The events of the past weeks have the world changing in many unprecedented ways. It is a challenging and uncertain time to say the least, but one thing is certain: people all over the world are trying to make the best out of the unique daily challenges they are now faced with. How to get food, how to work, how to educate ourselves, all of these aspects of life are being met with new strategies and ingenuity. Interestingly enough, many of these adaptations have been studied by sustainability experts for years and have positive effects beyond virus containment. So, to help find the silver lining amongst all the challenges, here are five aspects of quarantine that are actually benefiting sustainability and might help individuals and society rethink basic habits.
Telecommuting: UH has transitioned to fully online classes for the rest of the spring semester and many UH employees are working from home. This strategy of living, working, and learning from home is referred to as telecommuting. This is vital during the quarantine because it limits human transmission of pathogens from close quarters. In the world of sustainability, however, telecommuting has long been advocated for as a strategy to drastically reduce emissions and resulting carbon footprints. Looking at the numbers, the US Energy Information Administration states that the average American uses 1.2 gallons of gas each day. UH has a population of over 50,000 students, faculty, and staff. That means each day of quarantine is saving 60,000 gallons of gas in our community alone. Given that transportation emissions make up 29% of all US greenhouse gas emissions (EPA, 2020) it is no wonder that the global halt in daily driving is already resulting in major improvements to air quality.
Eating at Home: The US throws out 1.3 billion tons of food waste each year and much of it is never seen by the consumers. Misshapen produce is thrown out, uneaten premade meals must be spoiled out, the leftovers people take home after eating out are only the tip of the iceberg of food waste that led to the plate. In fact, 40% of US annual food waste comes from restaurants, so eating at home is already lowering our collective carbon footprints. While the quarantine has limited many of the social dynamics of food, the need to eat at home can be used to deepen personal understanding of food waste and trash. How much of your food comes in containers? Are they recyclable? How much compost do your leftovers generate in a week? These are all things to pay attention to in the coming days, especially if you are new to cooking at home or disposing of your own food waste. As you observe, keep in mind that what you throw out over the coming days is a 24/7 struggle for food service around the globe. Eating at home is a sure way to reduce food waste in general, but these special times may reveal new lessons for the future. The extra time at home is also a great excuse to finally start a small garden or start meal prepping.
Energy Reduction: One of sustainability’s primary focus’s is energy efficiency and cleanliness. While the energy consumption and resulting emissions from cars is one of the most famous causes of greenhouse gasses, buildings actually have far larger energy footprints than the transportation sector. Airconditioning units, furnaces, water pumps, sensors, each of these are consuming power in buildings nearly round the clock. Energy source and building design have done wonders in recent years to reduce the carbon footprint of commercial buildings, however, nothing can compare to simply reducing consumption. It is sad and frustrating to see the numerous venue closures and event cancelations for the sake of quarantine, but one small conciliation is the drastic and sudden drop in emissions from cities. As stated above, transportation related emissions have also declined, but the two together are resulting in reductions in pollution visible from space.
Systemic Thinking: The modern world is an interconnected and diverse one. This is seen every day in the international nature of modern food, culture, music, and much more. Unfortunately, this level of interconnectivity is also what makes pandemics possible. These networks of international relationships are called coupled systems. Much like a human body’s circulatory system, they carry people and information all over the globe however, there is no single international regulatory system. In watching the world’s response to COVID-19, it is clear that the aspects of society that move people and information are more interconnected than governance. This has resulted in an unprecedented effort to apply systems thinking in international governance to fully understand the virus’ spread and impact. Lessons are being learned about the value of internationally coordinated strategies and how to best deploy them with the help of local governance. It is likely that new international laws and epidemiology will be far more coordinated when faced with the facts of future pandemics. Likewise, the lessons learned in facing the global threat of COVID-19 will also deeply inform global systemic strategies in facing climatic disasters.
Health Care: A common question in sustainability is, “what does that have to do with it all?” The United Nations Sustainable development goals include umbrella categories of diversity and inclusion, universal health care, and livable wages. Often it can be hard to see how these goals relate to the easily recognizable “green” topics; i.e. how will universal health care help the environment? Today, the answers are all around us. The system is overloaded. Hospitals are full and supplies are running out. All one has to do to connect this disaster to climate change is to look at some of the places where climate change is heating the world the fastest. Year after year, places like Pakistan, Iran, and even France have had “unprecedented deaths” due to heat alone. Morgues fill up and supplies run out just as they are now. This is a grim fact to include in a “silver lining” article, but what is important is that the chronic under support of health care systems has been exposed, and that was dearly needed to push progress. If climate change continues, our health care system will only become more and more taxed, potentially by heat related illnesses and a future pandemic simultaneously. Applying systemic strategies as mentioned above is again one of the best paths forward. A final example to illustrate how this all intersects is that people with COVID-19 actually recover better with cleaner air in the cities. If we fight for cleaner air, humanity as a whole will be healthier simultaneously; thus, freeing more resources for future extreme events.
Times are hard and no academic study or fun fact can distract from that. This being said, the study of sustainability has focused on events like pandemics this since its beginning. The first trash pickup service in the western world was a direct result of the Black Death in Europe, quarantine was invented due to a pandemic of cholera, smallpox was eliminated from the world in one of the greatest international efforts of all time (Barnes, 2005). Humanity is no stranger to disaster, and it often gives us some of our very best ideas. In light of this, the Office of Sustainability is here to help. We study times just like this as part of our jobs. In a small effort to help, we are offering virtual office hours during our normal operation times (Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm). Give us a call if you want to dig deeper into what a sustainable world might look like after COVID-19, or if you just want to chat about home gardening while we are all stuck at home together. Our phone number and email are below.