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10 lessons from COVID-19 that could help us save the planet
This op-ed written by Tides Canada CEO Joanna Kerr article was first published by the National Observer on April 17, 2020.
Like many of us these days, I find myself wavering between despair and hope. In the depths of the COVID-19 crisis, words like “unprecedented” do not adequately reflect the magnitude of this massive disruption. In the charitable sector, we are also straddling both reactive and proactive strategies. We prioritize the immediate needs of vulnerable communities while planning a better future. In particular, I’ve been asking: What parts of this collective experience could have a lasting impact on the ways we relate to nature and climate change?
Before this virus took over our lives, people were largely still behaving as if there was no climate or biodiversity crisis. While 2019 finally ignited more widespread awareness that something had to give — thanks largely to millions of youth on the streets — policy-makers were slow to apply the reforms needed. Those with wealth or influence — indeed, most of us — went about our busy lives flying, driving, consuming, investing, and staking our future on an economy that was killing the planet.
And then COVID-19 hit.
Now, remarkably, people are taking drastic measures to flatten the curve. Is it possible that COVID-19’s influence could shift our culture in a way that benefits climate action and nature? For starters, the billions of dollars that will be spent to ensure an economic recovery is a huge opportunity for policy-makers to enable a transition to a just and green economy. But what about the rest of us? Do we want to go back to how things were?
I am not here to peddle a post-pandemic utopia, but rather share ideas that could help us build regenerative cultures once our economy starts up again, and we physically reconnect. I offer these 10 seeds of hope as habits and behaviours to cultivate:
1. Trust in science and experts. Around the world, we turn first to public health officials for the latest news, advice and guidance. They have become our new celebrities. Fake news is challenged like never before in an effort to save lives. Could these new trusted ambassadors help us shift to limit global warming to 1.5 C and maintain planetary health?
2. Believe disruption is the new normal. Banning international travel seemed like a radical idea when the coronavirus started spreading. Now it seems minor. Each day, new realities and challenges hit and we adapt. Could this mean that we accept major lifestyle transformations to live within the boundaries of our planet’s limits? Could we become more resilient (or better, antifragile) in the face of climate catastrophe?
3. Connect more, travel less. As we move our work online (and endeavour to decrease the digital divide), our new ways of working could drastically minimize the need for greenhouse gas/waste-producing conferences and business travel. Heck, with grandma now on Zoom, we can be more connected to family than ever while staying off those cruise ships.
4. Build essential local solutions. As health-care and front-line workers navigate insufficient stocks of ventilators or masks, this crisis has exposed the vulnerability of our global supply chains. Governments that don’t want to be caught off guard again are saying that life-saving supplies need to be locally sourced. Climate activists have long been advocating for more local procurement for reducing the carbon costs of shipment. Could the future be more local?
5. Cook, bake, share, grow. Across Canada, there are record-highs of bread-baking. Gardens are being planned and food waste is down. We have new appreciation for those who stock our grocery shelves (and the income they deserve) and what it means to get food onto our plates. Our food consumption patterns, built around an industrial agricultural system, have been huge contributors to the loss of biodiversity and the cutting of carbon-rich forests. Is it possible we will build new habits around food that champion a more regenerative system?
6. Caremongering. I’ve been inspired by the growing movement of “caremongering” in Canada that has received international attention as people look out for their neighbours and strangers. The experiences of marginalized people most affected by the virus have been brought forward, including homeless people, new immigrants, women in violent domestic situations, remote Indigenous communities and seniors in long-term care. Privilege is being surfaced to those of us with space, savings, internet access and jobs that can be done remotely. We’ve seen volunteerism grow, foundations step up their giving, and communities respond. We’ve seen love and decency shine, and greed put into the shadows. What could this mean for how we apply our privilege to advance social equity and caremongering for Mother Nature?
7. Honour the role of our elders. We are at risk of losing our elders to the virus. We are upending our societies to protect these most vulnerable community members in exchange for all they have given us throughout their lifetimes. Across the many Indigenous communities with whom we work, we are reminded that the elders are the ones who have held onto the language, the cultures, and the teachings, despite the impacts of colonization. For Indigenous communities, the loss of their elders would mean the next generation would lose opportunity for cultural resurgence. Indigenous ways of knowing convey what we all must learn from nature and our responsibility in treatment of other species. Could COVID give us pause to listen with deeper connection to the teachings of these elders?
8. Get outdoors. Nature is healing. Suddenly a walk through a green space has become an essential destresser in these anxiety-inducing times. That’s because trees and nature impact body chemistry. Instead of movie theatres and shopping malls, could this appreciation for the natural spaces in our communities lead to protection of nature and our health?
9. Tell people how they can help. People just need to be asked. They want consistent information from leaders and they will largely follow that advice. We all want to do our part. As someone who has been advocating my whole career for human rights, the environment and climate action, I’m often asked, “What can I do?” For nature and the climate, there is much we can all do: Avoid single-use plastic, take fewer flights, eat a plant-based diet, or donate to environmental organizations. Massive individual behaviour change will lead to system change. We are watching it right now.
10. Recognize our interconnectedness. Perhaps, most importantly, this is a moment of reckoning for humans on this planet. COVID-19 most likely started in a bat that infected other species, to humans, and then travelled around the world. Imagine, just one bat toppled entire economic systems. And the way to stop the virus is for every one of us to do our part within the system. Never before has there been such a painful lesson that I hope we remember for a long time to come: We are all part of nature and hold a stake in its future.
My greatest hope is that we are able to transform from this crisis with new compassion and connections. From our losses, there will be scars. But from our experience, there may be new cultures that define a healthier future.