Earth Day 2020 is shaping up to be the best earth day in the 50 years. Not for humans, we’re in a bad way. But there are jellyfish and dolphins in the Venice canals, bears roaming Yellowstone and Yosemite in record numbers, and emissions have plummeted worldwide. It’s tough to argue that the planet seems to generally enjoy seeing less of us.
Of course, the same pandemic that has driven us indoors has absolutely laid waste to the national economy. Businesses large and small are collapsing and entire industries are begging the U.S. government for relief. In the process, the cracks in how certain economic systems are constructed have grown increasingly visible — with perhaps the easiest example being the amount of money that airlines spend on stock buybacks and dividends to benefit investors, rather than keeping enough cash on hand to build a financial firewall in case of a catastrophe like this one. The enormity of the wealth gap and the severe financial exposure of millions upon millions of Americans have also both been particularly obvious since the start of the pandemic, reminding us that poor distribution of financial resources is actually a bad thing for the nation on the whole.
A third piece of the “what a terrifying fascinating Earth Day this is” puzzle is less dramatic. It’s found in how we’ve spent our time indoors. People are learning to bake bread and make drip coffee. They’re pulling out the sewing machine and using YouTube to learn how to mend clothes. Bean recipes are getting passed around and there’s been a dramatic spike in home gardens. The joke that Americans have lost the spirit of resilience we were once globally famous for seems to have been revealed as false. We’re still do-it-yourself-types at our core, we’ve just been too busy working ourselves to the bone to have any time for hobbies.
Watching the planet thrive with fewer humans around, seeing the flaws in our economic system, and witnessing a return to self-reliance are three downstream effects of the pandemic that feel particularly relevant on this, the 50th Earth Day. Three distinct elements of this catastrophe that help us recognize how we’ve been failing the planet and ourselves. Three threads that can weave together to help us envision a more sustainable, ecologically sound cultural tapestry when this is all over.
While a proliferation of bears and bees is lovely (and crucial to our global ecosystem), it’s the newfound transparency on all sides of our economy that is perhaps the most vital in motivating us to change our habits coming out of the shutdown. Much has been made about how the Wall Street investment model (which forces all businesses to chase constant growth at all costs until they can’t grow any further) has pushed airlines to flounder when the quarantine hit; but on the flip side, the success of working from home and boom in digital meetups may have taught us that much of the travel we thought was essential actually isn’t. It’s nice to imagine a world where we travel less for work and save our personal carbon allotments for the chance to eat parmesan fresh from the wheel in Italy or surf in Sri Lanka or dance and do yoga with hippies in Costa Rica.
Would that mean smaller airlines and fewer routes? Yep. That’s one cost of making a greener world that we rarely actually address — the need to reduce.
Meanwhile, our widespread return to “making shit” — whether it’s sourdough bread or needlepoint throw pillows — a trend that had been booming for the better part of a decade and has gone stratospheric during the pandemic, might just remind us that we don’t need to consume as much as artificially deflated prices propped up by unsustainable supply chains have tricked us into believing. From fast fashion to food that has traveled thousands of miles just to get to our local markets, maybe this shutdown really will help us all reevaluate our spending. Maybe value will begin to trump price (though this will be hard with people also struggling financially) and we’ll see a new era of conscious consumerism with a constant sustainability focus.
The spending slowdown over the past five weeks has reminded us that our collective purchasing power is huge. The question will be whether or not we can harness it to work for the betterment of the planet. Whether we can vote with our dollars to force polluting industries to change and construct a vision for a better world. If not now, when?
In the tweet above Elon Musk cuts to the heart of one of the toughest-to-swallow pills of this pandemic. Some industries don’t deserve to be revived or aided in their continued destruction of the earth. Meanwhile, some sectors overexpanded. Some permanent shutdowns, while sad, will reflect necessary market corrections. Part of “going green” has always been about using fewer resources, as hard as that is to stomach. If we do that, certain businesses will indeed fail.
With Earth Day upon us and fields of wildflowers soon to bloom around the country (without people trampling them), we have a chance to treat COVID-19 as a call to action. A chance to preserve the more-pristine planet that sheltering in place revealed by supporting green energy, tech, and policies. A chance to cut our personal carbon footprints. A chance to celebrate local — whether that means planting a garden at home or taking the train to a town a few hours away for our next vacations.
With the world hitting the pause button in a major way over the past month, the door is wide for us to reevaluate everything, from how we eat to how we travel to what we wear. Meaning that we could potentially do better. If we’re willing to heed the lessons rocketing at us, that is. If we can’t learn from our mistakes — especially when they’re so easy to see right now — we’ll be destined to repeat them.