In recent weeks, there have been a number of images taken of animals wandering spaces vacated by humans due to the coronavirus pandemic.

There were the goats running through a village in Wales, monkeys overtaking a city in Thailand, bears reclaiming Yosemite Valley. None of these are too terribly surprising if you’ve been to any of those places, but it hasn’t stopped some people from becoming philosophical online about man’s effect on nature.

This, as do all things on the internet, led to the creation of a meme. “Nature is healing. We are the virus,” it said. In other words, it mocked some’s notion that, with the novel coronavirus getting humans out of the way, the natural world had begun to restore order.

The meme often is accompanied by photos that wink at its satirical nature—of scooters discarded in rivers or a giant rubber duck floating beneath London’s Tower Bridge or perhaps pizzas “growing” in trees in Italy.

To believe the sentiment earnestly is, of course, insensitive and borderline misanthropic. COVID-19 has been credited as a factor in more than 170,000 deaths worldwide. It has disrupted countless more lives, and stalled out the global economy. We can joke about the coronavirus, but its effect on the world isn’t really a joke.

But, if we set aside both the inhumane and the sarcastic, it is true that those images of goats and monkeys prove what we all know deep down—the natural world would be just fine without us.

But what about the future of the earth with us? Well, that’s another story.

Today—the 50th anniversary of Earth Day—is as good a day as any to examine our relationship with the world around us, particularly because much has changed in the half century since Earth Day’s inception.

The first Earth Day is widely credited with launching the modern environmental movement. From the one event sprung not only mainstream environmental activism, but also the regulatory framework we know today. Due to the movement, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and Senate worked with the president, Republican Richard Nixon, to create the suite of environmental legislation and the agency that enforces it, the Environmental Protection Agency. Here in New Jersey, much the same occurred, with Republican Gov. William Cahill founding the Department of Environmental Protection on April 22, 1970, in recognition of Earth Day.

Somehow, since then, the conversation around the environment has transformed from questions of stewardship and interconnectedness to one of a more partisan flavor.

Which brings us to today. The theme for Earth Day 2020 is climate action, with Earth Day Network saying “climate change represents the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the life-support systems that make our world habitable.”

“Climate change” is a phrase that causes plenty of people to bristle. But the truth is 99.9% of scientists have long concluded the planet is warming faster than it would naturally and have moved on to solving how we can adapt to this new reality.

And, despite the political discourse, governments at all levels have done much the same.

But, if climate change is this wide-ranging, globe-spanning existential crisis that has captured the attention of top scientists and governments alike, then why should we as individuals care? Well, just like all politics is local, even the largest planetary issues have their applications at the most local of levels.

We’ve seen that firsthand already in this area. The Delaware River has been hailed as a triumph, with American Rivers naming it 2020’s River of the Year for the environmental community’s success in rehabilitating the river and its ecosystem. But climate change threatens the Delaware once again, particularly in the river’s upper and lower estuary where things like sea-level rise could mean an increase in the frequency of flooding as well as a saltwater contamination of the river’s freshwater. For those who live along the Delaware River and its many tributaries, this means not only your property could be at-risk but also the source of drinking water for you and roughly 15 million other people, too.

Then, there are stories like Jimin Kang’s piece about how the effects of climate change—the shifting of seasons, the wetter, warmer, unpredictable weather—have pushed small and family-owned farms to the brink, including those right here in the Princeton area. Just a few months ago, Z Food Farm in Lawrence closed for good—with the effects of climate change as one of the cited reasons. A handful of other local farms have closed up, too, since last summer, and that was before COVID-19 disrupted everything further.

The good news is that Princeton is home to some of the people working to solve this issue, at Princeton University and nonprofits like Climate Central. We just have to listen to their findings.

Because, like it or not, we probably will have to change how we live for the long haul.

Many in the environmental community are using COVID-19 as a case study for what life could be like with a few more decades of climate change. And while it’s true coronavirus-related shutdowns have caused greenhouse gas emissions to drop across the globe (including an estimated 25% in China in February), those reductions are not only temporary—they’d also be insufficient to stave off climate change if somehow made permanent.

According to Carbon Brief, the early estimate on the worldwide global emissions reduction in 2020 sits at 4%. That’s just more than half of the 7.6% reduction goal set by the United Nations. (The UN says to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C and avoid the worst climate change impacts, we’d need to reduce emissions 7.6% a year, every year, between 2020 and 2030.)

It shows how far we really have to go and how much change we’d actually have to make, if we take the climate crisis seriously. Merely shutting down the economy and locking ourselves indoors for six weeks won’t do it.

On the cover of this week’s U.S.1 is a photograph, taken on December 7, 1972, that is one of the most well-known images in existence. It is one of the few photos to show an almost fully illuminated Earth. According to NASA, the astronauts had the sun behind them when they took the image, which aside from providing the proper lighting for a photograph, gave the earth the appearance of a glass marble. The image has come to be known as the “Blue Marble” photograph, and is featured on the Earth Day flag.

Earth Day itself has celestial origins. The Apollo 10 and Apollo 11 missions in 1969 provided some of the first quality images of Earth on the planetary scale. The photographs provided perspective, and convinced the public that Earth was something we had to preserve.

That’s an important lesson, and one many of us take for granted: the earth is a remarkable home, but it isn’t a home we are entitled to have. Our actions have implications.

There is a popular phrase in the environmental doomsday community—yes, it’s a thing—that “nature bats last.” In other words, we’re the visitors in the baseball game of existence. Nature has the final swings.

It’s never wise to subscribe to conspiracy theories, but there’s some truth to this motto, at least. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that no amount of resources or knowledge can prevent nature from doing what it does. We can only use what we know already to respond and better prepare for the future. It’s a wonderful takeaway to apply to the climate crisis.
If we want a future on this planet, we’re going to have to earn it.

Rob Anthes is manager editor at Community News Service. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.