abject conditions, and the trade hastens their demise in the wild. But in China the temporary ban remains just that – temporary. Critics argue that we have been there before with SARS and once the dust settled on that particular outbreak, China resumed business as usual.

What would seriously tackling the wildlife trade actually mean in practice? First, breeding centres for endangered species like tigers or pangolins would be permanently closed. This would make it much harder for their products to be laundered through legal channels and sold as more valuable “wild-caught”. Enforcement agencies currently need to monitor these centres closely to check against laundering, and shutting them down would free up resources to disrupt the supply of illegal products entering China from outside.

Such a move would also help reduce demand. Public education campaigns tell people about how the wildlife trade (both legal and illegal) harms endangered species, but the message is mixed: the presence of a parallel legal market still provides such products with legitimacy and sends a message that it is OK to purchase them, thereby increasing rather than decreasing demand.

In any case the new Chinese ban excludes products such as tiger bones that are used in traditional medicines. Some conservationists and activists are concerned that this exemption will lead to legalised trade under the assumption that better regulation will protect against future outbreaks. This argument is extremely difficult to validate and most conservationists continue to favour blanket trade bans.

Another worry is that, given humans have short memories, once the danger has passed public concern will turn to the next big problem. COVID-19 clearly represents an unparalleled opportunity to combat the wildlife trade, and ensure that animal-borne diseases do not mutate and cross over to humans. But only time will tell whether this opportunity will be taken or put off once again until the emergence of the next – perhaps even more virulent – pandemic poses an even graver global threat.The Conversation

Simon Evans, Principal Lecturer in Ecotourism, Anglia Ruskin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s wrong to blame bats for the coronavirus epidemic



A small colony of Townsend’s big eared bats at Lava Beds National Monument, Calif.
Shawn Thomas, NPS/Flickr

Peter Alagona, University of California, Santa Barbara

Genomic research showing that the COVID-19 coronavirus likely originated in bats has produced heavy media coverage and widespread concern. There is now danger that frightened people and misguided officials will try to curb the epidemic by culling these remarkable creatures, even though this strategy has failed in the past.

As an environmental historian focusing on endangered species and biological diversity, I know that bats provide valuable services to humans and need protection. Instead of blaming bats for the coronavirus epidemic, I believe it’s important to know more about them. Here’s some background explaining why they carry so many viruses, and why these viruses only jump infrequently to humans – typically, when people hunt bats or intrude into places where bats live.

The challenges of life as a bat

It’s not easy being the world’s only flying mammal. Flying requires a lot of energy, so bats need to consume nutritious foods, such as fruits and insects.

As they forage, bats pollinate around 500 plant species, including mangoes, bananas, guavas and agaves (the source of tequila). Insect-eating bats may consume the equivalent of their body weight in bugs each night – including mosquitoes that carry diseases like Zika, dengue and malaria.

Grey-headed flying fox feeding on flower nectar, Queensland, Australia. Its face is covered with yellow pollen, which it will spread to other flowers.
Andrew Mercer/Wikipedia, CC BY

Bats convert these foods into droppings called guano, which nourish entire ecosystems, have been harvested for centuries as fertilizer, and have been used to make soaps and antibiotics.

Since fruits and insects tend to follow seasonal boom-and-bust cycles, most bats hibernate for long periods, during which their core body temperatures may fall as low as 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius). To conserve warmth, they gather in insulated places like caves, use their wings as blankets and huddle together in colonies.

When fruits ripen and insects hatch, bats wake up and flutter out of their roosts to forage. But now they have a different problem: Flying requires so much energy that their metabolic rates may spike as high as 34 times their resting levels, and their core body temperatures can exceed 104 degrees F.

To stay cool, bats have wings filled with blood vessels that radiate heat. They also lick their fur to simulate sweat and pant like dogs. And they rest during the heat of the day and forage in the cool of night, which makes their ability to navigate by echolocation, or reflected sound, handy.

The Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas, houses the largest urban bat colony in the world.

Diverse and unique

Humans are more closely related to bats than we are to dogs, cows or whales. But bats seem more alien, which can make it harder for people to relate to them.

Bats are the most unusual of the world’s 26 mammal orders, or large groups, such as rodents and carnivores. They are the only land mammals that navigate by echolocation, and the only mammals capable of true flight.

Many bats are small and have rapid metabolisms, but they reproduce slowly and live long lives. That’s more typical of large animals like sharks and elephants.

And a bat’s internal body temperatures can fluctuate by more than 60 degrees Fahrenheit in response to external conditions. This is more typical of cold-blooded animals that take on the temperature of their surroundings, like turtles and lizards.

Bats carry a range of viruses that can sicken other mammals when they jump species. These include at least 200 coronaviruses, some of which cause human respiratory diseases like SARS and MERS. Bats also host several filoviruses, including some that in humans manifest as deadly hemorrhagic fevers like Marburg and probably even Ebola.

Normally, these viruses remain hidden in bats’ bodies and ecosystems without harming humans. People raise the risk of transmission between species when they encroach on bats’ habitats or harvest bats for medicine or food. In particular, humans pack live bats into unsanitary conditions with other wild species that may serve as intermediate hosts. This is what happened at the Wuhan wet market where many experts believe COVID-19 emerged.

With a few exceptions, such as rabies, bats host their pathogens without getting sick. Recent media coverage attempting to explain this riddle has focused on a 2019 study suggesting that bats carry a gene mutation, which may enable them to remain healthy while harboring such viruses. But while the mutation may be of interest from a public health perspective, understanding where this novel coronavirus came from requires understanding what makes a bat a bat.

The blood vessels in bats’ wings (shown: fruit bats, Northern Territory, Australia) radiate some of the heat they generate while flying.
shellac/Flickr, CC BY

Why do bats carry so many diseases but seem unaffected by them? Genetic mutations that boost their immune systems may help. But a better answer is that bats are the only mammals that fly.

With thousands of bats crowded together licking, breathing and pooping on one another, bat caves are ideal environments for breeding and transmitting germs. But when bats fly, they generate so much internal heat that, according to many scientists, their bodies are able to fight off the germs they carry. This is known as the “flight as fever hypothesis.”

Bats at risk

Bats may not always be around to eat insect pests, pollinate fruit crops and provide fertilizer. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Bat Conservation International, at least 24 bat species are critically endangered, and 104 are vulnerable to extinction. For at least 224 additional bat species, scientists lack the data to know their status.

Overharvesting, persecution and habitat loss are the greatest threats that bats face, but they also suffer from their own novel diseases. Since it was first documented in upstate New York in 2007, the fungal pathogen Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), which causes white-nose syndrome, has infected 13 North American bat species, including two listed as endangered.

Nobody knows where Pd came from, but the fact that several bat species seem never to have encountered it before suggests that people probably introduced or spread it. The fungus thrives in cool, damp places like caves. It grows on bats while they’re hibernating, causing such irritation that they become restless, wasting precious energy during seasons when little food is available. White-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats, including more than 90% of the bats in some populations.

Bats are extraordinary creatures that benefit people in myriad ways, and our world would be a poorer, duller and more dangerous place without them. They need protection from the cruel treatment and wasteful exploitation that also threatens human health.

[Our newsletter explains what’s going on with the coronavirus pandemic. Subscribe now.]The Conversation

Peter Alagona, Associate Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Here’s what the coronavirus pandemic can teach us about tackling climate change


Natasha Chassagne, University of Tasmania

Every aspect of our lives has been affected by the coronavirus. The global economy has slowed, people have retreated to their homes and thousands have died or become seriously ill.

At this frightening stage of the crisis, it’s difficult to focus on anything else. But as the International Agency has said, the effects of coronavirus are likely to be temporary but the other global emergency – climate change – is not.

