Here’s what quarantine is teaching us about our environment and how we can sustain it

Josh Kahen/Staff

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A recent Washington Post video shows the city of San Francisco during its shelter-in-place order. Pictured is an Embarcadero BART escalator empty of riders, the Financial District missing its busy commuters, Fisherman’s Wharf without its lively food vendors and the curvy Lombard Street absent of cars. 

As more and more cities and communities around the world shelter in place in light of the outbreak of COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus, a world dominated by human activity transforms into one almost without it. But what does this mean for our environment, its wildlife, air quality and survival? 

Cleaner air, clearer skies and four-legged neighbors. 

As many workers around the world are told to stay home, people are driving less, waiting in traffic less and filling their tanks less. Although this may seem like an obvious result of the shelter-in-place orders, its impact means less carbon emissions, less pollution and clearer skies. For example, a recent New York Times article shows dramatic satellite graphics, highlighting drops in pollution in major urban areas such as Los Angeles, Seattle and New York. 

Even in the Bay Area, people are noticing clearer skies instead of steady smoggy clouds over its cities. Sure, the moment the shelter-in-place orders are lifted, emission and pollution levels will most likely rise back to where they were before, but if anything, quarantine is teaching us that our actions have a direct impact on air quality and carbon footprints. It’s also exposing those communities who are most vulnerable to air pollution and respiratory illnesses.  

Rare sightings of wildlife in urban areas are also becoming more common as shelter-in-place orders continue, whether that means turkeys have more space to wander in Oakland or coyotes can finally run free through San Francisco’s empty streets. Even national parks are experiencing more wildlife sightings in absence of large crowds of tourists. Just recently, Yosemite National Park posted a video of the park, called “Stillness in Yosemite Valley,” showing undisturbed wildlife such as deer, coyotes and mountain lions cruising a quiet park. Regardless of how urban the place we live in is currently, we are learning that we share our environment with creatures other than ourselves. And if that teaches us to be more mindful of how fast we drive or how much we litter, that in itself can create a more sustainable environment.

Sustaining local communities and discovering a natural ecosystem around us.  

Since many people have been ordered to stay home, local business owners and their employees have felt the economic impact more than most. This has inspired many people to support their local businesses more than they would normally. This means there’s fewer fossil fuel emissions from transporting items across the world via truck and plane and even more attention on supporting locally sourced food and farms. If quarantine can establish local purchasing and eating habits like these, communities around the world could benefit from sustainable circular economies.

A more sustainable lifestyle is also being taught to those in quarantine at the most basic level. For example, although a quiet San Francisco or urban place may be haunting for those used to joining in on the hustle and bustle of city life, it’s making space for noises unattributed to the city, such as birdsong. And for those privileged enough to be able to stay in a stable and safe home during this time, picking up a new hobby such as gardening is connecting many with even the smallest of ecosystems in their backyards.

For those needing to get out of the house during quarantine, a quick, isolated walk around the block means more and more people are enjoying the natural spaces they live in or live near. And when more people create a bond with their natural environment, more will be motivated to protect and sustain it. 

Although these times are difficult and the priority right now should always be maintaining the health of ourselves, family, friends and communities, there will always be the comfort of knowing that the natural world continues on around us. And maybe, when we all return, we’ll try to treat it a little more nicely.  

Contact Emily Denny at [email protected] .