Genetic modification

Copenhagen is a strange sight in the early summer without visitors. Usually at this time of year the streets are crowded with tourists, the metro is sweating with passengers dragging bags on their way to and from the airport and the bars and restaurants are packed with punters enjoying the highest priced food and drink in the world! June 2020 is different.

Maybe the corona virus will genetically modify everything. Down in the harbour on the northern edge of the city centre there’s a very famous landmark: the Little Mermaid. Normally – whatever that means – visitors more or less climb on top of each other to get the best photo angles. But she’s largely being left on her own this summer, as there are almost no tourists!

Not far away, overlooking the terminal for the ferries to Oslo, is a new statue on a similar pile of rocks at the water’s edge. The genetically modified mermaid looks like this:

N7FYFBVhRIiUw7T1oEJ%WQFrom a distance, with the UN City building and quayside

YZP9+Q90R5e4oakPfjTYuwWith the Oslo ferries in the background

z5gKvVBpT%WUD+5MlZ15AgClose up

She’s a creation of Bjørn Nørgaard and has been described as a Hans Christian Andersen figure for the postmodern world. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry on the sunny morning when I discovered her. The idea of gently mocking Copenhagen’s pride and joy is not bad. But at the same time, the idea of biotechnologically distorted bodies seems a bit menacing.

To round off the impressions of modification, it is very odd to stroll along the quayside at Langelinie with an unobstructed view towards the Swedish coast. Normally – that word again – there are several giant cruise ships tied up at the berths, disgorging passengers on day trips. But nobody would dream of boarding such a vessel in the time of a contagious virus.

So the quayside is abandoned, the shops and cafés are closed and the bus route into town has been diverted. Langelinie has mutated into a slightly ghostly monument to a form of tourism that may never recover from the pandemic. Since it has been estimated that the dirty bunker fuels used by the cruise ships accounted for over ten per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions in Copenhagen, it’s a relief to see them all gone and the city’s air much cleaner as a result! I watch the seagulls and contemplate altered future scenarios…

Racism and violence – a brief comment

While watching the protests and demonstrations across the USA (and elsewhere) in the last month triggered by the brutal murder of a black citizen by four white policemen, I’ve been engrossed in a rather curious tract by an Irish writer called Mark O’Connell, who has compiled some Notes on an Apocalypse (Granta, 2020). I’m not sure that it is a book I would recommend, although O’Connell succeeds admirably in describing a series of locations to be explored by those interested in the end of the world: bunkers in remote South Dakota, a convention of prospective colonizers of Mars, luxury hideaways in New Zealand, a wilderness retreat in the Scottish Highlands, etc. He also takes a friend on a tour of The Zone, the sealed off and abandoned towns and villages around the radioactive ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant that melted down in Ukraine in 1986.

Along the road, while reflecting on civilisation and its discontents (or the multiple fears disrupting the anthropocene era), O’Connell observes societies ”under pressure.” Perhaps his most damming remarks concern America:

Nobody is going to make America great again. Nobody even seriously imagines it to be a possibility. America might it is true eventually stop outsourcing its manufacturing to China, but if those jobs are ever brought back home they will return in the form of automated labour. Robots and algorithms will not make America great again – unless by America you mean billionaires and by great, you mean even richer. Trump is only the most visible symptom of a disease that has long been sickening the country’s blood – a rapidly metastasizing tumour of inequality, hyper-militarism, racism, surveillance and fear that we might as well go ahead and diagnose as terminal-stage capitalism.

I guess these words were scribbled sometime in 2019 with a prophetic choice of metaphors… Interestingly, “black lives matter” and related protest movements have rapidly taken shape in the streets of towns and cities across the whole planet, not just in the USA. Let’s hope that the people’s movements will come together around renewed community dynamics, better education, responsible law enforcement, etc. Somehow the degrading ugliness and pain of racism and violence permeating our societies need to end.

 

Polluting the cosmos – a universal blues

As the highly contagious and deadly corona virus sweeps from east to west, from north to south, a white bearded God looks down from a cartoon cloud at the Earth rotating in space and says to the angel at his right hand: ”Perhaps if we shut it down, then we can start it up again ok!”

