What do the Himalayas and COVID-19 have to do with each other? Or, to ask it another way, what impact does the virus have on our sustainability efforts right now?
In the very early days of March, I met with the sustainability leader of a large financial services firm. The company was still open, but had made changes, most notably eliminating all reusable cups, flatware, and plates. “I spent years fighting to eliminate disposables to hit our zero-waste targets. Have we just sent the message to everyone that sustainability is unsanitary? How will we ever get someone to trust reusables again?” he lamented. As reusable bags are banned and cleaning supplies with bleach enter our home for the first time in years, his concerns are understandable.
There are also those who celebrate the positive environmental impact the virus is having. Most environmental scientists agree that any benefit from reduced activity is short-term and the long-term impact of such dramatic economic disruption and human suffering will likely harm natural economies and systems. When people begin to return to work, urban planners believe people will avoid public transportation, which could cause epic traffic and resulting pollution. Cheaper fuel could slow the transition to renewables and EVs.
However, the science of behavior change does identify one potential long-term environmental benefit that could come out of this otherwise tragic situation. Citizens in Northern India are seeing the Himalayas for the first time in over 30 years, due to reduced air pollution. People are learning how to make bread and plant seeds. Many are working remotely for the first time ever. We are undergoing one giant, global “dot” behavior change, as BJ Fogg refers to it, where we do or experience something new once. In some areas, we have even moved into what’s known as a “span” behavior change, where we don’t just telecommute once, but we do it a number of times over a period. Eventually, that could lead to “path” change, where you do a new habit for good. As Mathis Wackernagel from the Global Footprint Network says, “The pandemic creates an opportunity to learn new habits, like telecommuting and finding forms of entertainment that require fewer resources.”
To change behavior, people need both the ability to change and the motivation to change. As highly visual creatures, seeing the Himalayas again or tasting homemade bread or experiencing the joy of a day without a commute ultimately provides more motivation. We’ve also now seen what we are able to do with collective action, even though it’s not sustainable to maintain nor how we would have ever, ever chosen to get here. Experiencing these changes, and the resulting benefits, could prove to be powerful catalysts for finding significantly better ways to achieve the same improved outcomes.
So take time to keenly observe what “dot” changes you’ve made, perhaps some that may already be “span” changes. Now that your team has been working from home full-time (and with kids!), can you see having people work from home two days a week, without the kiddos around? That would cut emissions from commuting by up to 40%, which is directionally what we need to achieve by 2030. Did you attend an event virtually, find it useful AND you got to be home for dinner that night? Perhaps you swap a few in person events for virtual equivalents. I know I can’t wait to get back to my indoor cycling community. But can I also see going for walks more often instead of sitting in a dark room at 6am? Maybe not in the dead of winter, but certainly the rest of the year, as long as I can find friends to join me. Did you start to grow a garden and add plants, bushes or even trees into this world? Every little bit of added nature helps, so keep planting!
So no, this pandemic is not good for the environment itself. But it has given us a powerful, Himalayas-filled, catalytic vision of what a world with significantly less pollution looks like. Let’s get through this pandemic and then go figure out a much, much better way to achieve it.
Quote of the Week: “A vision is not just a picture of what could be; it is an appeal to our better selves, a call to become something more.”Rosabeth Moss Kanter