Geography Directions

What can geographers learn from the 2020 ‘anthropause’?

by Adam Searle, University of Cambridge, Jonathon Turnbull, University of Cambridge, and Jamie Lorimer, University of Oxford

From time to time, an event will occur that seems to stop the world in its tracks. This event might be a disaster such Hurricane Katrina or the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, which created landscapes in which human presence was removed overnight. It might be a military or terrorist event, such as the forming of no-man’s land in World War 1, the creation of the Demilitarised Zone in Korea, or the pausing of flights following 9/11. The event might be related to economic shifts, such as the 1930s Great Depression which led to the abandonment of agricultural, industrial, and residential areas, curtailing human prosperity and enabling the unintentional rewilding of urban and rural landscapes in parts of Europe and North America. Or of course, the event might be a pandemic, such as the Black Death, Columbian Exchange, or COVID-19, which forces billions of people globally to pause their usual lives.

These events have long been noted separately, but until recently, have not be considered together. In 2020 however, a team of scientists led by ecologist Christian Rutz coined the term ‘anthropause’ to signify the “considerable global slowing of modern human activities” associated with restrictions on human mobilities and industrial activities during COVID-19 quarantines. However, this was not the first anthropause event as we note above. Anthopauses are significant in an ecological sense as they provide a chance for ecologists to study the effects that humans (or a lack of humans) have on animals. Yet, as we have outlined in a recent commentary in the Geographical Journal, anthropauses also drastically shape the geographies within which we live, both separate from, and alongside animals. Understanding anthropauses and their aftermaths can also allow geographers to better assess how we may ‘build back better’ following such widespread disturbance to normality.

Geographies of the anthropause

As the examples above show, these anthropauses can vary widely according to their causes, durations and scales. Each of these factors is significant in understanding how an anthropause can affect different people and beings. A number of blogs already featured in Geography Directions have covered the variegated effects of the 2020 anthropause, bringing attention to the specificities of who is (and isn’t) able to pause, and what pausing means for different subsets of people, highlighting a range of inequalities both brought about and exacerbated by the pandemic. As noted by Emmerson and Earnshaw, “the overwhelming story of the pandemic” has “been one of geographical inequality and unevenness.

In the UK, workers in many sectors were not afforded the privilege of pausing, such as those in retail, supply chain delivery and logistics, healthcare, and education. This shift in working conditions, moreover, has demonstrated the precarity of the neoliberal ‘gig economy’ on an international scale. From local to global scales, the anthropause has been experienced differently by people depending on various socio-spatial structures, such as race, gender, class, sexuality, age, and living situation.

Understanding the forms of activity that were paused and intensified during the anthropause is essential for the development of post-pandemic conviviality strategies that avoid reinforcing pre-pandemic inequalities. Just as the Anthropocene label can serve to depoliticise the inequalities of environmental damage through grouping all humans together as equally accountable, considering who is afforded the privilege to pause, where, and why, is crucial. Asking such questions, we hope, will serve to highlight the gross inequalities experienced during COVID-19 by different humans across lines of race, gender, and class, whilst also raising attention to the other-than-human impacts of the current anthropause, both positive and negative.

More-than-human geographies of the COVID-19 anthropause

The multiplicity of anthropause events means they are experienced differently across various sociocultural, economic, and environmental situations. In lockdown, many people sought ecological solace and fulfilment closer to home. Stuck at home, without daily commutes or national or urban parks to retreat to, many urbanites turned to gardening on their patios, balconies, or indoors. Across the US and the UK, requests to adopt animals from animal shelters spiked, pet sales skyrocketed, and pet companies’ shares rose as many other businesses suffered. Second, a familiar set of domestic human–animal interactions flourished at hyper-local scales, including gardens and local green spaces. Social media groups such as The Self Isolating Bird Club became immensely popular as people saw their local wildlife in a new light, and shared stories, photographs, and images online whilst fostering a sense of community.

