An environmental ethicist looks at coronavirus

Nicolas Delon, Ph.D.
Nicolas Delon, Ph.D.

By Abby Weingarten

Nicolas Delon, Ph.D., assistant professor of philosophy and environmental studies at New College, teaches courses on animals, ethics and climate change. So when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic erupted, Delon had a unique perspective on the crisis—examining its effects on the interaction between humans and animals, and also between humans and the planet.

One aspect of particular interest to Delon is how animals are reacting to humans being in quarantine, which feeds into research he started long before the outbreak. People are staying indoors and forgetting about the outer world, and in some countries (like Italy, Japan and Thailand), wild animals have been observed roaming the streets.

Two years ago, Delon began writing an article that touched on this phenomenon, entitled, “Pervasive captivity and urban wildlife.” It was recently accepted for publication in Ethics, Policy & Environment (Taylor & Francis Online).

“Urban animals can benefit from living in cities, but this also makes them vulnerable, as they increasingly depend on the advantages of urban life,” Delon wrote. “Many urban animals are confined, controlled and dependent, therefore often captive of expanding urban areas, which sheds a new light on the ethics of our relationships to these animals.”

As urban life—and life in general—is rattled by the pandemic, what is happening to the animals? Are they getting a break from harmful trade practices? Will the urban system of captivity ultimately need to be reevaluated and restructured?

“What I find interesting is the effect of current restrictions such as lockdowns, social distancing and the overall reduction in economic activity,” Delon said. “Many animals that live near or amongst us now have more opportunities to roam around in the city, or where we usually don’t see them, in many parts of the world.”

On the other hand, Delon said, large numbers of laboratory animals are no longer receiving the care they require and now need to be euthanized.

“Many urban animals also depend on tourists for food and may now starve,” he said. “Overall, we’re seeing how entangled the lives of humans and animals are, at the input and output stages of these crises.”

Delon writes about the broader implications of humans being confined and animals being left to explore the landscape.

“Since even protected areas like natural reserves are heavily monitored, regulated and spatially bounded, there are few tracts of land, air or sea where animals are not–in some way and to some extent–confined, controlled and dependent on human agency. That is, they are captive,” Delon wrote. “We restrict animals’ agency by keeping them confined in tight cages, crates and enclosures, but also by limiting the scope of what they can freely do outside of visible captivity. Habitat destruction and fragmentation, unfettered development, and climate change together affect the conditions under which animals had long evolved to thrive.”

This feeds into the conversation about climate change, and how this human isolation may or may not benefit animals and the earth. The longer people stay in quarantine, the less pollution fills the air, which is at least one positive result.

“We know that climate change will make some outbreaks more likely to happen in the future due to animal migrations and the disruption of socioeconomic infrastructures, but we don’t know whether or not COVID-19 in particular has much to do with climate change,” Delon said. “We do know the virus originated in a ‘wet market,’ most likely from a bat who then infected a host animal and then humans contracted it. It’s exposing the vulnerability of our food system to zoonoses, although the link to intensive agriculture is only indirect in this case. “

According to a recent Faunalytics poll, only 10 to 20 percent of people in the United States seem to be aware of the zoonotic origins of the disease.

“But what’s happening now is showing the inherent vulnerability of the way we exploit animals—showing how we’re making some of these things [like spreading viruses] more likely,” Delon said.

Will humans learn to take better care of animals and the planet after this? It’s unlikely, but it’s a topic that fascinates Delon.

“We’re noticing already that emissions have decreased because people are staying home, and traveling and consuming less,” Delon said. “It’s sort of a positive effect. One thing we’re learning now is about resetting. We’re realizing that some things we thought we needed we don’t really need. The crisis will reveal what we deeply value, like social connections, while exposing some of our superfluous needs.”

But humans are also notoriously difficult to motivate, whether the goal is to slow the spread of a virus or mitigate climate change. Social distancing has not been easy to enforce. People are still breaking the rules. The human response to the pandemic, in some ways, parallels the human response to taking proper care of animals and the planet.

“It’s interesting to think about this pandemic and its relationship to climate change, in the way people are responding to it. Even given the current shutdowns and radical steps taken, people still have trouble recognizing the connection between the steps being taken and the prevention it’s being geared toward,” Delon said. “Climate change consequences will unfold over a matter of decades and centuries, so you can see why people are so hard to motivate. The relative slowness in response to the pandemic doesn’t give me much hope about how we will respond to climate change. But I do hope it’s serving as a dress rehearsal for the next pandemic.”

Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.


Located in Sarasota, New College of Florida has educated intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement since its founding in 1960. As the State of Florida’s designated honors college, New College provides an exceptional education that transforms students’ intellectual curiosity into personal accomplishment. The 110-acre campus on Sarasota Bay is home to more than 800 students and 80 full-time faculty engaged in interdisciplinary research and collaborative learning. New College offers nearly 40 areas of concentration for undergraduates and a master’s degree program in Data Science.

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