In an effort to stay healthy and quell the spread of COVID-19, many people have wisely stayed at home and limited in-person interactions. One of the unintended impacts of these precautions has been a reduction in pollution around the world. General concern for spreading or being exposed to the novel coronavirus has put fewer planes in the skies and fewer cars on the road. Nitrogen dioxide levels have dropped across Europe, carbon emissions went way down in China, and dolphins and swans have been seen swimming in the clear canals of Venice. While these changes may be temporary, they offer brief insight into what we can collectively accomplish around climate action. Here, American Humanist Association staff members offer routine change recommendations, observations, and realizations about climate change brought on by the health crisis.
COVID-19 is demonstrating how interconnected we all are and that health concerns impact relationships, education, the economy, nature, and daily life. I’m hoping that this heightened awareness of how much people impact each other, how we impact our environment, and how our environment impacts our health will lead to more empathetic and reasonable practices, both now and into the future. I’ve been inspired by companies re-purposing their equipment to develop needed materials, businesses sharing their extra supplies, organizations adding more events online, and individuals making masks for people out of recycled fabrics. There’s been a lot of resource sharing, like tips for running Zoom events, links to local mutual aid, fundraisers for essential workers, and activity recommendations that could continue during other catastrophes. I recommend we—especially politicians—listen to and learn from scientists because they’re the ones who will help us understand the issues we face and find sustainable solutions.
One big change I made years ago was reducing my consumption of meat. As a kid, I was raised eating meat everyday (sometimes several times a day!) and not thinking twice about it. However, as an adult, after learning about the environmental impact of factory farming, I cut back to eating meat every other day. Then it became just a few times a month. Following Michael Pollan’s simple advice—”Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”—I now consider myself a “flexitarian,” or semi-vegetarian, which means the majority of my diet is plant-based. When I do eat meat, I try to find pastured meat from local sources, as transportation is another huge factor in the carbon footprint of food. Learning to cook vegan and vegetarian has the added benefit of opening my pantry and palate to new flavors. As for the future, I’m excited to see how the meatless trend is growing and that more people are learning, like I did, that you don’t have to go whole hog—or rather, whole tofu—to eat sustainably.
In my home state of Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act. The legislation requires Virginia’s utilities to deliver electricity from 100 percent renewable sources (such as solar or wind) by 2045 and sets a blueprint for closing old fossil-fuel plants, among other steps in a positive direction. The state’s leadership has now put a commitment to preserving natural resources and a commitment to achieving clean energy into law.
The biggest recommendation I can offer is mindfulness and self-awareness that when we make efforts to protect the earth, we are protecting not just our homes but also the homes of birds and countless other magnificent creatures. I think being home during a pandemic like this makes you stop and pay attention to the incredible nature around you that is so easy to take for granted and blends into the backgrounds of our everyday lives. We need to continue to make personal changes, while also advocating for evidence-based climate policy in our state and national legislatures.
Now that going out and getting takeaway lunch isn’t an option for the foreseeable future, I’ve come to realize just how much more waste is generated when I grab a salad (or, ahem, a gigantic sandwich) from a restaurant instead of cooking at home. I can’t promise I will totally eliminate purchased lunches when this is all over, but I will absolutely be cooking at home more during the day.
The quarantine imposed by the coronavirus pandemic has finally got me focused on implementing a composting system at home. When I lived in California we composted, but it was something provided by the city; we simply dumped all our food scraps and other organic material into a trash bin and they hauled it away every week to process into natural fertilizer. It was amazing how much went into this bin and how little went into the regular trash that was headed to a landfill. We’ve been composting at the AHA for a while now (thanks, Joaquin!), with the help of a pick-up service. For my home system I’ve been researching the various types of DIY compost methods and containers, and I’ve decided to forgo the worm factory or tumbler and do a traditional composting bin. We have a big yard with lots of trees, so I’ll have plenty of grass clippings and leaves to pile onto it. I’m also going to buy a paper shredder so we can add the New York Times to the mix (as I’ve learned that composting newspaper is greener than recycling it).
Lying on the grass in my backyard looking skyward, I’m struck by the relative quiet, interrupted mainly by birdsong and an occasional lawnmower. The pandemic has kept so many of us out of our cars and off airplanes, and I hope once things open up again we can curb these activities. Taking joy in the natural world means giving more back to it.