The connection between our natural and built environments and our well-being has been apparent for many years. More recently, trends such as urbanization, population growth and an increasingly globalized economy have enhanced this connection.
Looking through the eyes of a pandemic such as COVID-19, this environment and health relationship unfortunately becomes even more acutely evident at the societal and individual levels. What is remarkable is that almost all of the recommended approaches to mitigating global emissions and slowing climate change — such as ending deforestation and reducing air travel — also would help to significantly reduce the risk of global pandemics.
At the same time, on an individual level, today’s current reality is shining a light on this environment and health connection in our daily lives in different ways and, in somewhat brutal irony, on the cusp of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.
Living more sustainably at home was always important to me. But living and working at home alongside my family in relative isolation is challenging many of those practices. The number of boxes and deliveries and associated waste has multiplied. Energy use is undoubtedly increasing. The focus on reusing versus disposing is being challenged every day.
So, as a sustainability professional, as well as a husband and a parent, I’ve been waking up lately thinking about two things: How do I somehow continue to encourage my company and our employees to live and operate more sustainably in our current situation? And how can I adapt a sustainable lifestyle to a world where we are living and working at home, while keeping my family and loved ones safe and healthy?Living more sustainably at home was always important to me. But living and working at home alongside my family in relative isolation is challenging many of those practices.
There is no perfect solution or easy answer. Fortunately, from an environmental perspective, we are witnessing a number of unintended positive consequences from our social distancing:
- There is significantly less driving and travel. We are seeing stark clear benefits from this. In cities from Boston to Los Angeles, the air quality is — at least temporarily — improving dramatically.
- Office buildings are significant contributors to climate change, but they are now largely dormant and using far less energy than they typically do.
- While it does seem you can’t find certain items on the store shelf, generally people are getting accustomed to only buying what they need, and perhaps this will help break the pattern of overconsumption that has become the unfortunate norm.
- We are reconnecting to the outdoors and appreciating nature for the health benefits it provides.
At the same time, COVID-19 is starkly illustrating how critical it is to reduce our impact on the planet and the urgent need to try harder to address societal inequalities:
- Industrial meat production is not only harming the planet but it is also significantly increasing the risk of pandemics.
- Research already has found that COVID-19 patients living in areas that had high levels of air pollution before the pandemic are more likely to die from the infection.
- Recent data emerging has found that African-American populations seem to be disproportionally affected by COVID-19 in the United States.
- The Harvard School of Public Health has noted that preparing for pandemics is also about keeping people healthy to begin with, when in the United States a third of the population is obese and 5-10 percent have diabetes.
So what does this all mean for companies and individuals, and how can we prioritize our actions and choices to better prepare us for pandemics and a more sustainable world? As overwhelming as this situation might feel, it’s more urgent than ever that we double down on efforts that lead to a more sustainable and thriving planet and society.
As companies we can:
- Recognize and continue to press the urgency of climate change in our organizations and do everything we can to transition to a lower-carbon economy.
- Continue to explore and share our understanding of the connection between our planetary health and societal health.
- Promote and elevate the importance of mental and physical well-being for our employees in our current COVID-19 environment and beyond.
- Take on a joint responsibility to address the root causes of inequality and lack of environmental justice affecting many of our communities.
As individuals, we can:
- Try to use social distancing and isolating as an opportunity to rethink the 3 R’s paradigm and focus on the reducing and reusing principles that are often forgotten.
- Pay more attention to our energy use and procurement, as well as the efficiency of our homes.
- Question our own purchasing and consumption habits, realizing we can likely do more with less.
- Reconnect with the outdoors and commit to supporting efforts aimed at conservation and increasing access to nature.
COVID-19 is setting a new reality for all of us, but we can use this as a time to reset and make more conscious decisions at home and at work. As we eventually start to rebuild our economy and communities, let’s look to things such as climate change mitigation and resilience efforts to drive our growth and align our actions to the carrying capacities of our planet and people. If we do this right, we can make these better choices permanent. And what better time to do that than the 50th anniversary of Earth Day?