Stopping the spread of coronavirus is paramount, but climate action must also continue. And we can draw many lessons and opportunities from the current health crisis when tackling planetary warming.

Action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must not be compromised by the coronavirus pandemic.
EPA/MAST IRHAM

A ‘degrowing’ economy

S&P Global Ratings this week said measures to contain COVID-19 have pushed the global economy into recession.

Economic analyst Lauri Myllyvirta estimates the pandemic may have reduced global emissions by 200 megatonnes of carbon dioxide to date, as air travel grinds to a halt, factories close down and energy demand falls.

In the first four weeks of the pandemic, coal consumption in China alone fell by 36%, and oil refining capacity reduced by 34%.

In many ways, what we’re seeing now is a rapid and unplanned version of economic “degrowth” – the transition some academics and activists have for decades said is necessary to address climate change, and leave a habitable planet for future generations.




Read more:
Life in a ‘degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it


Degrowth is a proposed slowing of growth in sectors that damage the environment, such as fossil fuel industries, until the economy operates within Earth’s limits. It is a voluntary, planned and equitable transition in developed nations which necessarily involves an increased focus on the environment, human well-being, and capabilities (good health, decent work, education, and a safe and healthy environment).

Such a transformation would be profound, and so far no nation has shown the will to implement it. It would require global economies to “decouple” from carbon to prevent climate-related crises. But the current unintended economic slowdown opens the door to such a transition, which would bring myriad benefits to the climate.

The idea of sustainable degrowth is very different to a recession. It involves scaling back environmentally damaging sectors of the economy, and strengthening others.

Reduced air travel is helping drive global emissions down.
James Gourley/AAP

A tale of two emergencies

Climate change has been declared a global emergency, yet to date the world has largely failed to address it. In contrast, the global policy response to the coronavirus emergency has been fast and furious.

There are several reasons for this dramatic difference. Climate change is a relatively slow-moving crisis, whereas coronavirus visibly escalates over days, even hours, increasing our perception of the risks involved. One thing that history teaches us about politics and the human condition in times of peril, we often take a “crisis management” approach to dealing with serious threats.




Read more:
How changes brought on by coronavirus could help tackle climate change


As others have observed, the slow increase in global temperatures means humans can psychologically adjust as the situation worsens, making the problem seem less urgent and meaning people are less willing to accept drastic policy measures.

The human ability to adapt to climate change can make it seem less urgent.
CHAMILA KARUNARATHNE/EPA

Key lessons from coronavirus

The global response to the coronavirus crisis shows that governments can take immediate, radical emergency measures, which go beyond purely economic concerns, to protect the well-being of all.

Specifically, there are practical lessons and opportunities we can take away from the coronavirus emergency as we seek to tackle climate change:

Act early: The coronavirus pandemic shows the crucial importance of early action to prevent catastrophic consequences. Governments in Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore acted quickly to implement quarantine and screening measures, and have seen relatively small numbers of infections. Italy, on the other hand, whose government waited too long to act, is now the epicentre of the virus.




Read more:
Running out of things to do in isolation? Get back in the garden with these ideas from 4 experts


Go slow, go local: Coronavirus has forced an immediate scale-down of how we travel and live. People are forging local connections, shopping locally, working from home and limiting consumption to what they need.

Researchers have identified that fears about personal well-being represent a major barrier to political support for the degrowth movement to date. However with social distancing expected to be in place for months, our scaled-down lives may become the “new normal”. Many people may realise that consumption and personal well-being are not inextricably linked.

Stimulus spending should be directed to clean energy.
EPA

New economic thinking is needed. A transition to sustainable degrowth can help. We need to shift global attention from GDP as an indicator of well-being, towards other measures that put people and the environment first, such as New Zealand’s well-being budget, Bhutan’s gross national happiness index, or Ecuador’s social philosophy of buen vivir (good living).

