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Expert Comment: Can COVID-19 help us reconfigure our relationship with the natural world and tackle climate change?

29th April 2020

Can COVID-19 help us reconfigure our relationship with the natural world and tackle climate change? Dr Thomas Roberts (Department of Sociology) shares his thoughts:

“It is now an undisputed fact that COVID-19 emerged as a direct result of human society’s unsustainable and dysfunctional relationship with the environment. But it also represents a potential opportunity to explore novel ways we can reduce our impact on the planet to prevent future pandemics and minimise the effect of the looming climate crisis.

The source of the current pandemic has been traced back to the wet markets of Wuhan (although there remains much uncertainty about how the virus actually jumped from animals to humans), where the line between the legal and illegal trade in wildlife is at best murky and at worst non-existent.  It is however, too simplistic to blame this crisis on the rapidly growing market for wildlife-based products. In a globalised world, in which people mix with and transport animals around the world, the next pandemic could start anywhere . However, the resulting near global lock down we are currently experiencing has seen a significant shift in the way in which we treat and interact with the environment more generally. Below, I briefly explore four ways in which COVID-19 has changed our relationship with the environment and the the lessons we can learn to enable us to reconfigure human/environment relations to both avoid future pandemics and tackle the looming climate crisis.

Transport and movement
Early analysis has shown that the COVID-19 crisis could result in emissions cuts this year of around 1,600m tonnes of CO2, the equivalent of more than 4% of the global total in 2019.  It is important to note that this reduction has not come about as a result of positive decision making by governments and industry. It therefore cannot, in its own right, be seen as a victory in the battle against climate change.  However, it has shown us that a less carbon intensive way of life is possible.

As the world starts to open up again after lockdown, we have the opportunity to reconsider many of our everyday personal and working practices.  We have seen that many of us can work remotely, raising questions about whether we need to travel into work everyday or take long haul flights to meet clients and colleagues in person.  In our personal lives we have utilised technology to keep in touch with friends and relatives and shifted much of our shopping activity online, again demonstrating that we can significantly reduce the number of individual journeys we make.

While there is every possibility that after the crisis is over we will all go back to our ‘normal’ practices, there is significant evidence to suggest that ‘moments of change‘ which disrupt people’s everyday routines can be opportunities to reconfigure long term ingrained practices. So, even though the current restrictions in movement will not be permanent, it is possible to envisage a future new ‘normality’ in which people think more carefully about the journeys they take.

COVID-19 has radically altered our consumption practices, where media coverage has focused on empty supermarket shelves and consumers stockpiling toilet roles and pasta. But the crisis also has forced people to reconsider the value of food and challenge the dominant notion of the abundance of our food system and that we can have whatever we want whenever we want it. It also represents a rare moment of clarity in which we have been forced to recognise the complexity and fragility of our supply chains, which rely upon thousands of low-paid ‘key workers’ to keep food on our tables.

As international supply chains have become disrupted by movement restrictions and global lockdowns, we are seeing corporate buyers increasingly looking for local alternatives to maintain supply.  We have also developed a new level of respect for food which, at least in most western societies, is normally taken for granted. According to a recent survey by Hubbub, 90% of people surveyed reported that their cooking practices have changed since the lockdown began, with less attention being payed to use by dates and increased efforts to avoid food waste.

There is also growing evidence to suggest that the crisis has been a catalyst for many people to try to gain a greater level of control over their food supply. Across the world demand for vegetable seeds has soared and record numbers of people have been purchasing chickens to keep in their back gardens. While it is unlikely this sudden interest in food production is going to create thousands of fully self-sufficient households, it does have the potential to generate a deeper level of respect for the food production process and encourage people to think more carefully about what they need and how they use it.

It is already clear that once this crisis is over, governments will vigorously encourage us to revert to ‘normal’ in order to stimulate the global economy.  However, it is important that we take time to reflect upon what we want the ‘new normal’ to look like. Where possible we should ensure that the new configurations of social practices which have emerged because of the crisis, such as traveling less, more considered consumption, greater respect for food etc., are not completely abandoned as they have the potential to contribute to a more sustainable future.

Global and community collective action
Tackling the pending climate crisis requires a collective approach, in which communities and nation states unite to fight a common cause.  However, over the past decade we have seen a rapid retreat from the ideas of the early 2000s which emphasised the importance of multilateral co-operation and strong social capital.  These have been replaced by a resurgence of individualism and nationalism.

Nevertheless, despite some negative rhetoric blaming China for the outbreak and Donald Trump’s criticism of the World Health Organisation, the COVID-19 crisis has stimulated an extraordinarily high degree of both global and local collaboration. At an international level we have the scientific community united in the drive to produce a vaccine, with unprecedented levels of data sharing and co-ordination between research teams. At a local level we have seen communities drawing upon and strengthening their social capital in order to support those most in need. In contrast to the doom and gloom reporting about the virus itself, the media has been full of positive stories about communities coming together to support each other. Furthermore, this is backed up by evidence from the Office of National Statistics which shows that  67.9%  of respondents to a recent survey felt people were doing more to help others since the coronavirus outbreak. It is precisely this type of international and local collaboration which is needed to tackle climate change.

While the current focus is, quite correctly, on defeating coronavirus and getting back to ‘normal’, many of the new relationships and connections created during the pandemic are likely to survive beyond the current crisis. Evidence is emerging to suggest that the public is more ready than ever before for the government to take radical action to tackle climate change. The key question for policy makers and researchers is, how can we utilise these new relationships and stronger social capital to tackle climate change?

Respect for the environment and other species
Since the news started to circulate that COVID-19 emerged from a wet market in Wuhan China, there have been numerous calls for a blanket ban on wildlife trade on public health grounds. This is problematic for two reasons; first it oversimplifies a very complex problem, second it suggests that there is a ‘simple way‘ to stop similar diseases spreading to humans in the future. The reality is that human societies are fundamentally shaped by our relationships with other animals and the natural environment more generally, and currently that relationship is not working for either us or them.

The transition of deadly diseases between animals and humans (and vice visa), is by no means a new phenomenon, but to date we have failed to address the key issues such as land use change, destruction of habitat and poorly managed/illegal movement of wild and domesticated species around the world.  However, the seriousness of the current pandemic and its impact on the lives of billions of people across the globe, has highlighted these issues for human health in a more dramatic way than ever seen before, presenting an unprecedented opportunity for change.

COVID-19 has brought trauma, disruption and hardship for billions of people around the world. But, it has also given us an unprecedented opportunity to reflect upon our everyday lives, consider what is important and see that a more sustainable way of life might be possible. As the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin observed in 1942, ‘society is never the same as the one that existed before the calamity’. Over the next few months there will be enormous pressure on governments stimulate the economy and get back to ‘normal’.  However, it is essential that the focus of new investment is not just to get us back to where we were before but rebuild a more sustainable society which is resilient to both future pandemics and the looming climate crisis.  To achieve this, we need to rapidly reconfigure our relationship with the natural world. If we can do this, it may be possible for a healthier and more sustainable society to emerge from the current crisis.”