Juxtaposing spiritual supervision with techno-fixated modern lifestyles seems appropriate in these times of pandemic madness and uncertainty. Although scientific rationality, statistical probabilities and evidence gathered through rigorous observation – testing, testing, testing – are vital as means of understanding the world, the desire for explanations involving invisible hands or eternal forces also seems powerful… While physicists have discovered the Higgs Bosun holding atomic particles together as they stream at the speed of light through the large hadron collider under the French-Swiss border near Geneva, it is impossible to ignore the sense of wonder when photos of a black hole 54 million light years away are published. Here’s what is known as an event horizon!

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Contemplating the cosmos – in this case a section of the universe called M87 – is a mind-boggling pastime. But coming down to earth I start to think about nature and despair. The consistent, mathematical logic of the natural world contrasted with the screams and howls of people mistreating each other or losing their minds in whirlwinds of doubt.

Then I discover that the latest horror isn’t the pandemic, but the accelerated colonisation of space by assorted ”entrepreneurs”, advertisers and other people with too much money. It appears that up to 50,000 satellites will soon be in orbit, thereby obscuring the views of the Milky Way and deep space, both through telescopes and the naked eye. Not content with dumping waste into the air we breathe and the rivers and oceans, a gaggle of businessmen have set their sights on polluting the upper atmosphere with their electronic garbage.

Astronomers, stargazers and dreamers can go to hell. Space has become the final frontier for the greedy and the dirty. If I were God I’d be weeping at the monumental folly of my creation.

Poets seeking home

Amongst the piles of books on our shelves are two with signatures and dedications inside the covers. Both of the men who signed the books are dead. The stories can be told as follows.

Kris was a ”germanist”, a well-educated teacher, who I got to know when I lived for a couple of years in Antwerp in the early 1980s. Like many Flemish people he spoke several languages fluently and had travelled extensively, although he was deeply anchored in the city where he lived, in a little flat close to the cathedral and the “Grote Markt” (main square), a stone’s throw from the River Scheldt. He introduced me to some drinking haunts where musicians gathered and poets. Since I was struggling to learn Flemish I didn’t understand the subtleties of the songs and texts, but was excited at the chance to absorb bits of another culture.

Kris was interested in Turkey, in particular the successes and failures of Turkish migrants in Europe. The book he gave me and signed is a collection of poems by Aras Ören, a writer and actor living in Berlin. Kris translated the poems from German to Dutch (Flemish). The accuracy of his translations was double-checked with the original Turkish texts. They tell about the divided lives of people who have one foot in Anatolia and the other in Brandenburg. In this way poems by a Turkish writer resident in Germany end up as a memory of a Flemish friend who stayed several times at our house in the Danish countryside before he lost his mind to depression and hung himself, tragically, in 1995. He was in his mid-40s.

Yahya Hassan created a literary sensation in Denmark in 2013 when his collection of poems was published. The poems are about his upbringing as a ”stateless Palestinian” in a dysfunctional family living in Århus. Violence and abuse scream from the pages. Yahya was discovered as a writer at a time when the Danish media were obsessed with the difficulties of integrating foreigners. The problems of young men and women with backgrounds in Islam who refused to conform to the norms were top stories almost daily. But Yahya twisted the standard narratives with his furious attacks – both in the poems and in various interviews – on the hypocrisies of his “own people”, as well as of Danish politicians seeking to blame people like him for being ”unassimilated” rebels from other cultures.

Yahya signed and dedicated a copy of his book when he met my daughter. She was writing an essay about his work. I was preparing to leave for two years with the United Nations in Geneva. At a going away party she gave me the book of poems and told the assembled guests about Yahya and the encounter she had had with him at her flat in Copenhagen. Subsequently, his turbulent life continued, he was involved in assorted criminal activities including a shooting incident and spent some time in prison. Meanwhile the exceptional quality of his poetry was increasingly recognised and a second volume was published at the end of 2019. In April 2020 we were shocked to learn that he had been found dead. He was 24 years old.

