How the coronavirus reveals our potential for positive change

Illustration by Tracy Ma/The New York Times

It seems all the current news these days pertains to the sweeping changes caused by the coronavirus. Many people are grappling with how to shift the patterns of their daily life under the recommendations from governments and health officials. In many cases these shifts have meant whole countries are slowed down and citizens are urged to stay home.

Because of the unprecedented nature of such a crisis in our recent history, the changes in response to the virus are revealing a lot about how we humans affect the Earth with our daily life. It’s rare to collectively slow down in our modern world, and the results of doing so are compelling.

In the comparison below we see the difference in air pollution (measured in nitrogen dioxide presence) before and during the coronavirus slow down in China. On the left is the pollution output from three weeks of regular operations, versus the pollution output during two weeks of reduced transportation and manufacturing on the right.

The satellite images have detected a significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide over China. Image source: NASA

This image shows a key takeaway- how quickly human action can change the immediate environment, and how important it is to realize what impact we can have when we take action for the collective good.

Societies are capable of swift and effective change if it’s seen as an emergency. Climate change is hurting more people than coronavirus, and will continue to be a pressing worldwide issue after the coronavirus passes. We’re capable of a lot when we as humans are in danger- in only a few weeks we have collectively changed our lives. It’s an example of what we are capable of doing, and though uncomfortable at first, large-scale changes are possible. Not only possible, but in this age of extreme climate change and the impending suffering it has the potential to bring, it is necessary.

This is not to say we should practice the same extreme guidelines as the ones currently recommended in this State of Emergency. But simple and efficient switches in one’s lifestyle can go a long way. Collectively we could considerably reduce our footprint, if we were united and motivated. Most of us can’t pack up and fly off earth so we need to care for our only planet. Now comes the tough question: Why are we ready to take any necessary actions when we feel personally endangered by a virus but not when it comes to fighting climate change? Are we not as motivated and protective of our children, grandchildren, and all future generations? Have we not seen and experienced the dangerous consequences of climate change enough yet?

Even though we’re already living through the consequences of climate change (for example, Santa Barbara has experienced extreme weather leading to recurring drought conditions and deadly natural disasters), these consequences will likely affect the future generations even more. I’m sure we can agree that this is not what we want for ourselves, and even less for our children, so… what are we waiting for?

As we’re all confined at home, how about we play a little game: identify a few actions each week that you have to do differently due to the outbreak and that have positive impact on Planet Earth. A few ideas: reducing trips to the grocery stores, working from home, eating less meat and reducing food waste, and since everybody’s talking about it, wasting less toilet paper(?!) Sort these things into three categories: hard, moderate and easy. Then commit to keep implementing the easy and moderate things once the virus is gone. And why not some of the hard ones too, because who doesn’t like a challenge? Fun, right?