The Real Winner This Year Is Nature


PHOTOGRAPH BY Russel Albert Daniels

No person won in 2020. We’ve all lost something this year. However, in a way, nature did win. Despite wildfires and environmental degradation, nature managed to thrive as the pandemic shut down cities and industries. People finally found the value of the outdoors in a year when we were all stuck indoors. This edition of The Frontline crowns nature as this year’s winner.

Every year has its winners and losers. TIME chose President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as Person of the Year, for example, but I don’t think any person won in 2020. Seems like we’ve all lost a whole lot—certainly more than we’ve gained.


In 2020, nature won. The outdoors won. Green spaces both remote and urban won. That’s not to say they haven’t suffered or seen losses. Of course, they have. However, this year shined a light on the value of these areas. People awoke to the healing that can occur once they stepped outside. Nature offered us places of reprieve and solace when the world grew dark and lonely. Outside is where we could see friends and family, where scenes of community unfolded. This year, we humans realized how much we need the outdoors but also how many people lack access to it. 


Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re celebrating nature. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. With 2020 ending, I began asking myself about this year’s winners and losers. No person came to mind, though—only intangible objects and themes. The one that stuck was much more vast: the outdoors. With this year’s Biggest Loser on his way out of the White House, nature has finally won a years-long battle against an administration that was betting on its demise. 



Remember when cities began to lockdown in March? Air pollution levels dropped globally; wildlife appeared to thrive as people stayed home. “Nature is healing,” social media channels rang. The “anthropause,” as some researchers are now calling this period of reduced human mobility, gave us a glimpse into what a world devoid of humans could look like.


That, of course, sounds like a nightmare: a world where society collapses and humans don’t survive. But we, humans, are intrinsic to nature. We live in relation to it as every other being does. This year really showed us how much we need it (definitely more than it needs us). We’re social creatures, and this year has cemented that biological truth: The outdoors has been one of the only safe places people could be together during a year when human contact became deadly. 


In New York, I saw more people riding their bikes than I had before. I remember seeing a young father walk up and down the street with his toddler one summer night. I could tell he just wanted to give his son some fresh air, show him the world that exists beyond their four walls. However, living in a place like New York—where the richest neighborhoods became ghost towns as the wealthy fled the nation’s COVID-19 epicenter—showed me the disparate access we all have to outdoor spaces. I already knew this, but witnessing people run away to houses in the woods while I longed for a simple balcony made the inequities that exist all the more personal.


We all fell in love with nature this year—some of us for the first time. A simple backyard, or rooftop, became a hot commodity. Bike sales boomed this year as people sought new hobbies outside. (The most common self-care advice I heard was to take a walk.) People flocked to whatever outdoor space was available. That’s why the outdoors won in 2020; we only wish we had more of it near us. More good news: In the years to come, many other communities will, too.


In Washington, D.C., Biden has promised to save many public lands whose protections Trump stripped. Special places like the Bears Ears National Monument or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may have a future in Biden’s America. With the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act this summer, disadvantaged communities can secure more funding to maintain their parks, too.


The outdoors isn’t just mountains or canyons, after all. It’s the urban playground where kids can kick a soccer ball around. It’s the trails that snake along rivers, silhouetted by skyscrapers; green spaces where Black and brown youth can escape the grumble of city life. The outdoors is the naked tree outside my window—the one I’ve stared at every day since the pandemic arrived in New York City. It’s where I’ve seen bright birds whose names I’ll never know. Nature is all around us, but it needs protection (and we need more access) if we’re to heal the wounds this pandemic will leave behind.

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