If you think Covid-19 is making Nature heal itself, then Genghis Khan was the greenest ruler ever

Everyone loves a good story on the eco-friendly side effects of a pandemic. It doesn’t matter if the story is made up.

WrittenBy:TR Vivek
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For many years, I have had in my living room a set of pencil sketches of some well-known landmarks of Chennai, and a sepia photograph from 1890 of what was then the city’s central business district, Parry’s Corner. The sketch of a traffic signal, with the splendid 16th century Santhome church in the background, drawn sometime in the late 1990s, takes me down the proverbial memory lane. I once lived not very far from the spot, and almost every evening of a few happy years was spent playing cricket on the beach to the back of the church.

The photograph, however, offers something more than nostalgia.

Taken from the now defunct lighthouse located in the precincts of the city’s high court, the picture depicts large art deco buildings, a lone pushcart on the otherwise empty Broadway, the Beach railway station, a handful of ships, and plenty of fishing boats docked at the harbour. Parry’s was one of my favourite parts of the city I consider home. The plentitude of its wholesale markets provided brief visual relief at a time when shortage was perennial. Parry’s Corner has many charms; its chaos isn’t among them. Looking at the photograph is like sitting on a wayback machine to glimpse order that almost seems mythically pastoral.

Perhaps I’m a sucker for the saudade it serves up.

“Saudade”, pronounced “sauda-jey” by Brazilians, is a wonderful contribution of the Portuguese language to the lexicon of human emotions. It is hard to translate in English with no direct equivalent. Portuguese writers variously describe it as a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist; a desire for something made painful by its absence; or the presence of absence of someone, some place, or something. Manuel de Mello, a 17th century Portuguese writer, defined saudade as a pleasure you suffer and an ailment you enjoy. The theme has had a significant influence on 20th century Portuguese literature and Brazilian music.

Now, in the time of a global pandemic, the whole world seems to be sloshing about in a sea of saudade.

A pristine past

During the lockdown to contain the Covid-19 outbreak, among the most popular categories of curiosities is “Nature healing itself”. Every day brings viral stories and images — some real, several fake — of Nature reverting to her pristine glory in the absence of human meddling for over two months. We are told the air is so clean that snowclad Himalayan peaks are visible from distant plains; the lockdown has managed to do to the Ganga what gargantuan government schemes to clean it up couldn’t; the Yamuna’s waters have turned turquoise; the Cauvery, usually bone-dry by this time of the year, flows unfettered and clean; nilgais graze the landscaped lawns leading up to Delhi’s airport; tigers roam coffee estates of Kodagu where none were thought to exist; and at the rate at which Nature is healing itself, we might perhaps wake up to twice the tiger population by the time the lockdown is lifted.

Such stories have become wildly popular and not just because they offer a fleeting moment of cheer. Our saudade-filled view of the ecological past has miraculously turned into reality.

Who needs a time machine when we’ve got Covid-19?

The stories celebrate an act of Nature temporarily defeating the faceless and distant villains: the wretched industries that pour poison into our rivers, greedy farmers who pump the earth with fertilisers and pesticides, and governments that do nothing about it. There’s a desire to somehow hang on to the ecological gains when the economic engine begins to rev up once again.

To conveniently forget the fact that we are the traffic in the jam is, perhaps, a form of saudade. As desiring machines, it is we who seek cheaper goods in ever greater quantities that cannot be produced without turning rivers into sewers or cities into gas chambers.

“The story is attractive because it absolves us of responsibility. It’s quite comforting to think that all we only need to do is a couple of small things like deal with industrial pollution and Nature will fix itself,” said Sharachchandra Lele, a distinguished fellow in environmental policy and governance at the Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.

He added: “We can forget things like poor urban planning, sand mining, or the damage done by dams. It is like a Marathi saying that goes, ‘a person can turn yellow if you give them a pinch of turmeric’. Also, in the middle class imagination, it has no role to play in industrial pollution.”

Seen, unseen, Anthropocene

Our influence on the environment has produced changes that have dangerously eroded basic life support systems for humans and several other species, exceeding what many scientists call the “safe operating limits for humanity”. For quite some time, we have been living on borrowed earth, using more planet than is available to us.

The present historical moment is considered unusual enough for some scientists to come up with a new geological epoch called Anthropocene, wherein human domination of the earth’s ecosystems since the industrial revolution has made human activity into a geological process. According to Bill McKibben, a leading environmental activist who was awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2013, the Anthropocene transformation is the biggest thing human beings have ever done.

While the International Union of Geological Studies, geology’s apex body, has not ratified Anthropocene as an epoch, even its proponents are often divided as to when it begins. The consensus seems to be veering towards the period of “great acceleration” post World War II.

None of this is news. Yet, the attractions of half-truths about Nature healing itself are compelling. Taken at face value, to witness first-hand the positive effects of human inaction is a great novelty. Also, a giant problem suddenly appears eminently solvable with Nature herself shepherding us to the sunlit uplands during the lockdown.

Call it naive or self-fulfilling, such views of Nature hinder our ability to understand her complexities and tailor our responses towards conservation.

In a 2014 paper titled “Placing Asia in the Anthropocene” published in the Journal of Asian Studies, Mark Hudson, an anthropologist who now teaches at the Max Planck Institute, wrote that in Japan, for example, Nature meant cherry blossoms, the changing seasons, and frogs jumping into ponds.

“Such idealised views of Nature found in Japan and other Asian nations have always been ambiguous...Our growing scientific ability to see and measure nature has shown that it is a much messier and uncannier thing than ever imagined,” he wrote.

