A Closer Look at the COVID-19 Pandemic — in the Context of Sustainability

A Closer Look at the COVID-19 Pandemic — in the Context of Sustainability

In the midst of a pandemic, there’s a lot on everyone’s mind.

Students who had to cope with a transition to online classes are also adjusting to working remotely, and millions more are lamenting the loss of their jobs and the security that came with them. Some are essential workers — and must choose between employment and limiting exposure to potentially dangerous situations.

Amid these priorities vying for our attention, other considerations might slip out of the immediate focus. For example, sustainability and climate change. This is true on individual and national scales alike: on March 18, news cycles were busy discussing the exponentially growing 210,000 global cases of COVID-19 rather than celebrating Global Recycling Day. Fast forward to present day, and not much has changed. COVID-19 has dominated media outlets for three months now.

But just because environmental change can’t be on everyone’s mind right now doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

You may have heard news of environmental change in the wake of the pandemic. During China’s first month of lockdown, the country produced approximately 200 million fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide than in the same period in 2019. This was due to widespread reduction in air traffic, oil refining, and coal consumption. Meanwhile, the water in Venice’s famous canals became crystal clear due to reduced boat traffic and air pollution along the waterways; locals claim the water hasn’t been this clear in 60 years. There are even reports of an increased presence of waterfowl.

More recently, studies have shown that we are living through the largest drop in carbon dioxide emissions in the last century. Over 100 years, no war, recession, or previous pandemic has had such a drastic impact on greenhouse gases as COVID-19 has in just a few months.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign also experienced localized changes to campus carbon emissions and energy use as a result of virtual coursework and increased remote work. For insight on this topic from iSEE Baum Family Director Evan H. DeLucia, visit this interview.


What to Make of It All

What does it mean for us as a society to see reports of such rapid environmental change in the face of mass economic contraction and social distancing?

People ARE making meaning of this: Environmental discussions run rampant on social media sites like Twitter, which have become ever more essential for communication during this time of isolation. Some are rejoicing, pointing to clear water and singing birds. Is the environmental upswing that we’re seeing on the news indicative of the reality of the situation? Should we be celebrating?

Environmental phenomena certainly deserve a nod, but it’s worth remembering that sustainability is holistic: environmental, economic, and societal.

While we mourn the destruction COVID-19 continues to wreak on our society, it is worth recognizing that the pandemic is simultaneously a public health crisis and a real-time experiment in downsizing our consumer economy.

Ultimately, seeing the air and water clear up during this pandemic is a reminder that we must strive to improve how we interact with the Earth through better policy and mindfulness, both in times of crisis and during everyday life.

Many worry that any reduction in pollution during this period of emergent economic crisis will be more than offset by efforts to re-energize the economy once the brunt of the pandemic has passed. But instead, perhaps our society will come out of this crisis so deeply changed that individuals and corporations will continue to make environmentally conscious decisions, even when those decisions are not mandatory.


Follow the Food

A particular industry that has been forced to adapt in the face of this pandemic is the beating heart behind the country’s economic and human health: agriculture. As most of us recall, at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, grocery store shelves were often empty. However, many farmers were unable to sell all their goods and had to resort to simply throwing away the excess.

“This happened because some farmers are set up to sell to grocery stores, while others are set up to sell to restaurants,” said Don Fullerton, Professor of Finance and an environmental economist at the U of I. “Due to the sudden reduction in business restaurants have been dealing with, the farmers that normally sell to restaurants couldn’t sell all their goods.”

But while restaurants and dining establishments are slowly beginning to feed more patrons, we can say one thing for certain: Things won’t be the same for the food service or food production industries after the pandemic is over. Social scientists have long recognized that ongoing disasters with tragic consequences tend to give way to processes of societal change.

Said Fullerton: “This is a massive upheaval of all of our social systems. There are all kinds of transitions that are happening, both at the individual level and economic level.”

Hopefully, some of our most environmentally friendly transitions will stick: many activities that have been traditionally face-to-face may become online mainstays as we get used to holding Zoom meetings and taking online classes; similarly, in workplaces where face-to-face interaction is a necessity, companies might take notice of opportunities to replace air travel with sustainable alternatives. And the farming community is no exception: farms are beginning to restructure sales, such that an individual farmer can sell to multiple types of businesses, which will prevent future food waste.

In terms of individual changes, COVID-19 is forcing many to be more conscious of what food they’re buying and how they’re making use of it. For most, grocery trips are less frequent these days — and often involve standing in long lines and finding that your store doesn’t stock everything on your list. As a consequence, people are finding ways to strategically use and preserve the food they have at home. Should we hold onto them post-pandemic, these habits have the potential to massively reduce food waste.


A Greener Tomorrow

Travel and dining habits aren’t the only changes we’re adjusting to. As the weather warms and people have been cooped up for longer periods of time, COVID-19 is also forcing many to reevaluate their relationship with nature. While it’s easy to get stuck inside, ruminating over anxieties, simple activities like taking a walk down a tree-lined neighborhood can often be enough to put someone in a clearer headspace.

Thanks to CDC for sharing their work on Unsplash.

As explained by Ming Kuo, Professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (NRES) and Director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois, “There are powerful effects from even small doses of nature. Five minutes of playing with soil, for example, will change your serotonin profile, which makes you calmer and more focused.”

Natural spaces have suddenly become more important to the average person, and it would be fantastic if this newfound appreciation could spur on greater efforts to include more greenery around human infrastructure. Kuo hopes that society at large will begin to understand what her research has shown all along: “Nature’s not just good because we feel bad if we don’t have it. It’s good because we need it. Nature is a need, not a treat.”

In the wake of this dire public health emergency, it will be important for policymakers and citizens of planet Earth to keep sustainability in mind going forward. Although we cannot hope to offset all the suffering caused by COVID-19, we can at least push for a transition to a more sustainable society that places less pressure on our environment through unchecked consumption.


— Article by iSEE Communications Intern April Wendling