Spend on clean energy: The International Energy Agency (IEA) says clean energy should be “at the heart of stimulus plans to counter the coronavirus crisis”.

The IEA has called on governments to launch sustainable stimulus packages focused on clean energy technologies. It says hydrogen and carbon-capture also need major investment to bring them to scale, which could be helped by the current low interest rates.

Governments could also use coronavirus stimulus packages to reskill workers to service the new “green” economy, and address challenges in healthcare, sanitation, aged care, food security and education.

More people are shopping locally during the pandemic.
AAP/STEFAN POSTLES

Looking ahead

As climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe said this month:

What really matters is the same for all of us. It’s the health and safety of our friends, our family, our loved ones, our communities, our cities and our country. That’s what the coronavirus threatens, and that’s exactly what climate change does, too.

The coronavirus crisis is devastating, but failing to tackle climate change because of the pandemic only compounds the tragedy. Instead, we must draw on the lessons of coronavirus to address the climate challenge.The Conversation

Natasha Chassagne, University Associate, University of Tasmania, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How changes brought on by coronavirus could help tackle climate change



David Sasaki/Flickr

Glen Peters, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo

Stock markets around the world had some of their worst performance in decades this past week, well surpassing that of the global financial crisis in 2008. Restrictions in the free movement of people is disrupting economic activity across the world as measures to control the coronavirus roll out.

There is a strong link between economic activity and global carbon dioxide emissions, due to the dominance of fossil fuel sources of energy. This coupling suggests we might be in for an unexpected surprise due to the coronavirus pandemic: a slowdown of carbon dioxide emissions due to reduced energy consumption.




Read more:
‘Cabin fever’: Australia must prepare for the social and psychological impacts of a coronavirus lockdown


Based on new projections for economic growth in 2020, we suggest the impact of the coronavirus might significantly curb global emissions.

The effect is likely to be less pronounced than during the global financial crisis (GFC). And emissions declines in response to past economic crises suggest a rapid recovery of emissions when the pandemic is over.

But prudent spending of economic stimulus measures, and a permanent adoption of new work behaviours, could influence how emissions evolve in future.

Global fossil CO2 emissions (vertical axis) have grown together with economic activity (horizontal axis) over extended periods of time.
Glen Peters/CICERO

The world in crisis

In just a few short months, millions of people have been put into quarantine and regions locked down to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Around the world events are being cancelled and travel plans dropped. A growing number of universities, schools and workplaces have closed and some workers are choosing to work from home if they can.

Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has cancelled a critically important meeting and will instead hold it virtually.

The International Energy Agency had already predicted oil use would drop in 2020, and this was before an oil price war emerged between Saudi Arabia and Russia.




Read more:
The emissions rebound after the GFC: why greenhouse gases went up in 2010


The unprecedented coronavirus lockdown in China led to an estimated 25% reduction in energy use and emissions over a two-week period compared to previous years (mostly due to a drop in electricity use, industrial production and transport). This is enough to shave one percentage point growth off China’s emissions in 2020. Reductions are also being observed in Italy, and are likely to spread across Europe as lockdowns become more widespread.

The emission-intensive airline industry, covering 2.6% of global carbon dioxide emissions (both national and international), is in freefall. It may take months, if not years, for people to return to air travel given that coronavirus may linger for several seasons.

Given these economic upheavals, it is becoming increasingly likely that global carbon dioxide emissions will drop in 2020.

Global air travel is down significantly as a result of the pandemic.
Andy Rain/EPA

Coronavirus is not the GFC

Leading authorities have revised down economic forecasts as a result of the pandemic, but so far forecasts still indicate the global economy will grow in 2020. For example, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) downgraded estimates of global growth in 2020 from 3% (made in November 2019) to 2.4% (made in March 2020). The International Monetary Fund has indicated similar declines, with an update due next month.

