Throughout the enforced quiet and solitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, the planet has gotten something of a break. Greenhouse gas emissions have dropped, smog has cleared, and animals have felt free to reclaim places they normally cannot go. Of course, the news is not as good as it may appear; as I’ve discussed before, polluting industries are likely to make up for lost time later, and meanwhile the public health crisis provides convenient cover for the erosion of many important environmental protections.
For a disease to force an end to pollution, it would have to be much more severe than COVID-19 is likely to be.
But what COVID019 cannot force, we can freely choose. We’ve breathed cleaner air, seen clearer water, known a greater intimacy with wild animals and, in many cases, with each other. Do we want to go back? Or do we want to go forward?
OK, but how? Clearly we can’t stay in lockdown forever—some of us never locked down in the first place, either by choice or through economic necessity or civic duty. Others are being driven into poverty at this moment, struggling to survive with little or no income and no reduction of rent and other demands. We might be able to stick with it long enough to beat COVID, but it’s not a permanent solution.
So what we need to figure out is exactly which aspects of lockdown are good, environmentally speaking, and of these which can we maintain long-term without too much trouble.
I had wanted to do this article as a research piece, but the information I would need is not easily available and I already have one master’s degree and don’t need another. So instead this will be a post more about asking questions than about answering them.
Exactly how does the lockdown yield environmental benefits? What aren’t we doing now, and which gives us our best bang for our buck? It’s a good and important question. If you find and answer, please let me know. My guess involves the following:
We’re not flying. We’re not flying much, anyway. Air-travel continues, but at a much-reduced rate.
We’re not driving. Again, we haven’t stopped driving entirely, but as most of us aren’t working, taking our kids to school, or going much of anywhere fun, there is much less traffic. So I have heard, anyway. Our local roads actually look pretty normal on the rare occasions I go out.
We’re not buying stuff we don’t need. Stores are closed, we’re encouraged to stay out of them, and most of us don’t have much money anyway, so we’re mostly only buying essentials. Cutting back on inessentials reduces demand, which slows production, which reduces industrial emissions. So I gather, anyway.
I have not heard any reports of lockdown closing factories directly (the cutting of supply despite continued demand) except in meat processing—sadly, I have heard nothing to suggest that the meat industry has reduced its production of animals to adjust to the closing of some meat-packing plants. Animals who reach their slaughter size without a facility ready to slaughter them are killed to make room for new animals coming in, the meat and their deaths wasted. Aside from the ethical dimensions of that situation, the meat that isn’t being eaten has the same large carbon footprint as the meat that is.
Let’s try an equation:
A – B = C
A is the emission reduction achieved by reducing a given activity (such as driving) to lockdown levels, B is the heartache and difficulty caused by the reduction, and C is the advisability of continuing the reduction after lockdown ends.
For any given activity, what are the values of A, B, and C?
Because as much as some of us like to instinctively just do without stuff for the good of the planet, there is nothing inherently helpful in asceticism, and too much denial is bad for the movement and, arguably, bad for the soul. We have to figure out what’s worth giving up and what isn’t.
We can approximate these figures by looking at carbon footprint estimates—something with a big footprint is likely to have a big value for A—but we can’t be sure. For example, we know flying has a large footprint, but a slight reduction in the number of flights combined with a drastic reduction in number of passengers (meaning planes flying almost empty) could actually lead to a higher per-passenger footprint for air travel.
How much of the heartache we’re dealing with has less to do with what we’ve given up and more to do with how we’ve given it up—suddenly, with little time to prepare, either as individuals or as a society? And to what extent are some aspects of lockdown making others harder than they otherwise would be?
For example, mass transit has been limited or reduced in many areas, meaning that while we’re not on the road as much, when we are on the road we’re in individual vehicles, blunting the benefits of traveling less. Similarly, the community spirit many people have discovered is limited by the demands of social distancing. If we stayed home together and could actually be together that would be better yet for our communities, wouldn’t it?
As a related issue, the fact that we’re all staying home and apart because of a pandemic means that we don’t just stay home when it’s boring or inconvenient, we also stay home when it’s dangerous or otherwise awful. Domestic violence seems to be up. Child abuse could be, too. Masks make communication harder for people with hearing problems or auditory processing problems, and life shouldn’t be harder for them. Single parents trying to work from home find themselves also responsible for their kids’ academics.
In suggesting that some aspects of lockdown should continue, I don’t mean they should continue like this. I mean that some of us are noticing advantages, and we have the opportunity to find ways to keep some of those advantages without so much of the difficulty.
We can achieve it through creative problem-solving and a willingness to try new ways of accomplishing what we need to. For example, while some work really shouldn’t be done from home except as an awkward stop-gap, maybe we can use the tools we’ve learned to cut back on commuting and business travel?
What lockdown is giving us is a chance to examine our lives both individually and collectively, a chance to stop business as usual and make some decisions about what we want to do next. Yes, of course, where lockdown is causing problems for you I wish you godspeed in getting rid of those problems—personally, I don’t think it has to be as difficult as it is. Our society could do a better job at taking care of our people than we do. But those of you who are really OK, or those of you who are OK with some aspects of this new normal, even if not with others, now you know something important. You know that your “OK” is more flexible than you thought it was.
The future isn’t going to look like the past. Climate change assures us of this– “unsustainable” means can’t be sustained, after all. We have a choice. We can either allow increasing severe weather, more fires and pandemics and plagues of all sorts to change our lives for us, or we can come together and decide what we want to change.
Achieving sustainability will require giving things up, but they don’t have to be the important things—and what we get in exchange could be sweet and heart-warming and lovely.
Look, I don’t have any illusions that COVID-19 is going to automatically trigger any kind of new, eco-conscious lifestyle, not any more than it will fix and other of the societal ills it has made so glaringly obvious in the past few months. In fact, economies are already opening back up, some parts of the world are returning to normal, or trying to, and skies are doubtless starting to re-darken with smog.
But they don’t have to. If you like clear skies and clean waters and sharing driveway concerts with your neighbors, and you don’t want to lose these things again you don’t have to,