The collection of poems by Aras Ören that Kris translated is entitled: “Die Fremde ist auch ein Haus.” The idea of being at home in another country is at the core of the migrants’ quest. Yahya grappled with alienation as a “second generation” outcast from the wider community and from his family. Both he and Kris failed to find their homes in the world.

Aras Ören, In den vreemde is ook een thuis (vertaald door Kris Vanreusel). De Geus, Breda, 1986

Yahya Hassan, Digte. Gyldendal, København, 2013

Building back better with united nations

There must be many optimists at the United Nations (UN). In an overview of plans for the “immediate response” to Covid-19 published at the end of April, the UN argues that the pandemic is ”a reminder of the intimate relationship among humans, animals and the environment.” Furthermore:

The transmission pathways of diseases such as Covid-19 from animals to humans highlight the extent to which humans are placing pressures on the natural world with damaging consequences for all. Once the health crisis is over we cannot have business as usual practices that increase emissions and other environmental externalities like pressure on wildlife and biodiversity. (…) A mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship between humans and their surrounding ecosystems is, inter alia, the answer to more resilient economies and societies. Securing the global environmental commons requires living within planetary boundaries, conserving and sustainably managing globally shared resources and ecosystems as well as their shared vulnerabilities and risks, to promote human wellbeing. As these environmental commons are intrinsically linked and ignore frontiers, managing them sustainably requires ambitious collective action and borderless solidarity.

Sounds good to me! Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the current leaders of Brazil, the People’s Republic of China, Hungary, India, the Philippines, Russia and the United States of America – all member states of the UN – would subscribe to these admirable and far reaching objectives for the coming years. As governments all over the planet engage in efforts to ”build back better” after the pandemic, it will be interesting to see what happens. Sadly, I suspect that walls and weapons will be preferred, rather than seeking collective, ecologically sound solutions.[1] But we’ll see…

[1] Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian surveys the ”immediate responses” by a series of authoritarian, nativist leaders currently mishandling the crisis to further their own narrow interests and perverse agendas of hate and mistrust (about as far removed from “collective action and borderless solidarity” as could be imagined…):  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/15/under-cover-of-coronavirus-the-worlds-bad-guys-are-wreaking-havoc

The forests and the trees

Although I’m no botanist and have a hard time memorising the names of plant species, forests have fascinated me throughout my life. Trees are me! I have spent many happy hours walking through woodlands, admiring green hillsides and reflecting on the mysterious magic of nature in the budding and fading of blossoms and leaves on the trees in our garden.

ReBEmjRYR%uFH4ujiE3gywPink blossom in front of an apple tree and a copper beech, May 2020

My ”non-career” in forestry began sometime in the 1970s in a wintry landscape in the West of Scotland. Accommodated in a couple of poorly heated caravans on the edge of a village in January, I spent a week with a small group of somewhat crazy young conservation volunteers in the old oak forests of Ardnamurchan. Our task was to mark out a grid for measurement of biological diversity; i.e. counting the flora and fauna on the hillsides. This meant balancing on slippery slopes as we drove short wooden stakes into the ground beneath the trees. At the end of every day we squeezed into an old Land Rover and bumped off to the village pub for drinks and dinner before collapsing in a heap of mattresses and sleeping bags in the caravans.

Further involvement in nature conservation took me to the woodlands of a protected area in County Down, during a year working with peace and reconciliation movements in Northern Ireland. However, I don’t remember much about the biological diversity of the province as my time was spent engaging with social diversity in the form of young people’s fears and hatred of each other across the sectarian divide. In the summer of 1979 I travelled to Ariège in the Pyrenees with a group of unruly Belfast teenagers, both Catholic republicans and Protestant unionists. Despite the tensions amongst the kids, we had a good time building footpaths in a park surrounded by the steep wooded slopes of a high mountain valley at Aulus-les-Bains. The group worked hard and drank hard too… But the police picked up one of the tough guys when we embarked on the ferry sailing from Stranraer back to Northern Ireland. It transpired that he was wanted for highjacking a lorry with a water pistol just before we went away!