Assuming the carbon efficiency of the global economy improves in line with the 10-year average of 2.5% per year, the OECD’s post-coronavirus growth projection implies carbon dioxide emissions may decline 0.3% in 2020 (including a leap year adjustment).

But the GFC experience indicates that the carbon efficiency of the global economy may improve much more slowly during a crisis. If this happens in 2020 because of the coronavirus, carbon dioxide emissions still could grow.

A decomposition of CO2 emissions growth into economic growth (orange) and carbon efficiency improvements (green) to estimate future emissions based on OECD economic growth projections.
Glen Peters/CICERO

Under the worst-case OECD forecast the global economy in 2020 could grow as little as 1.5%. All else equal, we calculate this would lead to a 1.2% decline in carbon dioxide emissions in 2020.

This drop is comparable to the GFC, which in 2009 led to a 0.1% drop in global GDP and a 1.2% drop in emissions. So far, neither the OECD or International Monetary Fund have suggested coronavirus will take global GDP into the red.

The emissions rebound

The GFC prompted big, swift stimulus packages from governments around the world, leading to a 5.1% rebound in global emissions in 2010, well above the long-term average.

Previous financial shocks, such as the collapse of the former Soviet Union or the 1970s and 1980s oil crises, also had periods with lower or negative growth, but growth soon returned. At best, a financial crisis delays emissions growth a few years. Structural changes may happen, such as the shift to nuclear energy after the oil crises, but evidence suggests emissions continue to grow.

Global fossil CO2 emissions (in Gigatons or billions of tonnes of CO2) and carbon intensity of world Gross Domestic Product (grams of CO2 per $US, 2000), with the most important financial crises.
Global Carbon Project

The economic legacy of the coronavirus might also be very different to the GFC. It looks more like a slow burner, with a drop in productivity over an extended period rather than widespread job losses in the short term.

Looking to the future

The coronavirus pandemic will not turn around the long-term upward trend in global emissions. But governments around the world are announcing economic stimulus measures, and they way they’re spent may affect how emissions evolve in future.

There is an opportunity to invest the stimulus money in structural changes leading to reduced emissions after economic growth returns, such as further development of clean technologies.

Also, the coronavirus has forced new working-from-home habits that limit commuting, and a broader adoption of online meetings to reduce the need for long-haul business flights. This raises the prospect of long-term emissions reductions should these new work behaviours persist beyond the current global emergency.




Read more:
Coronavirus and COVID-19: your questions answered by virus experts


The coronavirus is, of course, an international crisis, and a personal tragedy for those who have lost, and will lose, loved ones. But with good planning, 2020 could be the year that global emissions peak (though the same was said after the GFC).

That said, past economic shocks might not be a great analogue for the coronavirus pandemic, which is unprecedented in modern human history and has a long way to go.The Conversation

Glen Peters, Research Director, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

You’re not the only one feeling helpless. Eco-anxiety can reach far beyond bushfire communities



Rolling images and stories of bushfire devastation can take a toll.
From shutterstock.com

Fiona Charlson, The University of Queensland and James Graham Scott, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

You’re scrolling through your phone and transfixed by yet more images of streets reduced to burnt debris, injured wildlife, and maps showing the scale of the fires continuing to burn. On the television in the background, a woman who has lost her home breaks down, while news of another life lost flashes across the screen.

You can’t bear to watch anymore, but at the same time, you can’t tear yourself away. Sound familiar?

We’ve now been confronted with these tragic images and stories for months. Even if you haven’t been directly affected by the bushfires, it’s completely normal to feel sad, helpless, and even anxious.

Beyond despairing about the devastation so many Australians are facing, some of these emotions are likely to be symptoms of “eco-anxiety”.




Read more:
The rise of ‘eco-anxiety’: climate change affects our mental health, too


If you’re feeling down, you’re not alone

Research on previous bushfire disasters shows people directly affected are more likely to suffer mental health consequences than those who have not been directly affected.

