Cooke: We should focus on environmental impacts of COVID-19

Cody Cooke

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

COVID-19 has affected every aspect of modern life. Particularly, the pandemic has resulted in heightened awareness of humanity’s impact on the planet, an awareness that has become popular through the emergence of “the Earth is healing” memes. While these are clearly jokes that may help us pass the time in quarantine, the sentiment behind them is genuine.

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Stay-at-home orders and the closure of schools and businesses have caused a temporary but profound halt in human movement. With an estimated two billion people across the globe not being out and about, scientists have already noticed significant reductions in the amount of nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide in the atmosphere. This has resulted in temporary improvements in air quality in some places, although the stress on temporary is important.

This pause in human traffic might also give us a chance to observe the complex weather systems of our planet while we aren’t interfering with them. By better understanding how Earth’s climate operates on its own, perhaps we can start thinking about means of movement that don’t have such a noticeable impact on the atmosphere. This break from constant commuting could, hopefully, foster an acknowledgement of how vastly mobile our species has become and the consequences that our mobility has on our planet.

Other than the impacts we can see right now, there are changes we can expect to happen after the pandemic has passed. Understandably, people might be hesitant to hop back onto buses or subways, worried that the close quarters and contact with strangers might lead to further spreading COVID-19. This could mean that more people will drive their own vehicles, decreasing the environmental benefit of public transportation services.

It isn’t hard to believe that individuals will be tempted to drive themselves, seeing as oil prices have plummeted across the country. Cheap gas, fear of contracting the virus from public transport and the eventual opening of the economy will probably reverse those temporary reductions in air pollution.

This pandemic should force us to understand the truly global span of these human networks and the need to develop new ones with smaller impacts on our planet.”

Getting our economy back to normal again might also hinder (at least temporarily) the growth of renewable, more sustainable industries. An article published by The Brink explains how in places where renewable energy isn’t mandated, “continued or even new use of oil and gas generation will look cheaper.” It also points out that part deliveries and construction delays might cause a setback in the development of renewable power plants.

Perhaps the most important impact COVID-19 could have is to heighten our awareness of who we are, how we sustain ourselves and how we fit into the wider world. Those earlier mentioned reductions in air pollutants are a direct result of people choosing to spend a day inside instead of traveling in their cars. More than ever, we are witnessing how every aspect of our lives, from the atmosphere to a friend’s party invite, is tied together. 

This also means we’re getting a good look at how our means of transportation impose themselves on the planet. When cargo ships are being hired to hold over a 100 million barrels of oil at sea because no one wants to use them right now, we get an idea of not just the sheer size of our energy needs, but also the economic costs of our dependence on fossil fuels. 

Also, our unfathomable capacity for communication has never been more obvious than it is today. Even during a pandemic, students nationwide have been able to maintain their academic obligations thanks to the internet. The simple fact that the classroom still exists (albeit on a two-dimensional screen) is a testament to how connected humans insist on being.

An aerial view of Morgan Library
An aerial view of Morgan Library. The library is encouraging students to document their experiences during the COVID-19 outbreak for the University archives. (Devin Cornelius | The Collegian)

Coming out of this, a long-lasting impact we should hope to see would be an increasing collaboration between diverse fields of study like economics, ecology, meteorology and more. The U.N. Environment Programme talks about the potential of using this crisis to better understand how all of our human endeavors on this planet play into and affect one another. Hopefully, we can learn to improve the quality of our own lives without jeopardizing the health of our environment as a side effect.

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All of this will no doubt lead to a growing acknowledgment that our species is not so much an independent master of this world, but a tiny member of a vast, interconnected web of energy and communication tied into an even larger and more complex planetary system. Most importantly, this pandemic should force us to understand the truly global span of these human networks and the need to develop new ones with smaller impacts on our planet.

Cody Cooke can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @CodyCooke17.