Friday, May 1, 2020

Anthropocene - how much of nature will get reversed in lockdown ?


Earth’s history is divided into a hierarchical series of smaller chunks of time, referred to as the geologic time scale. These divisions, in descending length of time, are called eons, eras, periods, epochs, and ages. These units are classified based on Earth’s rock layers, or strata, and the fossils found within them. From examining these fossils, scientists know that certain organisms are characteristic of certain parts of the geologic record. The study of this correlation is called stratigraphy.

World has moved away from everything else and is now concerned only with Covid-19.  Back home, two Indian States have the maximum no. of people affected – Maharashtra & Delhi, both above 1000.  Media often portrays one CM as doing well .. .. ‘they often say comparisons should be apple to apple’.  Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on Sunday said he was concerned with the rising number of coronavirus positive cases reported in the last couple of days in the city and his government was taking all necessary steps to put a brake on its spread. Kejriwal said that several areas in the city were going to be declared containment zones in the next couple of days to intensify the fight against  the dreaded disease. Soon after the announcement, 12 south Delhi neighbourhoods were added to the list to take the total number of Red Zones to 43.

Before stating anything some basic facts.  Delhi is spread over 1,484.0 km2 as compared to Maharashtra’s 307,713 km2 (less than 1%) – the population as per 2011 is 16,787,941 as against Maha’s 112,374,333 (15%)

Human activity has fundamentally changed our planet. We live on every continent and have directly affected at least 83% of the planet’s viable land surface. Our influence has impacted everything from the makeup of ecosystems to the geochemistry of Earth, from the atmosphere to the ocean. Many scientists define this time in the planet’s history by the scale of human influence, and label it as a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene.  Have human beings permanently changed the planet? That seemingly simple question has sparked a new battle between geologists and environmental advocates over what to call the time period we live in.

According to the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), the professional organization in charge of defining Earth’s time scale, we are officially in the Holocene (“entirely recent”) epoch, which began 11,700 years ago after the last major ice age. But that label is outdated, some experts say. They argue for “Anthropocene”—from anthropo, for “man,” and cene, for “new”—because human-kind has caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans and altered the atmosphere, among other lasting impacts. Anthropocene has become an environmental buzzword ever since the atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen popularized it in 2000.

With humans under lockdown to fight the coronavirus, it seems like Nature is course-correcting in the meantime, recovering from the havoc caused by mankind's greed. For beginners, wild animals and birds are now being spotted frequently in what were dense urban junctions during normal times. Various posts on social media show how animals have taken over the empty streets in some parts of the world. Actor Juhi Chawla recently took to Twitter to share pictures of peacocks spotted at Khareghat Colony in Mumbai.

The environmental changes wrought by the coronavirus were first visible from space. Then, as the disease and the lockdown spread, they could be sensed in the sky above our heads, the air in our lungs and even the ground beneath our feet. While the human toll mounted horrendously from a single case in Wuhan to a global pandemic that has so far killed more than 88,000 people, nature, it seemed, was increasingly able to breathe more easily.

As motorways cleared and factories closed, dirty brown pollution belts shrunk over cities and industrial centres in country after country within days of lockdown. First China, then Italy, UK, Germany and dozens of other countries including our own India are experiencing temporary falls in carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide of as much as 40%, greatly improving air quality and reducing the risks of asthma, heart attacks and lung disease. For some  experts, it is a glimpse of what the world might look like without fossil fuels. But hopes that humanity could emerge from this horror into a healthier, cleaner world will depend not on the short-term impact of the virus, but on the long-term political decisions made about what follows.

After decades of relentlessly increasing pressure, the human footprint on the earth has suddenly lightened. Air traffic halved by mid-March compared with the same time last year. Road traffic fell pretty low especially in cities with no offices, malls, cinema theatres, schools and workplaces ! 

Nevertheless, while our species is in temporary retreat during the lockdowns, wildlife has filled the vacuum – and that too can only be temporary.  Perhaps the period will see  a much lower toll for roadkill by cars and trucks, which – in the UK alone – annually takes the lives of about 100,000 hedgehogs, 30,000 deer, 50,000 badgers and 100,000 foxes, as well as barn owls and many other species of bird and insect.

The pandemic has also shown that pollution lowers our resistance to disease. More exposure to traffic fumes means weaker lungs and greater risk of dying from Covid-19, according to scientists at Harvard University. Since the start of the pandemic, it is not just from space that the world looks different. The unthinkable is now thinkable. Positions are shifting. Libertarian governments are curtailing freedoms more drastically than wartime leaders. Austerity conservatives are approving trillions of dollars for healthcare and emergency spending.

All certainly is not the good things.  Daily wage earners are at a total loss, finding hard to find where their next meal will come. Labourers, workers are without jobs – take the case of simple autowallah who most Chennaites would curse but is a necessity in daily life. Now with people not coming out, they are jobless, so also those Uber / Ola, tourist taxi drivers – when shops / hotels / malls remain closed, what will happen to all those who earned their livelihood daily – tourism too would be hit, though it is not the immediate concern now. 

This is often the case in Africa, where a massive ecotourism industry funds conservation efforts. In Namibia, tourism accounts for 16 percent of employment; in Tanzania, which is home to Mount Kilimanjaro, protected lands cover over a quarter of the country’s total area. But nearly overnight, those tourism industries have declined, and will likely stay shuttered through September at least, according to the Nature Conservancy. With them go the salaries for the security guards who protect animals from poachers. Facing massive unemployment, people in the tourism industry may themselves turn to poaching to feed their families.

Just as virus-spooked consumers have rushed to grocery stores to stockpile everything from toilet paper to pasta, farmers raising America’s cattle, hogs, and chickens have filled their bins with feed, fearing the spread of the coronavirus would disrupt their supply chains.  Keeping America’s 95 million cows, 77 million pigs, and 9 billion chickens fed isn’t as simple as it may seem. Farmers are worried their feed mills could close as employees get sick or that their slaughterhouses could slow production, forcing them to keep animals for longer. They’re also concerned that a shortage of trucks, which are being waylaid to supply supermarkets, could make it harder for farm supplies to reach them.

So, the World is in a confused situation – seeing more news, reading messages that get circulated in WA, FB and other social media could only add to the situation.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
12.4.2020.

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