Given the complexities of the natural world, the thrilling images of Nature’s healing raises several questions. What is the capacity of Nature to heal itself? Is the shrinking of human activity, albeit on a global scale, significant enough to even register a blip on the earth’s radar screen?

Healer dealers

To begin with, most of the accounts of healing, other than those related to air quality, are anecdotal, vastly exaggerated, and in some instances, totally cooked up.

This piece on the Cauvery, for instance, that was widely shared and had even gone viral in “green” circles, made the staggering claim — based on little more than casual speculation — that the lockdown had resulted the river regaining its “natural colour, purity and flow the way it used to be for centuries”. ATREE’s Lele described the piece as an attempt to make a revivalist argument based on poor science and poor social science when Mysuru and Bengaluru’s sewage and pesticides from the hill plantations of Kodagu, the birthplace of the Cauvery, continue flowing into her untreated.

In the case of major Indian rivers, currently we have a somewhat detailed scientific analysis of the impact of the lockdown only for the Ganga. The Central Pollution Control Board’s comparative assessment of pollution levels before and four weeks after the lockdown, with data from 36 stations along the Ganga and its tributaries and drains, found little or marginal improvement in the river’s water quality. In the fourth week of the lockdown, the dissolved oxygen levels in every station in Uttar Pradesh was lower than pre-lockdown.

In West Bengal, only two out of five stations recorded higher dissolved oxygen levels in Week 4. Dissolved oxygen is the amount of oxygen available to living aquatic organisms. Higher dissolved oxygen indicates better water quality. Ammoniacal nitrogen, a pollutant, uniformly went up. Most parameters except nitrate levels, which decreased marginally in Uttar Pradesh but went up in Bengal, either showed a deterioration or insignificant change during the lockdown.

The limited effect of the lockdown on the Ganga is illustrated by the fact that industrial discharge accounts for only nine percent of the waste that flows into the river. Of the 3,500 million litres of domestic sewage pouring into the river every day, nearly 70 percent is untreated.

But the truth that Ganga is as ill as she was when we last met her was too banal for the media. With the notable exception of the Hindu, most others offered an overwhelmingly positive spin while reporting on the CPCB’s findings.

The Times of India declared: “CPCB report scientifically validated what have been visible [sic] in river Ganga during the lockdown period. India’s national river has, indeed, become cleaner — clean enough to support aquatic life and allow you to take a dip without facing health risk.”

The Hindustan Times took the hyperbole a notch higher: “Lockdown does what decades of schemes couldn’t: Clean Ganga.”

Livemint said : “A significant drop in industrial wastewater discharges and agricultural run-offs amid the lockdown, in place since 25 March, has breathed fresh life into the otherwise polluted Ganga, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has said in its post-lockdown analysis of the river water quality.” The CPCB said no such thing in its report.

Down To Earth, published by the Centre for Science and Environment, usually hard to impress on ecological matters, was also bitten by the coronavirus-healing bug. A piece headlined “Covid-19 Lockdown: A ventilator for rivers”, published on Down To Earth’s website described coronavirus as the “earth’s vaccine” and billed the “remarkably improved Ganga during the lockdown period” as Covid-19’s “gift to the river”.

Death of man, redemption of earth

If Covid-19 is the earth’s vaccine, Genghis Khan must be its greatest surgeon.

In the debate about the Anthropocene’s origins, most scientists consider the industrial revolution as a good starting point, given the large-scale use of coal, oil and gas. But several contend that it might be a misconception. What of the thousands of years of human influence on the environment due to clearing of the forests for agriculture?

The rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide resulting from deforestation is recognisable in ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica even before the fossil-fuel era. But human history has had its ups and downs. During high-mortality events, such as wars and pandemics, large areas of croplands and pastures have been abandoned and forests have re-grown, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In the last millennium, there have been time periods broadly coinciding with mass depopulations events when carbon dioxide levels went down conspicuously.

In 2011, to understand the effect of such events on carbon dioxide levels, researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s department of global ecology, led by Julia Pongratz, reconstructed the global land cover over the time period since 800 AD and used a global climate-carbon cycle model to track the impact of land use changes on global climate.

Pongratz was particularly interested in four major events in which large regions were depopulated: the Mongol invasions in Asia (1200-1380), the Black Death in Europe (1347-1400), the conquest of the Americas (1519-1700), and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty in China (1600-1650) in the wake of the Manchu attacks.

The Black Death, a devastating global pandemic of bubonic plague, is estimated to have killed 20 million people in Europe — almost a third of its population — in just five years. The European colonisation of the Americas is thought to have wiped out 90 percent of the native population.

The study found that during short events such as the Black Death and the Ming Dynasty collapse, when nearly 25 million people are estimated to have died, the forest regrowth wasn’t enough to overcome the emissions from decaying material in the soil.

But the Mongol invasion of Asia and eastern Europe led by Genghis Khan had by far the biggest impact of the four events the researchers studied. Estimates of deaths during the period range from 25 million to 70 million. Forests reclaimed vast tracts of depopulated land. The study found that this cycle of Nature’s “healing” resulted in the new forests absorbing nearly 700 million tonnes of carbon, or roughly as much as the annual demand for petroleum in 2011.

Surely, that would make Genghis Khan the greenest ruler of all time.

However, despite Khan’s efforts, the healing was rather tiny in the larger scheme of things. The reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide between 1,200-1,380 was a mere three parts per million. In the last one year it has risen by 4.85 ppm.

Could coronavirus turn out to be more ecofriendly than the Great Khan? One wouldn’t bet against reading about it in the Indian press.


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