Seeking Out A “New Normal”: How we could emerge from the pandemic stronger, more resilient and ready
Updated: Nov 15, 2020
2020 was the year that “was cancelled”. With some members of society complaining about how unfair this was. But maybe this is the year when our mindless flying and over-consuming is finally dismantled. The year when we stand up and say enough to destroying our planet. Instead of waiting for life would go back to how it was before, what if we used this time to contemplate long-lasting changes? We have a unique opportunity to build back better from the pandemic, in a way that confronts the climate crisis and tackles the issues our planet faces head on. Even though the power for change is mainly in the hands of big businesses, national governments and global industries, could the realisation that humanity is not invincible - and that worse storms are to be weathered in the future - spur us all into action? Could we really use this time to find our ‘new normal’?
Let us first address the environmental changes we have seen during Coronavirus. On a global scale, we have seen borders close, flights grounded, and cities become deserted. CO2 emissions in major cities such as New York have fallen approximately 5-10% since coronavirus hit. Air pollution levels have shown significant drops. In addition, the levels of nitrogen dioxide (a harmful greenhouse gas) have fallen; these results not only help save the planet but could dramatically reduce respiratory illnesses. In many ways, one might feel optimistic that in a relatively short stretch of time we have seen visible changes in greenhouse gas emissions, that we could reverse the damage we have done. Of course, the drop-in emissions has not come about by effective policy, a crisis causing a significant amount of hardship has forced it. Therefore, with the ease of lockdown, the levels of emissions worldwide are predicted to return to what they were pre-coronavirus. Historically time and time again governments have used shock tactics during a time of crisis to push through economic agenda and sell out the environment. For example, the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 also saw a temporary drop in emissions, but unfortunately rebuilding the economy correlated with an increase in carbon emissions. We must offset this trend and instead rebuild our societies in a way that reduces emissions in the long-term.
Social science research indicates that interventions are much more effective if they take
place during moments of substantial change. A study conducted at Zurich University in 2018 found that when people were unable to drive their private cars and instead given free access to e-bikes, they drove much less when they were given their private cars back. It is clear that times of change could lead to the introduction of lasting habits that are more climate-focussed and sustainable for the future. This relies on us resisting the temptation to fall back into our old habits. It is also pertinent right now that we recognise the link between infectious diseases and the destruction of the natural world and acknowledge, as a society, that if we continue to obliterate the natural world that there will be many more pandemics to come.
If we look back to March 2020, we are reminded of just how quickly communities in the UK locked down and adapted to the changed pace of life. Our willingness to make these
changes for the good of public health clearly shows that when called upon, we can act
collectively. This is a crucial tool we would need to tackle the climate crisis going forward.
Our ability to create change relies on the lessons we have learnt during this pandemic. Even small lessons such as making the perfect banana bread can have sustainable impacts such as teaching young children not to throw away soft brown bananas but to turn them into something comforting and delicious. Working from home, whilst not available for all sectors, had been widely achieved by a variety of businesses reducing the amount of pollution created from commuting. In addition, there were other health and economic benefits as many employees suggested that spending an extra hour or more at home with their families has had a major impact on their mood and productivity. Twitter, for example, has permitted all of their staff to work from home on an indefinite basis, showing that big corporations, as well as individuals, can also be held accountable for implementing sustainable policies in response to the lockdown experience.
Furthermore, there has been increased appreciation for nature during lockdown, and increased awareness of the positive effects that the natural world can have on our mental and physical health. Staying local has meant that the number of Google searches for “bird sounds”, “growing plants” and “identify trees” has doubled since this time last year. Behaviour change on an individual level is important in tackling the climate crisis and establishing our new normal. Even though we are not all Greta Thunberg, we have a lot of power, as consumers, to drive demand for products. We can all play a role in shaping the products in our shops by encouraging local produce, boycotting fast fashion wherever possible, avoiding single-use plastics, and more generally lessening the obsession we have with consumption in our Western culture. We must demand change from the businesses, industries and governments that we rely upon.
We must be the change we want to see in the world. An Ipsos poll conducted on World
Environment Day showed that “3 in 4 people in 16 major countries expect their
governments to make the protection of the environment a priority when planning recovery from the coronavirus pandemic” . Environmental campaigners are demanding that the bailout packages include provisions for large-scale emission reductions. All of this could prevent pollution levels from rising to pre-Covid levels. There is certainly work to be done, but we must value what we have learnt from Coronavirus on an individual, local and global scale, and harness this change to construct a society that is resilient, sustainable and future-focused.
Written by Milena Murphy