After Black Saturday, about one in five people living in highly affected communities experienced persistent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or psychological distress.

Recognising this as a critical issue, the Australian government has announced funding to deliver mental health support to affected people and communities.

But living in an unaffected area doesn’t mean you’re immune. In addition to contending with rolling images and stories of devastation, we’ve seen flow-on effects of the bushfires reach far beyond affected areas.

For example, schools and workplaces have been closed, people have been forced to cancel their summer holidays, and sports matches and community events have been called off. This disruption to normal activities can result in uncertainty and distress, particularly for children and young people.

What is eco-anxiety?

Distress around the current fires may be compounded by – and intertwined with – a pervasive sense of fear and anxiety in relation to climate change-related events.

The American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.

While concern and anxiety around climate change are normal, eco-anxiety describes a state of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale, complexity and seriousness of the problems we’re facing. It can be accompanied by guilt for personal contributions to the problem.




Read more:
Rising eco-anxiety means we should address mental health alongside food security


The Australian bushfires may have signalled a “tipping point” for many people who held a passive attitude towards climate change, and even many who have held a more active view of climate denialism. In the face of current circumstances, the crisis of climate change now becomes almost impossible to ignore.

While eco-anxiety is not a diagnosable mental disorder, it can have significant impacts on a person’s well-being.

Whether you think you’re suffering from eco-anxiety or more general stress and depression about the bushfires, here are some things you can do.

We’re pretty resilient, but support helps

We’re now living with the environmental consequences of a changing climate, and this requires people to adapt. Fortunately, most of us are innately resilient and are able to overcome stress and losses and to live with uncertainty.

We can enhance this resilience by connecting with friends and family and positively engaging in our communities. Making healthy choices around things like diet, exercise and sleep can also help.

Further, supporting those who are vulnerable has benefits for both the person giving and receiving assistance. For example, parents have a critical role in listening to their children’s concerns and providing appropriate guidance.




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Become part of the solution

Seeking to reduce your own carbon footprint can help alleviate feelings of guilt and helplessness – in addition to the positive difference these small actions make to the environment.

This might include walking, cycling and taking public transport to get around, and making sustainability a factor in day-to-day decisions like what you buy and what you eat.

Seeking support from friends and family can help.
From shutterstock.com

Joining one of the many groups advocating for the environment also provides a voice for people concerned about the changing climate.

Finally, there are many ways you can provide assistance to bushfire relief efforts. The generosity shown by Australians and others internationally has provided a sense of hope at a time when many are facing enormous hardship.

Seeking professional help

Some people, particularly those living with unrelated psychological distress, will find it harder to adapt to increased stress. Where their emotional resources are already depleted, it becomes more difficult to accommodate change.

Although we don’t yet have research on this, it’s likely people with pre-existing mental health problems will be more vulnerable to eco-anxiety.

If this is you, it’s worthwhile seeking professional help if you feel your mental health is deteriorating at this time.




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Whether or not you have a pre-existing mental health disorder, if you’re feeling depressed or anxious to a degree it’s affecting your work, education or social functioning, you should seek advice from a health professional.

Evidence-based psychological interventions like cognitive behavioural therapy reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, improving mental health and well-being.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.The Conversation

Fiona Charlson, Conjoint NHMRC Early Career Fellow, The University of Queensland and James Graham Scott, Professor of Psychiatry and Head of Mental Health, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Biodiversity and our brains: how ecology and mental health go together in our cities


Zoe Myers, University of Western Australia

Mental health in our cities is an increasingly urgent issue. Rates of disorders such as anxiety and depression are high. Urban design and planning can promote mental health by refocusing on spaces we use in our everyday lives in light of what research tells us about the benefits of exposure to nature and biodiversity.

Mental health issues have many causes. However, the changing and unpredictable elements of our physical and sensory environments have a profound impact on risk, experiences and recovery.




