Has anything changed for humanity?

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Today, the first person in the United Kingdom was vaccinated against COVID-19. We are all hoping that this is the beginning of the end of COVID-19 and a horrible year for many people. There has been much talk about this pandemic being a watershed moment for humanity, and that we will come out of it wiser and stronger. I wonder if this is true?

It could be argued that we have reacted to the crisis collectively and effectively. Lockdowns have largely been adhered to, people have adapted to meeting online and medical science appears to have stepped up to the plate, and delivered a solution in record time. But has the COVID experience changed us fundamentally? By that, I don’t mean, “will we be better prepared next time?,” I mean will the way we interact with nature and with each other alter in any way due to the COVID experience?

For many of us, the pandemic has meant more precious time with our families and, perhaps, the discovery that long hours commuting on the train or in the car are not as necessary as we thought they were. For others, enforced separation from human company or from green spaces has reiterated their importance in our lives. More sobering has been the loss of life, and being unable to say goodbye to loved ones. Furthermore, the economic cost of the pandemic is still unfolding but for many that cost has already been too high. In short, COVID-19 has been a shock to all of our systems – economic, social and environmental – but has it been enough of a shock to set us on a new track?

It would be nice to think so. Regarding our relationship with nature, there has been much talk of Green New Deals and Green Recoveries that will combine job creation with the construction of the green energy infrastructures necessary to address climate change. The journal Nature reported an 8.8% reduction in global CO2 emissions in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. Maybe some of those people working from home will continue to be able to do so, and we’ll see a permanent dip in emissions.

There are causes for optimism perhaps. Whether we will get on better with each other is another question. It seems to me that COVID has exacerbated the fracturing of political and personal fault lines down to the tiniest factions. The news channels have been full of stories of racism, sexism and political polarisation. Somehow, the stories of human kindness, singing from open windows and the bravery of our doctors and nurses have been drowned out by the voices of division. Maybe this is not surprising given the lack of human contact beyond our immediate families but it is sobering nonetheless.

So, I don’t have a prediction about whether humanity will emerge better, stronger and wiser from COVID. However, there is one thing I am certain of. Botanic gardens, and the gentle, committed people who work in them, have never been more important. For the 750 million visitors who come to our gardens each year, we are a safe, welcoming and peaceful place that provides an opportunity to get closer to nature, exercise bodies and minds, and spend quality time with family and friends. We also represent a better vision of the world in the work that we do in understanding and caring for nature – a glimpse of a more harmonious future perhaps. Given the importance of botanic gardens to all of us, BGCI is currently running an appeal to support botanic gardens that have been impacted by the COVID pandemic. Please support this appeal if you can.


All that remains is for me to wish you season’s greetings, happy holidays and a much better year ahead!

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