This article is part of the Independent’s ongoing series, Thinking Outside the Crisis. Read Robin Whitaker’s introduction here.
In January I wrote about lessons learned from the blizzard of the century. Those now seem like the good old days as we confront a crisis of unimaginably vaster scope. In that article I noted a vibrant social media discussion of good things happening during the state of emergency that we might want to keep for the long run. Many of the points made—ironically, given the current situation—were about how connected people felt as, forced to stay home by the aftermath of the blizzard, they snowshoed around their neighbourhoods, chatting, visiting and helping each other shovel out.
Now once again we have to stay close to home and—once again—people are rallying to help each other, but with a huge difference: we can’t be convivial in the same way. Physical distancing is in some ways the exact opposite of what happened during the blizzard.
The impact of Covid-19 ranges from death and utter devastation to domestic comfort that is nonetheless fraught with uncertainty and anxiety. One experience we probably all share is being cut off from people and places we love. The things I miss most are everyday acts: hugging my grandchildren, hiking with friends, sharing food, and singing in my choir.
Still, as with the blizzard only exponentially more so, Covid-19 provides an opportunity to rethink some of the things we took for granted. If the blizzard highlighted the kindness of neighbours and the pleasures of neighbourhoods, the pandemic has also transformed us, not only locally but globally.
Once again, the question is: do we really want to get back to normal?
Judging by the popularity of social media stories about how the natural world is recovering during the global lockdown, for many, the answer is no.
Air quality has improved dramatically in large cities, most notably in China, leading at least one scientist to hypothesize that more lives might be saved there by the reduction in air pollution than are lost to Covid-19. The impact on air quality is significant for the whole planet, because China produces around 30% of the world’s CO2 emissions.
Also remarkable but less widely reported, the world is experiencing a level of quiet unprecedented in modern times The lull has enabled seismologists to do research that is impossible under normal circumstances. NPR producer Abby Wendle said, “I, for one, did not appreciate that humans rattle the earth like a tiny earthquake, but we do, mostly from transportation… And now that static is way less noisy.” The reduction in noise pollution also has implications for our relationships with our fellow inhabitants of the planet, as reporter Eleanor Beardsley noted in the same story. In Paris, where noise has been reduced by as much as 90%, she can hear birds and wildlife she has never heard before.
Viral stories on social media suggesting that dolphins and swans had returned to the canals of Venice as the city was left to itself—that nature had “hit the reset button”—turned out to be misleading, but they reflect a widespread desire for some kind of environmental redemption.
Yet how far can desire alone take us? It’s one thing to wish the stories were true or to express joy at the ones that are: the blue skies over Wuhan, the egrets calling along the Seine. It’s another to suggest we might change our way of life and our economic practices in ways that would truly “hit the reset button.”
Changing the Questions
Often during a crisis, the first question people ask is: “What went wrong?” when much of what led to the crisis was an entirely predictable result of things working in ways widely viewed as “going right.” For example, our forays deeper and deeper into remote places for development likely enabled the novel coronavirus to jump across species as humans encroached on the territory of previously undisturbed animals. The virus then continued to spread by way of global travel for work and pleasure. All of this activity contributes to the economy and thus could be understood as things “going right” and as the normal we need to get back to.
So what other questions should we be asking? What questions is it even possible to ask?
It’s difficult and frightening to ask questions about the economy, especially now when it is in such disarray, but we must. It has been clear for a generation that most of us in Newfoundland and Labrador can’t depend on fishing. It is now clear that we can’t depend on oil either. Its impact on the air, the climate and all living things is disastrous and besides, as Brett Favaro pointed out in his recent piece for this series, it is unlikely to be economically viable for much longer.
Climate change has already caused harm in our own province. In Nunatsiavut, according to a recent survey, one in 12 people has fallen through ice, two-thirds are now afraid to travel on it, and half say they have lost access to traditional hunting routes because of warming. Their knowledge of the ice comes from thousands of years of experience but now they can’t always rely on it: a life and death matter. The attendant inability to hunt and fish means they have to buy expensive poorer quality food if they can afford it or go hungry if they can’t.
Hard though it is, we have to shift our economies away from fossil fuels. We are perilously near collapse. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report predicts truly terrifying consequences if we do not limit average temperatures to around 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. UN Secretary General António Guterres has said that reaching that goal will require “urgent and far more ambitious action to cut emissions by half by 2030, and reach net zero emissions by 2050.”
According to the same report, 28% of our greenhouse gas emissions globally derive from transport. Who has the right to travel and where and how? During World War II, this question was asked routinely: “Is your journey really necessary?” Gas was rationed. Travel and transport of goods were tightly controlled and people were encouraged to “walk short distances – go by shank’s pony.”
By contrast today, a simulation map shows flights in the air at any given time, so dense they create solid colours over Europe and the United States, swarming like hornets over the rest of the world. Even more disturbing, the World Economic Forum advocates boosting global air traffic capacity. Meanwhile, a cruise passenger’s carbon footprint is up to three times what it would be on land. Emissions from shipping are linked to over 3000 premature deaths a year in Great Britain alone. In Canada, cars and light trucks produce over a third of greenhouse gas emissions caused by transport. With large distances between communities and little public transit, we are very dependent on these vehicles in Newfoundland and Labrador. But we can still find ways to be less so—especially in cities.
Transportation is a huge contributor to air and noise pollution, the enormity of climate change, and that’s without mentioning the tragedy of each individual death due to a crash. Government and business can and must offer incentives to help further the shift to low-carbon energy and transport, and job creation in those sectors and we must press them to do so. Individuals and families can also do their part by walking and using bicycles and other mobility devices to get around as much as possible. We need safe infrastructure such as clear sidewalks and off street routes for this to happen.
Changes in how we get around will also take effort and sacrifice, especially on the part of those of us who consume the most. Yet the same changes will bring us better health and more connected communities, as we stay home more and travel at a human pace. Rethinking how we import and export products could mean more local food, creating jobs and reminding us of the pleasures of seasonal eating.
It seems so inadequate to talk about bicycles and seasonal eating in the face of all that we know. We need to reorganize our entire petrochemical economy even though it has created a way of life that enables us to travel easily and to have many other advantages. We must find ways to keep the best of these but we can’t go on being so wasteful and feckless. If we do, our children or their children—the looming disaster of climate change is that close—may lose everything.
These things are easy to say. The harder thing is to accept that, even as we gain a deeper appreciation of our immediate world, our lives may be more limited in some ways. But if we have learned anything from Covid-19 that will serve us in the future, it is that we can make sweeping changes in our way of life when we have to for the common good.
In Bâtons à Message—Tshissinuatshitakana, the Innu poet Josephine Bacon wrote, “The starlit night carries you to a world that will keep you alive” (my translation). There is light in darkness. Maybe the popularity of those stories about clear skies, clean water, dolphins, egrets and swans speaks to a longing for a world that is quieter, fairer and cleaner, a world that will keep us alive.
Maybe the darkness of this pandemic offers light.
Photo by EelamStyleZ.
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