Anthropology Magazine
Podcast S3 E2 | 16 min

Could the Coronavirus Pandemic Be Good for the Environment?

29 May 2020
Archaeological research into environmental impacts of the Black Death in Eurasia and historic pandemics among Native Americans during European colonization may provide answers to possible impacts of the COVID-19 crisis.

SAPIENS host Chip Colwell interviews Elic Weitzel, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Connecticut, about his recent article for SAPIENS that considers how the global pandemic may impact climate change—for better or for worse.

Elic Weitzel is currently working on his dissertation on the environmental effects of the Black Death in 14th-century Eurasia and the depopulation of Native Americans in the wake of European colonization. Read his SAPIENS article: “Are Pandemics Good for the Environment?

Read a transcript of this episode

Chip Colwell: Welcome to SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human. I’m Chip Colwell. This episode we’re doing something a little different. If you’re a regular listener—as I hope you are—then you know that most of our shows are deep dives into the world of anthropology. But this season, we’re going viral—focusing on the pandemic. And the crisis is moving so swiftly, we wanted the podcast to move swiftly too. Don’t worry, if you love the deep dives, we’re still working on those. But this episode, we’re taking a quick dip.

[intro music]

Chip: Here at my home in Denver, if I stand at my front window and look through the branches of some trees in the distance, I can just make out the blue shoulder of the Rocky Mountains. The view has never seemed clearer. Yet I’m not alone in enjoying the clean air. Many have noted the haze of pollution receding from the skylines of Los Angeles, New Delhi, Tokyo, London. Apparently, Mt. Everest is visible from Kathmandu—200 km away—for the first time in decades. COVID-19 has raised the specter of an uncomfortable question: Are pandemics good for the environment?

Elic Weitzel: No, they are not.

Chip: That was very to the point. I like that. [laughing]

Elic: It’s a pretty clear answer in my mind.

Chip: Elic Weitzel is uniquely positioned to answer that troubling question. He’s a Ph.D. candidate in the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, where he is writing a dissertation on the environmental effects of the Black Death on 14th-century Eurasia and the depopulation of Native Americans in the wake of European colonization. In the magazine, Elic argued that archaeological research shows there is an intimate relationship between people and the environments they depend on—and yet fewer people do not always equal better, healthier environments. Elic, welcome to the SAPIENS podcast. How are you doing?

Elic: Hi, Chip. Thanks for having me. I’m doing good.

Chip: Let’s start with the mass outbreaks of disease that devastated Indigenous peoples in North America following European colonization. Can you share with us your work in this area?

Elic: Sure, so, my research is still ongoing with my dissertation. But specifically, I am interested in how various aspects of the environment here in New England rebounded during the 17th century in the wake of European colonization and the mass mortality from epidemics that they introduced. Specifically, I’m interested in reforestation, the idea that in late pre-colonial times, Native American groups across the Western Hemisphere, including here in New England, were modifying their environment to an extent.

Chip: Got it, so how forests responded to colonization and disease.

Elic: There’s a lot of debate about this in some regions, but fundamentally, we now know that Native Americans played a very integral role in their ecosystems, just like any human does anywhere. They were burning the landscape. They were clearing forest for farming purposes. They were clearing forest in order to promote the abundance of certain plants and animals, certain fruit species here in New England. Animals like deer across eastern North America were promoted in this way. And just how the environment responds to that situation—once Native Americans are no longer modifying their environments as intensively or extensively as they once were. What do the forests do in response? What do the deer populations do in response? That’s fundamentally what my dissertation is concerned with.

Chip: So essentially, you have Native Americans in North America using the land for thousands of years through farming practices, through hunting, through burning, you know, all different kinds of ways they’re interacting with the environment. And then here comes European colonists bringing diseases with them. And just, suddenly, in some cases, almost overnight, you have huge numbers of Native peoples tragically just wiped out, upward of 90 percent. And so, the question is: What’s the impact on the environment?

Elic: The findings are still very preliminary so far. So, in western North America, there’s evidence that deer populations rebounded in the wake of European colonization. And that’s simply because they were probably hunted fairly intensively in the pre-colonial period. And then with Native hunters somewhat restricted in their ability to maintain that pressure on deer populations, the deer rebounded. But here in New England, that signature is a little bit less apparent. And I’m starting to see evidence that it might actually be the opposite, that there were more deer in the late pre-colonial period and fewer deer in the 17th century.

Chip: Huh! Why is that?

Elic: It’s possible that there were many deer before Europeans showed up because of this ecosystem engineering, because of these positive impacts that Native Americans here in New England were having on their environments. And those positive landscape modifications in the form of burning and clearing forests and planting maize actually promoted the growth of deer populations. And that once Native Americans were no longer engaged in all of those activities, the deer populations actually declined alongside the Native populations, which is a really interesting pattern. It really speaks to the power of human ecosystem engineering and our ability to alter our landscapes in both negative and perhaps positive ways.

Chip: Right. Right. So even though you’re seeing opposite patterns, the take home point is the same in a way, which is that there’s this intimate relationship between the environment and how humans are using the places that surround them. And then there is an impact. There’s a shift that happens with pandemics.

Elic: Absolutely, yes.

Chip: I know you also study the Black Death, the outbreak of bubonic plague that decimated the population of Eurasia in the 14th century. Were similar dynamics at play there?