Forestry was on the agenda during my first ventures to West Africa in the mid-1980s. After a chance encounter I became involved in the activities of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Dakar called ”Environnement et Développement” (ENDA). Together with a Danish forester and a team of West African consultants I undertook short surveys of reforestation and forest management schemes in Senegal and Burkina Faso. The idea was to come up with proposals for improving “la gestion des fôrets” through the approach known as CBNRM (community based natural resource management). Interviewing professional foresters, community organisers and members of village associations and farmers groups was an important eye-opener in my life. It was also a daunting test of my knowledge of French!

As an environment and rural development consultant in the early 1990s I had many opportunities to explore forest policies and practices in different regions. A highlight amongst my assignments was a 1994 review of a forest scheme in the semi-arid Aravalli Hills of Haryana and Rajasthan, funded by the Commission of the EU. This gave me some insights into the workings of one of the world’s largest natural resource management institutions: the Indian Forest Service (IFS). Foresters are heavyweight players in many countries, responsible for not only nature conservation, but also for organising and controlling the commercial exploitation of vast regions. In the severely eroded and degraded Aravalli Hills the IFS was encouraging villagers to plant drought tolerant tree species and grassland fodder crops in order to stabilise the hillsides and to prevent destructive grazing practices.

The key to success was communicating the conservation messages to women in the villages, particularly as they were in charge of the herds of small ruminants (sheep and goats) that seemed to be the main factor causing degradation. But the male dominated IFS team was not very good at community mobilisation, despite policies that aimed to encourage “bottom up” resource management. We had long discussions with the team of foresters and with village leaders before drafting a critical review report. I wonder what became of the scheme. It would be interesting to go back and take a look, a little over 25 years down the road…

Ten years later I was still messing around in the sphere of silviculture. Protecting forests and biodiversity is a priority for many environmental movements in Central America, where rain forests, cloud forests, dryland forests, mangroves and assorted mixed woodlands provide valuable resources in the form of timber and “non-timber forest products.” The mountains of the region are a patchwork of coffee plantations and woodlands; some of the most beautiful landscapes I have seen. Various groups of indigenous people are also part of the patchwork.

Sadly, criminal activities are never far away from forests. Valuable timber attracts bona fide and illicit enterprises. In Nicaragua the office of the environmental prosecutor has struggled for many years to ensure control over the vast forest resources in the centre and east of the country where illegal logging has been rampant.  While based in Managua from 2002 to 2005 I was involved in the production of a film about clandestine forest clearance and timber trading: “Erase un paìs verde” (it was a green country). I also joined a delegation visiting the indigenous communities who live in the enormous Bosawas “biosphere reserve” in northern Nicaragua, flying across the forests at low level in an ancient Russian helicopter.

A little more than 10 years ago my interest in forests became a serious matter, almost full time. By 2010 I was familiar with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and had been involved in designing a scheme to promote “pro-poor” reduced deforestation in several countries including Ghana and Indonesia as well as in arranging support for a mangrove forest development programme in a number of countries in South and South-East Asia, notably Thailand. I was happy to seize opportunities to travel around these regions. The IUCN is one of many organisations seeking to reverse the high rates of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from deforestation and degradation; a process known as REDD+ in the context of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). “Nature based solutions” are the organisation’s catchwords.

Thus, in the last decade I have zoomed around the planet as a high emitting do-gooder in the forests and climate change “complex.” For two years I worked as an adviser with the United Nations in Geneva (far from the tropical forests but close to the funders…).  Happily the UN, the World Bank and a host of other agencies and NGOs have had deforestation and degradation on their radar. But many national governments and authorities have been highly negligent: witness the half-hearted or “denial-tainted” responses of many Australian and Brazilian politicians and leaders in 2019 as huge forest fires overwhelmed rural communities and devastated vast tracts of the outback and the Amazon.

Times are changing, however. Awareness of the importance of forests is on an upward curve. Our village is located in one of the national parks that have been demarcated in Denmark recently. As global mobility appears likely to be restricted in the wake of the 2020 pandemic I’m glad that we have some beautiful wooded landscapes and lots of trees on the doorstep.

