“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” Winston Churchill famously said. We are unmistakably in a crisis. And while all hands are on deck dealing with the health, economic and social impacts of the coronavirus epidemic, recent events paint a still larger crisis in a new, and possibly more hopeful light.
The World Health Organization tells us that as the climate warms and becomes more chaotic, disease outbreaks will grow. Vectors such as mosquitoes will travel to new territory. Water and sanitation systems will be overwhelmed by floods, hurricanes and other disasters. Human immune systems will be stressed by excessive heat. The current emergency can be seen as a dry run for more of the same in the future.
But there is light amidst the gloom. While government response to the crisis might not be everything we would wish, it has overall been quick and comprehensive. Millions of people are working from home. Classes, conferences and meetings are being held online. Cruise ships sit abandoned at the dock and thousands of airliners are grounded, at a stroke cutting two of our most polluting industries dramatically. Famously crowded venues from Disneyland to concert and sport venues sit empty, replaced by virtual celebrations or by quieter activities at home.
We have all seen the impacts. City centers and freeways are all but empty. Traffic has plummeted, along with the enormous carbon emissions from our tailpipes. The canals of Venice are running clear for the first time in generations, and the air in Beijing is amazingly clean and breathable. China, one of the world’s biggest polluters, has cut emissions by an estimated 25%, virtually overnight.
Of course, much of this is temporary. Most people are eager to get back to normal, and local businesses are certainly hopeful that customers will return soon. But if there is a lesson in this crisis it is that we are capable of extraordinary changes in a short space of time, given sufficient motivation.
While some still debate the seriousness or even the reality of climate change, it is clear to any informed observer that our planet is under grave threat. Some of the lifestyle changes recommended by experts have received scant attention until they were quickly adopted for the current health crisis. Remaking the ways we live, work and play will not be easy, but there is no longer any doubt that it can be done. This is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.
If virtual meetings and conferences work as well as flying halfway around the world, why not make this standard practice? If technology makes it practical for many to work from anywhere there’s an internet connection, why force them to clog the highways twice a day? If suddenly the wisdom of floating around the ocean with thousands of strangers in a lightly-regulated, highly polluting cruise ship seems like a bad idea, why is that a lesson we would abandon once the current crisis is behind us? If we suddenly appreciate the value of a vacation close to home instead of flying to Paris, Peru or Istanbul, perhaps the lesson should be a lasting one.
While emergencies sometimes bring out the worst in human behavior, they can also bring out the best. We are seeing unprecedented acts of kindness and cooperation, brilliant technological innovations and inspiring leadership. Best of all, we are seeing neighbors and communities coming together to help those in need and to preserve the things we value. The current crisis will fade, but let us continue to offer to each other our kindness and generosity, our problem-solving abilities, and our willingness to sacrifice. Together we can successfully meet not just the current crisis, but all of those to come.
Tim Goncharoff is the Zero Waste Programs Manager for Santa Cruz County.