From the onset of the quarantine, there has been much discussion of “when this is all over,” and “when things go back to normal”. Certainly, a vaccine and/or the disappearance of COVID-19 would be nothing short of miraculous and nothing I am proposing is intended to minimize the global tragedy we are living through. However overcoming COVID-19 does not mean we have to go back to “normal,” nor should we.
We have a unique, once-in-a-generation, opportunity to decide what the new normal is going to be. Will we continue to commute an hour each way to a drab office or will we embrace remote work? Will we return to our old patterns of consumption or reevaluate our needs and wants? Prior to this pandemic, it seemed that any hope for a green future was wildly improbable (with the exception of The Gambia and Morocco, no country is on target to even meet the Paris Climate goals). Habitat destruction and disregard for the natural world have led us to the feet of another mass extinction event.
For all of the suffering, COVID-19 has caused, we have been given a chance to learn from this painful time. We have seen how, given even just a few months, the Earth can begin to heal and reverse decades of destruction. We have learned that large-scale office space is largely unnecessary. We have learned that the daily commute for a large percentage of the economy is unnecessary. Perhaps most importantly, we have learned that much of what we once thought was a necessity is actually superfluous.
Since early March ,carbon emissions have been reduced to 2010 levels. The past three months have seen the largest reduction in carbon emissions on the planet, ever. The natural world is healing itself without human intervention. We are witnessing the incredible power of nature and our planet to recover and regenerate if only we would give them a fighting chance. This is a beautiful thing to see, but perhaps a greater lesson to learn is that working with nature, or simply leaving it alone, can be beneficial for us too. Businesses are saving money ending expensive leases, people are saving time and frustration avoiding a daily commute. With fewer cars on the road air pollution levels are going down and improving lung health. In India, the city of Jalandhar has been treated to breathtaking views of the Himalayas. Four months ago, there was a generation that grew up in Jalandhar without ever seeing these majestic peaks. For at least 30 years they have been totally obscured by air pollution. The same thing is happening in the west. Where I live, in Salt Lake City, between 1,000 and 2,000 people die prematurely every year due to horrific air pollution. Contrasting air pollution maps from January 2020 to March 2020 show the Salt Lake area has gone from a red hotspot of air pollution to barely a blip on the map. Many other cities have as well; Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, once red hot spots of air pollution, are now virtually invisible on these maps.
The natural world is changing, again reaching long lost homeostasis, but for how long? That is a choice we will have to make. Animals are beginning to return to places they had previously vacated, and in doing so are interacting differently than they would in human proximity. Researchers have been able to record Alaskan humpbacks undisturbed by droning ship engines for the first time ever. Many have seen stunning photos of marine life returning to the crystal clear canals of Venice. Fish, waterfowl even dolphins have returned. Even in historically protected areas, national parks such as Yosemite, animals have changed their behaviours in the absence of human traffic.
In addition to these tangible benefits, humans also have the benefit of improved physical and emotional health. People are walking more, running into neighbours (at a safe distance) who they may have never before seen. In April and May, I’ve walked on average 2 miles further per day than my usual daily walking distance. Most of these walks were with my daughter: ideal family time away from the things that seemed so important and urgent just a few short months ago. As life has gotten slower, we have all been collectively forced to focus on what’s most important. For many, that is the people under our own roofs, our families and friends. Even when separated by distance we are video chatting, calling and emailing.
Shouldn’t this be the future we want to create? When social distancing measures are relaxed will we continue to make the effort to keep in touch? Or will we be whisked back into our busy lives where it is so easy to forget friends and loved ones? It seems for once in my life society is focusing on people rather than things. This is a shift, the importance of which cannot be understated. There are clear emotional benefits of living a more examined life and focusing on what matters most, of course, but by consuming less we are in turn using fewer resources and producing less garbage.
Eventually, life will return to “normal,” it is unrealistic to expect that residents of Jalandhar won’t go back to work and Venetians won’t get back into canals, but globally as a species, we have had a wake-up call. We can make changes, we can do things differently, we can change our habits.
What is the normal I want to see when the cities reopen and social distancing measures disappear? More remote work; let’s leave the drab office buildings in the 20th century and have fewer cars making a daily commute. Let’s focus less on acquiring things and spend more time with people. Let’s show more respect for nature; fewer flights, fewer cruises. Let’s examine our needs and wants, not just sometimes but all the time. Before getting in our car and going to the store let us ask, “would I have put on a face mask and left my house during the pandemic just so I could have this right now?” We could not have answered that before, but now we can.
Photo: Jeremy Yap