Environmental lessons from a pandemic in progress

By Jessica Hellmann

Editor’s Note:

Jessica Hellmann directs the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, based on the St. Paul campus, where she is also a professor of ecology. Transition Town—ASAP asked Jessica to reflect on the environmental lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic. Read her answers here, then learn more from her recent Social Entrepreneur podcast interview, found at https://pca.st/y7mpczbi.

At the Institute on the Environment, we take an interdisciplinary view of people, planet, and sustainability. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, we’ve been reflecting on its origins and its impacts across the globe. I see three main lessons for human societies, especially ours:

  1. Better stewardship of biodiversity can help prevent the emergence and spread of new diseases.
  2. When we understand how systems interact, we make wiser decisions.
  3. We can use this opportunity—the global impacts of COVID-19—to build a stronger, greener economy.

Biodiversity and disease

Like many recent coronaviruses and other zoonotic diseases, COVID-19 started in the animal world and jumped to humans. This jump appears to be happening more often as humans encroach more deeply on natural ecosystems, fragmenting habitats, and endangering native wildlife. To help minimize future pandemics, we should use what we know about biodiversity loss, human-wildlife interactions, and disease modeling. Worldwide, we need to establish and protect forest reserves and stop trading in wildlife. We also need more surveillance to detect emerging infectious diseases. We have such good research in that area, and we have ignored it for so long! There are clear steps and remedies that could make a meaningful difference.

Systems theory

The pandemic is showing us how the world is composed of systems: the environment, the economy and public health are interconnected in complex ways. We’re seeing how an event in one part of the economy or the environment shows up elsewhere. That’s true of global pandemics and public health and the global economy, and it’s absolutely true of human environment and ecosystem interactions. Yet, we manage much of our world—think supply chains—like they are linear and much simpler than they really are. The whole world is getting a lesson in systems theory right now.

Alongside the pandemic, we’re seeing another great shift in our social system since the killing of George Floyd. Racial violence and oppression put Black lives at greater risk of disease and environmental problems like climate change. We’ll improve our public health and economic system when we overcome white supremacy.

Green economic development

The third area is economic. With the sudden global downturn, we’ve seen carbon emissions drop, although they’re now rising again. Still, as we gradually turn the U.S. economy back on, we have a lot of control and opportunity. We’re pulling levers, deciding what to fund, incentivize and stimulate. This could be a green rebound.

You could make a list 100 items long of good ideas that are shovel-ready, have broad social benefit, are aligned with environmental protection and could also ease unemployment. We’ve done this in past economic downturns; we’ve built public assets that society has enjoyed for decades.

We also know that our system needs to be more resilient and redundant. Our supply chains need to be global and local, and regional, too. If we invest now in renewable power, we’ll save on fuel and cut carbon emissions at the same time. How can we reduce recurring costs and build more resiliency? If we smartly use the stimulus tools at hand, we can boost a green economy as we come out of the downturn.

About the Institute

As a leading think tank of scholars and doers, the Institute on the Environment strives to move the needle on sustainability—in Minnesota and around the world—through interdisciplinary research, building effective and knowledgeable leaders and world-class storytelling. Learn more at http://environment.umn.edu.

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