The New York Times

The New York Times 5 May 2020

I Watched These Pandas Have Sex. I've Never Been So Happy


Our critic Amanda Hess explains her complicated love of watching nature reclaim civilization on the internet as humans remain in quarantine.

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These pandas are having sex.
I’m watching them, and I might be the happiest
I’ve been since the pandemic.
Zookeepers have been trying to get Ying Ying and Le Le
to mate for 10 years.
On April 6, they finally consummated
their relationship.
Their home is an enclosure inside a Hong Kong
amusement park.
But because of coronavirus, the park
has been closed since January.
Maybe all these pandas needed to get
together was for us to go away.
“It’s a phenomenon we’re seeing all over the world.”
“Wild animals have been out there having
the time of their life.”
“The animals have taken back their kingdom.”
Lately, I can’t get enough of stories like this.
Humanity is stuck inside, but our feeds
are overgrowing with tales of a revived natural world.
Bobcats and black bears have taken over Yosemite.
Lions are napping in the road in South Africa.
The Welsh town of Llandudno belongs to the goats now.
“Ooh, cranky!”
And in L.A. —
“I miss the smog.”
All of these stories suggest that the coronavirus
has had a healing effect on Earth’s non-human affairs.
And that idea is so powerful that it
can override even the ecological reality,
like this widely shared story about elephants
who took advantage of the quarantine in China
by breaking loose, getting drunk on corn wine
and passing out in a tea garden.
Beautiful story.
Totally made up.
“Has the coronavirus been good for the environment?”
“It’s a question mark.
So we know in the short term that we’re not
driving as many places.
We’re not flying as many places.
And that has an immediate reduction in PM 2.5 pollution
and air pollution.
More broadly, it’s a question of what
happens when this is over, because for example, people
might be afraid of taking mass transit,
and more people will opt to drive around in cars.
And we’re already anecdotally seeing
some of that in China.”
Real environmental shifts are happening.
But on the internet, they come out
looking like exaggerated Disney fantasies.
These stories feed the idea that centuries
of environmental abuse could just
be accidentally reversed by only
a short period of sacrifice.
But really, nothing about this moment is sustainable.
The fantasy behind these images
is not about humans living in harmony with nature.
It’s about total human exile.
The posts we’re sharing aren’t pastoral.
They’re post-apocalyptic.
At a time when human life is at great risk,
it’s weird that some of us are finding comfort
by reveling in our own destruction.
At its most extreme, the impulse
can even sound like eco-fascism,
which promotes the elimination of human life
in order to save the environment.
And the extremist rhetoric that humans are the virus
has become an internet-wide joke.
“We are the virus.”
“We are the virus.”
“We are the virus!”
“We are the virus!”
Most of the people sharing these images
are not expressing a latent death wish.
I think part of the appeal of the coronavirus nature genre
is actually its massaging of the human ego.
Even as the natural world appears
to thrive in humanity’s absence,
we’re busy re-centering humans in the story.
When I share images of suddenly liberated animals,
I’m not exactly celebrating my own retreat from nature.
I’m identifying with the animals themselves.
Like those elephants, we are dying to get out of the house
and get drunk.
And just like Le Le and Ying Ying,
we want the chance to meet somebody special.
When those pandas did it, I felt this strange surge
of pride.
It was as if by doing nothing, I had accomplished something.
I had made the world a better place,
if only in my imagination.

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