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The ‘anthropause’ is upon us: What now?

/ 05:10 AM September 13, 2020

Mount Makiling is still temporarily closed. These are the exact words on the Facebook page of the largest natural forest reserve closest to Metro Manila. The closure is part of the University of the Philippines Los Baños’ response to COVID-19. Perhaps because of this cessation of human activities, residents in the surrounding villages report that they see a higher number of bird species.

What is happening in our backyard is actually being replicated on a global scale because of the pandemic. Researchers Rutz and coworkers (2020) in a newly published paper coined the term “anthropause” to describe the considerable global slowing of human activities that we now experience. Their research focused on the effects of the COVID-19 restrictions on wildlife species. But we can expand the concept to include the impacts of a lessened human activity on other aspects of the natural environment.

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On the positive side, such cessation of human influence can help natural systems to recover, albeit briefly. Plants and animals can grow and reproduce unhampered in our forests and water ecosystems. For example, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources reported increased sightings of endangered wildlife such as raptors in some parts of the country. The air in Metro Manila and other urban centers was cleaner than before the pandemic, at least for a few months. On a planetary scale, greenhouse gas emissions fell by up to 30 percent for a few weeks. Overall, the pandemic has provided nature some breathing space to recover from human pressure. The effect is akin to the age-old practice of resting or “fallowing” the land. Admittedly, all of the above are temporary and the jury is still out on whether there will be lasting effects.

At the same time, the pandemic may also have negative consequences on the environment. Reduced livelihood opportunities may lead to over-exploitation of natural resources such as forests and fishing grounds. Illegal wildlife trade may go under the radar as state actors occupy themselves with surviving the pandemic and assisting those affected by it. Experts have also predicted that lower greenhouse emissions will be temporary and will have little effect in arresting global warming. Indeed, there are reports that emissions have gradually picked up in recent months.

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The “anthropause” allows us to assess and recalibrate our relationship to our natural environment. For the science community, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study how humans affect natural systems and how we can be better stewards of them. Decision-makers have some space to think through policies and programs with less “noise” around them. Individuals and organizations may be more receptive to changing their ways to lower their footprint on the environment. For example, the pandemic forced government offices and private corporations to experiment on ways by which many of their staff can work from home. The continuation of this arrangement even at a far lower level could have huge impacts on environmental conservation and our quality of life.

This temporary hiatus will hopefully be over soon as the COVID-19 virus is finally corralled. In the meantime, let us stop to digest what lessons we can draw from the “great pause.” Even better, let us make permanent those changes in our lifestyle that reduce pressure on our natural environment.

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Dr. Rodel Lasco is a member of the National Panel of Technical Experts of the Climate Change Commission. He is the executive director of The OML Center, a foundation devoted to discovering climate change adaptation solutions (http://www.omlopezcenter.org/)

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