A few days ago, a picture of a crystal-clear Venice canal popped onto my Instagram feed with a caption explaining that with no boats stirring up sediment, the waterways have become hospitable to all sorts of creatures. Of course, my face lit up when I saw that bright post after a couple of dark weeks in the news, but more importantly, it had me thinking about whether this positive environmental trend would last. It also made me realize that if there is any time to change our attitude surrounding environmentalism, it’s now.
In some ways, the odds are stacked against humankind to change for the better. As we begin to reopen, factories will resume pre-pandemic production rates, people will get back in their cars, and the Venice canals will be clogged up with boats again. And unfortunately, we may pose a larger threat to our environment post-pandemic than we did before.
One area of environmental concern are buying habits. In the past month, buying items in bulk, such as toilet paper, gloves, and even food, has become commonplace. Shoppers let paranoia get to their head and bought more than they could ever need, despite public officials warning that there is no need to panic.
Buying in large quantities does require less plastic for packaging per unit and less energy for trips to the store, but can often lead to the harmful practice of over-purchasing. For example, purchasing amounts of food beyond what one can reasonably eat, like many have done in these past few weeks, poses a threat.
Every component of getting food to the grocery requires energy, from the agricultural emissions all the way through every step of the supply chain. Beyond food, overbuying a lot of non perishable goods puts an enormous strain on the environment. For example, a single roll of toilet paper takes 37 gallons of water to manufacture, and the industry significantly contributes to deforestation. Gloves and other plastics require huge energy investments to create, and are slow to decompose, endangering animal life. If irrational post-pandemic fear drives us to over-purchasing, we risk coming out of this crisis worse than we started.
Fortunately, we also wield the power to let this change us for the better. We have to learn to treat climate change like a pandemic: with swift action and a willingness to make personal sacrifices. According to a National Academy of Sciences study, more than 100,000 people die each year in the United States from air pollution related causes alone – viewing climate change as a real crisis should not be too difficult.
The good news is that we have proved that as a country, and even as a world, we are capable of changing our habits in times of emergency. As social distancing measures become less strict, we should be asking ourselves some of the same questions that we were during the pandemic: do I really need to go out to the grocery store when my shelves are stocked at home? Is all of my travel necessary, or can I skip that one car trip? We will realistically aim for less radical changes in our daily lives, but the idea of changing our habits in the face of crisis should remain the same.
We should also learn to trust science over our own emotions. Just like during this pandemic, blindly following our emotions rather than data can get us into tricky places. Emotionally, climate change is a difficult idea to process; it is a global threat that some may not even witness themselves at the moment. It is a tough pill to swallow, because it means that we are going to have to adjust the way we live our lives.
But just like this pandemic, all scientific signs point to climate change being a real, serious situation. There are reliable models that predict the imminence of climate destruction and its effect on humankind. The short timeline on these models prove that Generation Z may be our last chance to save our planet. The only question left to ask is whether we will let the coronavirus be a wake-up call, or whether this crisis will pass in vain.