Opinion: Coronavirus and its impact on the climate

styrofoam
CREATIVE COMMONS
“It’s rather ironic that as complicated and arduous a task as fighting climate change is made to seem, it can be solved simply through inaction at the individual level. Just stay home and the Earth will heal itself, right?” Cooper says.

The Earth is healing — or, perhaps, dying more slowly. Statistics have yet to shed a light on just how much coronavirus is helping the environment, but one thing is for sure: by encouraging everyone in the world’s greatest economic superpower to stay home, some progress is being made.

Think about how much damage America does to the environment on a daily basis, when there is no pandemic and the average Joe has no reason to deviate from their day-to-day life. A gallon of gas, a few plastic bags, a cup of coffee, a Styrofoam box and more all become part of Joe’s carbon footprint. This is a day in the life of Joe, as he fades from one series of dull moments to the next with little regard for each tiny act of detriment that occurs along the way.

To concern oneself with how many different iterations of the average Joe live in America, let alone much of the rest of the developed world, would be an exercise in futility. The fact of the matter is that these expenditures add up. When Joe buys a takeout tray, he isn’t just buying one takeout tray; he’s buying one knowing that that most likely will not be the only time he buys one, and knowing that many other Joes are doing the same exact thing, many at the exact same time. And when federal, state, and local officials tell Joe that he has to stay home, a world of Joes makes an impact that is as important environmentally as it is economically.

The problem ultimately lies in the existence of essential Joe, the low-paid retail or food worker whose job cannot be done remotely. These Joes are considered essential because their stores sell food. It doesn’t matter that his store sells snack food, prepared food or any other kind of food that people wouldn’t normally stock up on in a time of crisis; it’s still food. That four-letter umbrella term is the excuse businesses use to continue as normal, to not lose money, to continue milking their workers, and although not intentionally, to contribute to environmental degradation.

Essential Joe’s existence behind the cash register encourages further degradation. Those who don’t want to sit in quarantine for two weeks now have an excuse to get up and go to the store. More plastic bags, more Styrofoam, more gasoline to get to and from — they never left the equation, and Essential Joe serves as a reminder that these products are still there.

It’s rather ironic that as complicated and arduous a task as fighting climate change is made to seem, it can be solved simply through inaction at the individual level. Just stay home and the Earth will heal itself, right? If only this were a sustainable idea, in a world where the virus has yet to reach its peak and President Donald Trump already anticipates letting the public roam free by the end of the month.

Those who oppose or criticize environmental legislation enjoy asking the question, “How are we going to pay for it?” While coronavirus doesn’t beg this question, it surely affords us an opportunity to reconsider it. As an economy, this could be an opportune time to evaluate our workplace practices. We’ve now discovered that many industries, evidently, have the option to let their employees work from home. Consider this as a norm rather than an option, and how much fewer pollution would arise from carbon emissions alone just by nixing a roundtrip commute for tens of millions of vehicles on a daily basis.

The United States now has more confirmed cases of coronavirus than any nation on the dying planet, with the number of cases this Sunday accounting for roughly 1 in every 1,000 Americans, and because essential Joe’s business stays open, cases will continue to increase and the problem will continue to drag on. The good news is that this gives the planet more time to heal. The coronavirus outbreak has given two conclusions to draw about human agency. One is that in a democracy, particularly one as large as the United States, it’s very difficult to make an entire populace comply with certain standards. However, it has also shown that fighting climate change ultimately comes down to the choices we make as individuals.

The solution is difficult. Americans value their freedom and their privacy; a full lockdown has worked in countries such as China and Italy, where culture is perhaps more focused on the needs of the individual than the needs of the business. It’s tough to say that authoritarian measures that force compliance, while potentially very effective, would do the country any favors with its already seething distrust in the government.

Sean W. Cooper is a senior majoring in media communication and minoring in writing. His opinions are his own and do not represent the majority opinion of The Review’s editorial staff. Cooper may be reached at swwcoop@udel.edu.

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