The environmental changes, in so short a time, are already evident and dramatic. In Los Angeles, people are home from work, but they can see the blue sky above. In Venice, the canals are not brimming with tourist-filled gondolas, but the water is running cleaner, if not clean. People are taking time to be in nature because it is the best way to get out of the house and comply with social distancing requirements. And they are reaping health benefits because pollution levels across the country are plummeting as a result of humans staying home.
Indeed, the most surprising headline recently is that the reduction in our activity that is intended to reduce the spread of the disease may have saved tens of thousands of lives around the globe — in addition to those that are saved by social distancing to avoid getting the virus. A Stanford University researcher conservatively estimates that the reduction in air pollution for two months in China saved more than 50,000 people who would have otherwise died prematurely.
But we fear that instead of appreciating what we had been missing in our consumption-driven, plastic- and fossil-fuel-addicted world, we will rush to rebuild it just as it was. If the first three stimulus bills are any indication, that is exactly what we will do. The last bill was stripped of anything deemed to be “green,” even to the detriment of our health. State and local water authorities were denied needed assistance to keep water flowing so people can wash their hands, even though the water authorities are expecting as much as a 40 percent loss in revenue. We cannot imagine why dredging our harbors (which got funded) was more important than keeping clean water flowing to homes, hospitals and essential businesses.
Now is the time to make structural changes as we work to recover from the social and economic impacts of the pandemic. To do that, we need to see the benefits we reap from polluting less and wasting less. It would have been nearly impossible to appreciate the difference in our go-go world, where the impacts of pumping chemicals into our air and water and onto our land were diffuse and invisible — if we had nothing to compare it with. Now we do, and the satellite photos are remarkable.
Now is also the time to make the pivot to sustainability. More stimulus funding will be needed to recover our economic vitality — to get businesses up and running again and to create jobs to replace the ones that are gone for good. Why shouldn’t these new jobs be green jobs, such as ones to restore coastlines, help build renewable energy infrastructure and grow our food more sustainably?
And as we do with less now, it forces us to reassess our consumption patterns. What can we do without? It’s the right moment to ask Americans to look at what’s happening to our planet and ask for their support in making it healthier and capable of providing for current and future generations.
In the next stimulus bill, we should insist that companies that want help commit to more stringent environmental health and safety practices. If taxpayers are going to be on the hook to assist the energy, construction, manufacturing and transportation sectors, then let’s ask those companies to commit to measures such as reducing and reporting emissions, using innovative fuels and investing in research to reduce their environmental footprint.
Even in the midst of this crisis, we must not forget the potential for a brighter future ahead, with cleaner air and water and abundant biodiversity. But to achieve that goal, we must invest in resilient and climate-ready systems and infrastructure, reduce pollution and waste, and protect a much great percentage of nature. If this moment is teaching us anything, it is that we are all accountable to each other — as well as the value of cooperation at every level of society. We cannot solve the climate crisis and clean up the pollution that ails us without that same sense of shared responsibility and action.