ToD+cDU2TVadnjkkfy3vpQWindbreaking pines near the beach at Rørvig, April 2020

P0pZlFOSRhO+cOResBVUfQBidstrup forest, early May 2020

The emergence of homo sapiens as a dominant species occurred after our ancestor apes descended from trees to hunt and gather food on the savannah. Gradually successful human primates have spread across the diverse ecosystems of the planet, but so have diseases and devastation. Will forests and trees outlive our self-destructive tendencies?

NB: Further information about the places and organisations mentioned can be found through the following links.

Conservation volunteers: https://www.tcv.org.uk/scotland

Ardnamurchan oak woods: https://www.nature.scot/enjoying-outdoors/scotlands-national-nature-reserves/ariundle-oakwood-national-nature-reserve

County Down:  https://www.ireland.com/articles/destinations/down/down-county/

Ariège: https://www.ariege.com

Environnement & Développement (ENDA): http://endatiersmonde.org

Indian Forest Service: http://ifs.nic.in

Aravalli Hills (2019 update video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbV0__0m2YI

Central American biodiversity (update):  https://news.mongabay.com/2019/12/central-american-countries-pledge-to-protect-mesoamericas-5-great-forests/

It was a green country (Erase un paìs verde, Fundación Luciernaga, original video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Na4IqvdSSms

Bosawas biosphere reserve: https://en.unesco.org/biosphere/lac/bosawas

International Union for the Conservation of Nature: https://www.iucn.org

REDD+ platform of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): https://redd.unfccc.int

UN-REDD Programme:  https://www.un-redd.org

National parks in Denmark: https://danmarksnationalparker.dk

 

Wise words – from Beruit to Istanbul

A couple of days ago I finished reading Elif Shafak’s wonderful novel about life and death in Istanbul’s underworld: “10 minutes and 38 seconds in this strange world” (Penguin, 2019). The story is rich in stories, bursting with energy and suffused with tragedy. I particularly liked a few words spoken on page 131 as a father says farewell to his daughter, moving from Beruit to Istanbul to seek her fortune:

“Make friends, good ones, loyal ones. No one can survive alone – except the Almighty God. And remember, in the desert of life, the fool travels alone and the wise by caravan.”

Recommended reading!

Lockdown the men!

Today is the 24th April. A little more than 4 months ago Mr. Xi and the Communist Party of China (CPC) found out that a new corona virus had infected the citizens of Wuhan, but they were initially afraid to let the people know what was going on. News of the virus reached the media in early January 2020, by which time a ”lockdown” of the city and Hubei province was underway.

As the number of dead in the USA has exceeded 50,000 and almost a million people have been infected, the President – otherwise known as the “vector in chief” – has been on TV with a message to the masses. Perhaps light and heat have something to do with the virus he noted. Treatment could include injecting disinfectant to wipe it out in an infected body. A doctor watched in horror as these wild ideas were aired.

The people of Niger in West Africa are almost all Muslims. Their government has been following advice given by the World Health Organisation and encouraging people to keep a safe distance from each other. But the imans want the people to pray, so they are protesting against any attempt to stop the masses congregating in the mosques. To hell with health, God will save pious believers!

I conclude today with a collage of seven faces from seven countries. The common denominator of these ladies is interesting, in comparison with the serial madmen referred to in the previous paragraphs. It transpires that rates of infection and covid-19 deaths are significantly lower in (the few) countries where women are heads of government. Maybe it’s time to lock up men!

women-leaders-and-Covid-480x360

PS Anybody know all their names? Apart from Ms. Merkel of course…

Escaping from Covid-19 to nearby landscapes (April 2020)

My caravan and all others slowed more or less to a halt in March 2020. After many years of extreme mobility all over the planet I’ve been working from home – no commuting – and all the borders are closed, everywhere it seems. Nobody moves, airports are clogged with parked planes and air quality is soaring upwards as far fewer people are driving to their workplaces or to shopping centres.[1] Governments have legislated all manner of restrictions and closures, while across the globe unemployment rates are increasing. Economists are panicking not only about the drop in demand for goods and services but also the collapse in supply: of meals in restaurants, of haircuts, of almost everything except online games and medical equipment…

In this strange new world we’ve been exploring the countryside nearby and avoiding all concentrations of people. I realise that we’re very lucky not to be stuck in the slums of one of the world’s many oversize cities with inadequate water supplies, poor hygiene, expensive or non-existent health care, etc. Some views from our excursions are as follows.

