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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✔️ Passover and Easter are here, but with much of the world under stay-at-home orders, the spring holidays are looking very different. Families must observe social distancing guidelines as they observe their traditions. One rabbi said, "I am no Moses, but I can assure you keeping social distancing, even if at the expense of having limited people at the Seder table, is now one of the Ten Commandments." Ramadan begins later in April, and Muslim communities will be asked to do the same. Jon Cohen, a staff writer for Science Magazine, tells Lawrence O'Donnell the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine is "more rigorous" than any chase for a vaccine he has seen in his more than 30 years covering infectious diseases and vaccines. Cohen says he's hopeful because a COVID-19 vaccine does not seem "that tough of a scientific nut to crack." Aired on 4/21/2020.
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!” [laughter] 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.