The coronavirus strain that causes COVID-19 has infected over two million people in more than 160 countries. The rising death counts are heartbreaking, and the fact that we can’t even go through the customary funeral rituals to help us heal emotionally has made the crisis that much harder for many of us. We’re also feeling the economic impacts of the pandemic, with unemployment rates climbing, the financial markets indicating a global recession and small businesses being forced to close in a number of areas. While dealing with my own losses and self-isolation, as a graduate student in Columbia’s Sustainability Science program, I can’t help but notice the parallels between what this virus is doing to us and what we’ve been doing to our planet.
Sustainability is the concept of maintaining equitable conditions across not only socioeconomic and geographic barriers, but also across generations and through time. Sustainability seeks to demonstrate that there is a way for society to progress and prosper in harmony with the planet. It’s about maintaining a healthy balance between people and the environment.
When a virus like the coronavirus invades its host, it disturbs the natural order in that system. A virus seeks to replicate not only to the detriment of its host but with complete disregard to all the other cells and microbiomes within the system. Analogously, sustainability teaches us about our planet, which can be thought of as a system much like the human body. Except, rather than a virus disrupting the natural order, we, the humans, have disrupted the system. We have sought to replicate and grow to the detriment of our planet and all of the species within it.
What we know so far is that the coronavirus is replicating at high levels in the upper respiratory tract for several days before people become symptomatic. This is part of why the virus has been so successful in spreading at such a high rate. Similarly, humans started to spread all over the planet before they began to damage it. Damage for COVID-19 can be thought of as the symptoms of a dry cough, tightness of the chest and a fever. Damage for the planet can be extrapolated from rising sea levels, deforestation and increasing global temperatures.
But coronavirus isn’t always devastating. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that up to 25 percent of all positive COVID-19 cases can be entirely asymptomatic — they cause no symptoms whatsoever. The sustainability analogy here are the people that are living their lives in a way that minimizes their impact on the rest of the world. These people are careful to lower their carbon footprint. They make conscious decisions when making a purchase. And when they need to go somewhere, they do so in an environmentally friendly way. Ultimately, however, they are still a part of the spread of humankind — the COVID-19 of planet Earth.
While this critique may seem harsh, the parallels are all there. But, if more people lived their lives in harmony with their environment and in a truly equitable way, then humans wouldn’t pose a threat to the planet. We would still proliferate, but entirely asymptomatically — more akin to the natural bacteria in our intestines than an invasive virus.
So many things have changed in our daily lives during this short battle with the coronavirus. There is less smog in cities, the homeless have been brought indoors and people are making sincere efforts to stay in touch with friends and family like never before. So, while the pandemic is awful, the deaths are tragic and the isolation suffocating, the virus has certainly brought perspective to the ways our societies work.
It’s hard for anyone to say what the world will look like after COVID-19, since it has brought into question so many things that we have always accepted as the norm. Commuting to work or school, sitting at a coffee shop and going to the gym are all examples of things that many of us used to do. By not engaging in these activities anymore, we have reduced energy consumption and emissions in our respective cities and as a result, the air is cleaner, for now.
The true test of the sustainability movement will come after we win the battle against COVID-19 and achieve a new semblance of normalcy. When the new normal arrives, we must leverage the changes that COVID-19 brought to our societies as concrete examples of what we can achieve from an energy efficiency perspective. Cities in America have recorded 15-30 percent reductions in carbon monoxide, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and black carbon. Many companies have found ways to accommodate employees with remote work policies and alternate work setups that have allowed productivity to continue without the traditional barricades. If these narratives become a part of the conversation, then we can be hopeful that the sustainability movement will continue forward and be more powerful than ever before.