Elic: Yes. So, this is a very interesting parallel. In the 14th century in Europe, particularly, where we’ve got very good climate records for this sort of thing, the exact same pattern happened. After European populations were decimated by the Black Death, the agricultural fields were abandoned, reforestation occurred, and the increased abundance of forests at that time led to a greater photosynthesis and absorbed more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, lowering overall atmospheric CO2 and actually contributing to a cooling of the global climate. So, it’s the exact same pattern that happened 200 years later in the Western Hemisphere. And both of these events combined, along with some other non-demographic forces, contributed to a climate period known as the little ice age, where we’ve got historic accounts of extreme snowfall and cold temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere and the North Atlantic, in general. Atmospheric CO2 is declining. Global temperatures are declining. It’s a very interesting period of time. And researchers have proposed that part of the reason the little ice age was as severe as it was, was because of all of this demographic collapse that was occurring in Eurasia, around the Mediterranean, and in North and South America.

Chip: Yeah, really fascinating. Your work hits home right now, I think. It shows the power of archaeology to help us think through these long-term trends. Is there any reason to believe the current pandemic is going to lead to another little ice age?

Elic: So, part of the big reason that all of those CO2 emissions were occurring is because of the scale of that mortality in the colonial period in the Western Hemisphere and in the Black Death in Europe. And so, we’re not experiencing that at all on the same scale. The rebounds that we’re seeing in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric CO2 are still fairly pronounced. But it has to do with economic shutdown more than the actual death of people who are engaged in these activities.

Chip: Elic, I love the way in your article for SAPIENS you pivot from archaeology to contemporary politics. And there’s a term you used in your piece that I wasn’t familiar with: eco-fascism. Can you explain what you mean by that and how it connects to this question?

Elic: Eco-fascism refers to the political idea that you can force individuals to incur costs, sometimes in the form of their very lives, in order to bring about perceived benefits to the environment. And so, part of the reason that the Nazis justified their actions in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe was in their minds for the benefit of the planet. It had these very eco-fascist ideas that the death of people could actually save the planet, it could contribute to positive changes for the environment.

This ideology persisted. People like the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, in his manifesto, he very clearly outlines how he believes that humans are doing detrimental things to the environment, to the planet, and that depopulation, in a sense, might be a solution to this. Even more recently, several mass shooters in the past few years here in the United States have espoused a similar eco-fascist ideology. And so, this is a very pervasive and very dangerous idea. It’s been around for decades, and most people aren’t familiar with that aspect of it, but they are somewhat familiar with the argument that depopulation might save the planet, that somehow a reduction in human population levels could benefit the environment. And I think that idea has a lot of intuitive appeal to many people, but it’s highly problematic for ethical reasons and simply scientific reasons as well. The data don’t bear out that such a pattern could occur.

Chip: Well, let’s conclude by coming back to your main question. We’ve talked about the various ways outbreaks of disease among humans can affect the environment. So, on balance, what do you think about this current pandemic? Is it going to produce a lasting positive impact or not?

Elic: Fundamentally, I think that this current pandemic is going to produce a lasting impact, but it’s not going to be in the way that some people might think. We’re currently seeing what I would categorize as temporary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and other polluting forces on the environment, and so, there’s a short-term potential for environmental rebound in that sense. The planet might recover from the negative impacts of human activity.

But those changes are really not going to persist very far into the future. We know, for example, that during the recession of 2008 and 2009, emissions dropped by around 1.5 percent. But the year immediately following, they were up 5 percent. Just as there’s a potential for environmental rebound, there’s also the potential for economic rebound that will actually exacerbate the negative consequences of human actions and our ability to impact the planet negatively.

Perhaps even more importantly, there is a concept that is written about extensively by Naomi Klein called “disaster capitalism.” And it’s this idea that those wealthy elites who have economic power in a society can often exploit disasters for their own economic benefit. And so, in the wake of COVID-19, I think that the most likely scenario is that those with economic power in society—the wealthy, large multinational corporations—are going to seize this opportunity in order to benefit financially from this pandemic.

We’re already seeing evidence for this in the form of these large fossil fuel industry corporations benefiting from stimulus spending. We’re seeing new legislation being passed that’s attempting to shut down pipeline protests. The plastics industry has been lobbying lately that single-use plastics might be the safest option during the pandemic for fear of viral transmission on certain surfaces, and so, I think all of these things that we’re currently seeing are indicative that if these large corporations, and if the wealthy elites of society, are allowed to benefit so profoundly from this crisis, that does not bode well for our environment.

All of the data show that it’s not necessarily individual people who are most responsible for our current climate crisis. If you actually track where emissions and pollutants are coming from, it’s coming from large corporations. And whenever those large corporations are the ones benefiting from this crisis, they’re going to continue in their path, leading us toward this climate crisis that we’re currently facing. And things are probably going to get worse in the coming years unless we can successfully push back against those corporations, push back against the fossil fuel industry, and bring about some positive changes in our economic system that could benefit the planet.

Chip: So truly, in your view, the pandemic is not only an immediate human tragedy and crisis, but it also exacerbates and will perpetuate the long-term environmental crisis that the world is facing right now.

Elic: Absolutely.

Chip: Listeners, you can find Elic Weitzel’s fantastic article, “Are Pandemics Good for the Environment?” on SAPIENS.org, where you can also read so much more how the crisis is reshaping you and your world.

Chip: This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Paul Karolyi, and mixed, audio edited, and sound designed by Jason Paton. It was hosted by me, Chip Colwell.

Jen: SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod, with contributions from executive producer Cat Jaffee.

Chip: SAPIENS is an editorially independent magazine funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and published in partnership with the University of Chicago Press. Thanks to Danilyn Rutherford, Maugha Kenny, and all the staff at the Wenner-Gren Foundation and SAPIENS.org.

Jen: SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

Chip: Until next time, be well, fellow sapiens.

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