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Southern end of Isefjord

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Standing stones in a ship formation near Lejre, 1500 years old

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Tree felling at Særløse Overdrev –  a frosty evening

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Light snow in the forest at Skjoldnæsholm at the end of March

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A single sail on the horizon – the Kattegat at Rørvig

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Jægerspris Castle with pink magnolia on another sunny April day

[1] The magazine Business Insider has published an article with satellite photos of several airports, including Frankfurt, Roissy CDG and Copenhagen, crowded with parked planes: https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-photos-airplanes-grounded-parked-runways-satellite-2020-3?r=US&IR=T

Brief notes on inequality and incompetance

You don’t have to study the history of the world for very long before the horrors of the great plague (the Black Death) in the 14th Century are mentioned. There is no doubt the pandemic was a defining moment for vast numbers of people; both the dead and the survivors. In Thomas Piketty’s monumental work on ”Capital and Ideology” (Harvard UP, 2020) the plague appears in chapter 2 (on page 68) referring to the disappearance of serfdom in Europe due to the scarcity of labour in the wake of the demographic disaster. However, in general disease in the feudal era – which Piketty calls tri-functional society – was a great leveller, as both the nobility and the clergy succumbed together with the masses (known as the “third estate”).

Fast forward to April 2020, and the fate of thousands of people in New York City’s five boroughs hangs in the balance. The lowest paid, often first or second generation immigrants, in insecure employment without social security and health insurance, are apparently overwhelming the hospitals in their desperate search for covid-19 treatment and – believe it or not – queueing at food banks for survival rations. Around 40 million Americans live on or below the poverty line.[1]

When I read about such conditions I’m grateful for the high levels of taxation in Scandinavia meaning that there is a well-functioning welfare system accessible for all. I’m also astounded once again that the Brexiteer faction in the UK managed to persuade millions of voters that hopelessly out-dated, neo-liberal (Thatcherist) economic policies would lead to paradise on earth outside the EU. In 2019 they were even touting the possible sale of the National Health Service  (NHS) to American business interests as an outcome of ”taking back control” from Brussels. The mind boggles at the incompetence of such moronic politicians. It isn’t surprising that the Tory leaders have also struggled to understand what a pandemic is…

In the USA the limits of largely private provision of health care have become acutely apparent in the disastrous response to the covid-19 pandemic. At the same time as warnings were being heard about the spread of the virus from Asia in January 2020, Don Trumpet and his mafiosi friends were proposing more cuts in funding for the centres for disease prevention and control (CDCs). It seems that businesses in the USA have resorted to piracy by diverting a plane from China loaded with protective masks and other gear destined for German policemen, to the North American ”health care market” where good profits can be made. The shambles has been analysed by a host of writers as the infection and death rates soar. The Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times  (28th March) was suitably angry:

The bottom line is that as with so many things Trump, the awfulness of the man in the White House isn’t the whole story behind terrible policy. Yes, he’s ignorant, incompetent, vindictive and utterly lacking in empathy. But his failures on pandemic policy owe as much to the nature of the movement he serves as they do to his personal inadequacies. 

To this I would add that the movement – the Republican Party (GOP) – seems to be entirely devoted to increasing inequality, having been captured by fossil fuel businesses whose profits come before anything else, including the well-being of most Americans and a liveable future for the rest of us! Under the cover of the pandemic they have proposed legislation to lower emissions standards for vehicles. I guess they’re preparing to drive everybody to hell…

PS After drafting these notes I read Fintan O’Toole’s fascinating dissection of the contradictions embodied by the “vector in chief” who currently occupies the White House: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/05/14/vector-in-chief/

PPS An editorial in the May 2020 edition of Nature bemoans the “sustained undermining of environmental protection” (the EPA) in the USA as the Republicans roll back regulation: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01310-y

[1] The scenes in New York City are vividly described by Sine Plambech, a Danish researcher living on the East Coast: https://www.diis.dk/publikationer/hotbeds-of-corona