One thing the coronavirus has taught us is that, when the odds are high enough, people are capable of radically and precipitously altering their behaviors.
Faced with a potentially deadly virus, we set aside comfort and vanity to wear a mask. We adjust our shopping, schedules, exercise, travel and finances to stay safe, healthy, productive and solvent. Even Luddites are forced to embrace technology – Zoom, Facetime, digital performances and online webinars – to stay informed, connected and entertained.
We’ve even done what seemed near impossible before the pandemic – lowered our carbon emissions by a percentage that, if sustained annually, would be similar to the reduction required to meet the objectives of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
An international team of researchers recently found that over the first six months of this year, 8.8% less carbon dioxide was emitted globally than during the same period in 2019. Just by employees working at home rather than traveling to an office, CO2 emissions decreased by almost 40% worldwide. This unprecedented decline was the largest drop since WWII.
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“COVID has helped us see how easy it can be to reconfigure society,” said Leyla Acaroglu, a keynote speaker at Sarasota County’s 15th Sustainable Communities Workshop. The annual daylong conference, which featured local and out-of-town speakers discussing everything from climate change to composting, itself had a smaller carbon footprint this year because it was held entirely online.
That’s the good news. But according to the same study, published in the most recent issue of Nature Communications, the researchers also found that, as soon as lockdown measures were lifted, most economies began to rebound to their previous waste and emission levels. Like people who regain the weight they’ve lost as soon as they’ve reached a diet goal, it seems we swiftly revert to the comfortable patterns of our past, even while begrudgingly acknowledging the benefits of our temporary improvements.
Will the same hold true when the pandemic has passed? Will we acknowledge the benefit our behavioral alterations have had on our water, our air, our soil, our planet? Or we will scurry right back to past abuses?
One potential for disrupting that pattern lies in changing the design of both our products and our systems, said Acaroglu, a self-described “sustainability provocateur” from London. By rejecting our current linear economic system, which promotes growth through continual consumption and maximizes waste, and embracing a circular one, where what’s produced gets absorbed back into nature, “we can transform the way the world works and how we live.”
“Waste is a design flaw; we’ve designed for disposability,” said Acaroglu, founder of The Unschool of Disruptive Design. “You can’t have continual growth on a finite planet. We’ve based our economy on extraction and exploitation. We need to redefine what we value – not just because we’re losing value, but because it’s affecting us in unhealthy ways.”
What’s required is a “bigger picture” view of our environmental interconnectedness and and an acknowledgement that changing our behaviors will not only be good for future generations, but also for ourselves.
“We have to make informed decisions to invest in the products and decisions we want to see more of,” she said. “We need to figure out how to design products that go back through the technical and biological cycles. So the most empowering thing you can do is disrupt your own way of thinking about the world and overcome our linear mindset.
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“When we understand the infinite possibilities for connection, then we can connect to our own role. This relationship building is one of the key tools for thinking differently about the world and participating differently.”
But is that a perspective we’ll embrace when we’re not staring imminent personal peril in the face, as we have with the coronavirus? The pandemic has shown how we can be propelled by fear and social influence to accept radical adjustments. Yet when it comes to global warming and climate change, the threat feels less imminent and intimate, so it’s easy to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for adapting our behaviors.
Sarasota has been commendably proactive in its efforts to convert to a cleaner, greener, more circular economy, as well as to prepare for climate challenges. Last week at a public update on its Ready for 100 plan – the city’s pledge to convert to 100% renewable, zero-emission, energy sources by 2025 – staff reported decreases in greenhouse gases, transportation and waste emissions; increases in renewable energy resources, recycling and composting; and an overall reduction in per capita emissions. (The next major step will be a rewrite of the city’s building code and policies to promote greener standards and practices.)
Most individuals have neither the power not the agency to implement structural change. But systems can’t be altered if the people who participate in them are nearsighted and self-centered. We’ve accepted wearing a mask to protect the elderly, the frail and the health-compromised. Are we willing to make other lifestyle changes to protect the health and well-being of the children of the future?
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