Digital spaces were central to the more-than-human geographies of the COVID-19 anthropause, as videoconferencing platforms like Zoom became an aspect of daily life for many. Through the emergence of digital “creaturely cameos”—the livestreaming of animals to paying customers—people found new ways to interact with animals and nature during quarantine. In the UK, webcams livestreaming video from birds’ nests experienced surges in online traffic as confined people flocked online to birdwatch. Instances of game‐based virtual wildlife encounters, evidenced through the success of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, also offered distraction from confinement, as did virtual tours of landscapes including the Faroe Islands and Yosemite National Park. These online encounters proliferated the potential for human–nature encounters during lockdown. Despite many of them being screen‐based, the multiplicity of affects generated via digital encounters is enormous; from feeding charismatic free‐roaming dogs in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, to attempting to recreate the sublime landscape experience of monumental national parks. Such instances of ‘webcam-travel’ have reported wellness benefits and may also encourage people to visit physical sites in the future.

The disruptions of the anthropause have also made visible a variety of ways in which different animals are both dependent on, and threatened by, the types of activities that were paused. During global quarantines many animals dependent on humans were no longer afforded human care, for both direct and indirect reasons. For instance, laboratories were forced to euthanise testing rats as researchers were unable to attend to them. However, as laboratories reopened, many animals were rapidly bred during clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine. Meanwhile, agricultural animals were slaughtered en masse across the US due to indirect market pressures and the breakdown of supply chains. Animals indirectly dependent on human activity fared worse during the anthropause due, for example, to the absence of roadkill carrion. Those dependent on human waste for food, such as synurbic rats, pigeons, and foxes, were forced to alter their rhythms and topographic patterns. Attention to animals’ temporalities and territories point to the ways in which anthropauses operate at different scales.

Portal, not pause

Within the framing of the COVID-19 anthropause is an assumption that, eventually, things will return to normal: planes will take to the skies, cars to the streets, and ships to the seas. However, attention to the multiplicities of anthropauses sheds new light on Arundhati Roy’s claim that “the pandemic is a portal.” A pause implies that things remain still, and will return to the way they were previously, whereas a portal embraces the idea that things might be changed, made differently and made better. As science fiction writers have long suggested, a portal offers a passage to an alternative period or place. Rather than a resumption, the portal provides a way of thinking about the reconfigurations which may come about following anthropause events.

New forms of lockdown multispecies relatedness taking place closer to home (physically and digitally) have provided valuable opportunities for engaging people, especially urbanites, with the often-unnoticed wildlife around them. They provide participatory platforms for public engagement and ecological awareness raising. Moving through the pandemic portal, then, geographers should embrace these opportunities to best inform the ‘building back better’ of post-pandemic worlds, which are fairer, more equal and more sustainable, for humans and non-humans alike.


About the authors: Adam Searle is a cultural and environmental geographer at the University of Cambridge whose research explores the relationships between humans, other animals, and technologies. His recent project concerned the changing meanings of extinction amidst cloning and cryogenic technologies. Jonathon Turnbull is a cultural and environmental geographer at the University of Cambridge. His current research explores the human–animal relations and weird ecologies of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. He also writes on urban ecologies and the bovine geographies of India’s sacred cattle and is interested in the ways digitisation shapes our relationships with the nonhuman world. Jamie Lorimer is an environmental geographer at the University of Oxford whose research examines the production of environmental knowledge, and how this knowledge comes to shape the world around us. He focuses on powerful understandings of nature and their consequences for human and nonhuman life across different spatial scales. Past projects have examined human relations with a range of organisms – from elephants to hookworms – and policy domains – including conservation, health and agriculture.

The cover photo was taken by Jonathon Turnbull.

Suggested further reading:

Searle, A., Turnbull, J., and Lorimer, J. (2021). After the anthropause: Lockdown lessons for more-than-human geographies. Geographical Journal. https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12373

Turnbull, J., Searle, A., and Adams WM. (2020) Quarantine encounters with digital animals: More‐than‐human geographies of lockdown life. Journal of Environmental Media1(Supplement), 6.1‐6.10. https://doi.org/10.1386/jem_00027_1

Rutz, C., Loretto, M.‐C., Bates, A. E., Davidson, S. C., Duarte, C. M., Jetz, W., … Cagnacci, F. (2020). COVID‐19 lockdown allows researchers to quantify the effects of human activity on wildlife. Nature Ecology and Evolution4, 1156– 1159. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559‐020‐1237‐z