- The dire social and economic impact of COVID-19 could worsen environmental destruction in the long run.
- But the pandemic is also teaching us how to use individual choices to tackle a global disaster.
- “Social learning” is a powerful tool for lasting change. It involves people learning from each other and adapting their behaviour as a result.
The horrors of the global human death toll of COVID-19 confront me daily in the news and through my concern for my own vulnerable parents. The economic and other hardships so many are facing due to physical distancing measures also deeply disturb me. Moreover, as a global change ecologist whose lens has been the whole wide world and everything in it —the millions of other species, the air we all share, and the water we all depend on—the environmental dimensions of COVID-19 are impossible for me to ignore.
Let me be clear: COVID-19 itself is not good for any of the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals. Human wellbeing, the economy and the environment are all interrelated, and the pandemic is certainly not helping us achieve our goals for protecting them. However, the pandemic is teaching us lessons in human behaviour that could bring us closer to these goals in the future.
A mere year and a half ago, in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published an alarming Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees C. It started with a quote from The Wisdom of the Sands, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “Your task is not to foresee the future, but to enable it.”
The report called for “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes” in all aspects of society to avert the worst disasters of climate change. It predicted dire consequences for human well-being, the economy and the environment if those warnings were not heeded. Despite the shift in language from “climate change” to “climate emergency” over the past year by many institutions, we have not seen these recommendations being implemented.
And yet, COVID-19 has forced us to make dramatic changes in every area of life in the space of only a few weeks. Cities and entire countries were shut down overnight, leaders declared national and international emergencies, people and institutions adapted to unprecedented societal change.
COVID-19 is also transforming our relationship to the environment. The origins of emerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19 but also HIV, Ebola, Nipah, SARS, pandemic influenza and others, are at least partly linked to the growing human impact on the environment. Acknowledging this is crucial as we try to address the root causes of pandemics. These days, many cities are reporting cleaner air and lower pollution. In some places, this is literally changing how we perceive nature. Some communities in India are able to see the snow-capped Himalayas for the first time in their lives. However, these changes are also revealing the magnitude of these chronic problems, and the importance of tackling them. As the pandemic limits access to green spaces such as parks and conservation areas, many are becoming painfully aware of how fundamental these natural oases are to their wellbeing.
It appears that in times of crisis, we connect even more strongly with our natural surroundings. In the short term, this may well have a beneficial impact on some aspects on the environment. However, in the long term, the picture is more complex. Economic recession could exacerbate environmental degradation, as resources are diverted from efforts to protect and restore habitats. It could also worsen existing poverty traps. As the UN Climate Change Executive Secretary said: “COVID-19 is the most urgent threat facing humanity today, but we cannot forget that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity over the long term." The acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity put it bluntly: “The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us.”
Consider the quote from Antoine de Saint Exupéry, however: we need not foresee the future, we just need to enable it. This is where the lessons on human behaviour come in.
Some of my own research on the power of human behavior to shape environmental trajectories, such as biodiversity loss and climate change, suggests social learning is a significant factor in changing systems. That is to say, people learn from each other, and change their behaviour accordingly.
Right now, we are learning valuable lessons in resilience and human adaptability. We are learning how quickly humans can respond when faced with a common enemy, be it a novel virus or the well-established physics of climate change. Let us examine these lessons, reflect on our new respect for the natural world, and consider what enabled us to adjust to such profoundly challenging and unfamiliar new norms. Let us take note of how some of the ideas put forward by different countries now are very much in line with UN sustainable development goals, such as the elimination of poverty, good health and wellbeing, reduced inequality, and responsible production and consumption. And let’s imagine how we might be able to harness these lessons to reduce the risk of catastrophes - disease, climate change or other threats - in the future.