When faced with COVID-19, New York City, my hometown, went from being “the city that never sleeps” to the city where every day is Christmas morning — no traffic, no pedestrians, no noise. Quite literally overnight the city was transformed. The most immediate reaction was amazement at the silence and emptiness pervading the city. It was odd — eerie but not unpleasant. It was as if the city — indeed, the world — was holding its collective breath.
With time things changed and the shutdown became more restrictive. While the lack of traffic was welcomed, the loss of opportunities that come with the sharp decrease in transportation soon became chafing. Hearts, minds and voices began to long for a return to “normal.” In writing to a friend, I mentioned that we would get together as soon as things “returned to normal.” Then, in a flashback to the 1960s, I added “of course ‘normal’ has always been overrated.” It was an attempt at humor.
Other things started to happen as the city and the world changed. There were before and after photos of New Delhi and Beijing, showing the startling change in air quality occasioned by a sharp reduction in traffic. A similar phenomenon occurred in Venice where the lack of vaporetto (the motorized water buses) traffic allowed the water in the canals to become clear. A large jellyfish was filmed visiting the city, gracefully swimming through a canal.
In major cities wildlife began to appear in unexpected places: coyotes in New York’s Central Park and cougars in Los Angeles. The lack of noise and traffic made it easier for them to move about. Two dear friends live in a section of New York City known as Hell’s Kitchen, formerly a rough neighborhood but now quickly gentrifying. Knowing of my interest in nature, they sent me photos of two birds they saw from their 4th story apartment. They had never seen these birds before. One was a bright yellow male goldfinch in his spring attire. But the second was one I had never seen before. It was brilliant red with black wings. Research showed it was a scarlet tanager. While goldfinches are rare in Manhattan, they can be seen from time to time. But a scarlet tanager? They prefer large forests lacking noise, traffic and urban pollution. And here was a scarlet tanager visiting Hell’s Kitchen!
These experiences made me reflect on my rather flip comment on normality. I try to be ecologically aware, but seeing nature heal and restore itself so quickly, even in large cities, made me think that the negative impact we humans have on the environment is far greater than I realized. It was also humbling to see how quickly nature “recovers” when we humans pull back — or disappear. The more I thought about it, it became clear to me that if a “return to normal” means going back to where we were before the arrival of the coronavirus, “normal” may not only be overrated; it may be undesirable.
It struck me that, in an odd way, the pandemic may be an opportunity to learn. Might it not provide us with an opportunity to re-evaluate how we live in our world? Do we simply want to take everything from the pre-pandemic world and bring it into the present? Are there things from that world which first need to be changed and fixed before being brought back? And are there things we have discovered we can live better without?
In Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’ there are two important sections: “Toward a New Lifestyle” and “Ecological Conversion.” The pope recognizes that “the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle” (par. 208) It is also “a summons to profound interior conversion” (par. 218). Recognizing the huge disparities and inequities in our world, the pope is not calling for a “one size fits all” conversion. While all on the planet have to realize more deeply and more practically that “we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion” (par. 219), responses to the challenge will differ according to circumstances.
In CNEWA’s world, many experience not only the impact of environmental degradation (the UN sees it as one of the major “drivers of emigration”) but they are also living at a subsistence level. We in the developed world can and must ask ourselves what is really necessary to maintain a reasonable and responsible standard of living. Many in the places where CNEWA works, however, do not have even the bare necessities to maintain life. In fact, the only thing they have left, which they far too often lose, is their life.
The coronavirus has shown us that we are together on the planet. While we should never forget that social injustice has made the poor and the marginalized more susceptible to the virus, neither should we forget that it is opportunistic and will ultimately sicken and kill whatever human beings it can invade. The virus has shown us that nature may be indifferent to the fate of us who pride ourselves as the “pinnacles” of creation. Our reduction — or even disappearance, if we refuse to change — may for nature not be a tragedy, but rather an opportunity to recover.
Every change is difficult. Every conversion is painful. It is not easy to see ourselves as we really are — namely not God. It is hard to deny ourselves those things to which we have become accustomed — or, worse, those things to which we have convinced ourselves we are entitled. However painful or difficult, every conversion is, nonetheless, ultimately to our advantage individually and collectively.
What started out as a flip comment in a letter to a friend has become a deep conviction. If returning to “normal” means no more than going back to where we were before COVID-19, it is indeed vastly overrated and, in fact, undesirable. We will have learned nothing, but merely set ourselves up for the next and perhaps worse pandemic.
The words of Laudato si’, written before COVID-19, are prophetic: a clarion call for us humans to change or, as Pope Francis call it, undergo a profound conversion.