Read more:
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Physical activity is still the mainstay of urban planning efforts to enable healthy behaviours. Mental well-being is then a hoped-for byproduct of opportunities for exercise and social interaction.

Neuroscientific research and tools now allow us to examine more deeply some of the ways in which individuals experience spaces and natural elements. This knowledge can greatly add to, and shift, the priorities and direction of urban design and planning.

What do we mean by ‘nature’?

A large body of research has compellingly shown that “nature” in its many forms and contexts can have direct benefits on mental health. Unfortunately, the extent and diversity of natural habitats in our cities are decreasing rapidly.

Too often “nature” – by way of green space and “POS” (Public Open Space) – is still seen as something separate from other parts of our urban neighbourhoods. Regeneration efforts often focus on large green corridors. But even small patches of genuinely biodiverse nature can re-invite and sustain multitudes of plant and animal species, as urban ecologists have shown.




Read more:
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An urban orchard in Perth.
Zoe Myers

It has also been widely demonstrated that nature does not effect us in uniform or universal ways. Sometimes it can be confronting or dangerous. That is particularly true if nature is isolated or uninviting, or has unwritten rules around who should be there or what activities are appropriate.

These factors complicate the desire for a “nature pill” to treat urban ills.

We need to be far more specific about what “nature” we are talking about in design and planning to assist with mental health.




Read more:
Increasing tree cover may be like a ‘superfood’ for community mental health


Why does biodiversity matter?

The exponential accessibility and affordability of lab and mobile technologies, such as fMRI and EEG measuring brain activity, have vastly widened the scope of studies of mental health and nature. Researchers are able, for example, to analyse responses to images of urban streetscapes versus forests. They can also track people’s perceptions “on the move”.

Research shows us biodiverse nature has particular positive benefit for mental well-being. Multi-sensory elements such as bird or frog sounds or wildflower smells have well-documented beneficial effects on mental restoration, calm and creativity.

Other senses – such as our sense of ourselves in space, our balance and equilibrium and temperature – can also contribute to us feeling restored by nature.

Acknowledging the crucial role all these senses play shifts the focus of urban design and planning from visual aesthetics and functional activity to how we experience natural spaces. This is particularly important in ensuring we create places for people of all abilities, mobilities and neurodiversities.

Neuroscientific research also shows an “enriched” environment – one with multiple diverse elements of interest – can prompt movement and engagement. This helps keep our brains cognitively healthy, and us happier.




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Reducing stress at work is a walk in the park


Beyond brain imaging of experiences in nature, there is growing and compelling evidence that contact with diverse microbiomes in the soil and air has a profound effect on depression and anxiety. Increasing our interaction with natural elements through touch – literally getting dirt under our nails – is both psychologically therapeutic and neurologically nourishing.

We also have increasing evidence that air, noise and soil pollution increase risk of mental health disorders in cities.

What does this mean for urban neighbourhoods?

These converging illustrations suggest biodiverse urban nature is a priority for promoting mental health. Our job as designers and planners is therefore to multiply opportunities to interact with these areas in tangible ways.

A residential street in Perth.
Zoe Myers

The concept of “biophilia” isn’t new. But a focus on incidental and authentic biodiversity helps us apply this very broad, at times unwieldy and non-contextual, concept to the local environment. This grounds efforts in real-time, achievable interventions.

Using novel technologies and interdisciplinary research expands our understanding of the ways our environments affect our mental well-being. This knowledge challenges the standardised planning of nature spaces and monocultured plantings in our cities. Neuroscience can therefore support urban designers and planners in allowing for more flexibility and authenticity of nature in urban areas.

Neuroscientific evidence of our sensory encounters with biodiverse nature points us towards the ultimate win-win (-win) for ecology, mental health and cities.


Dr Zoe Myers is the author of Wildness and Wellbeing: Nature, Neuroscience, and Urban Designn (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).The Conversation

Zoe Myers, Lecturer, Australian Urban Design Research Centre, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.