Experts examine environmental ‘silver lining’ of COVID-19

While stay-at-home order may lead to temporary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, challenges abound.
Fewer people traveling is one of the silver linings to the current pandemic, according to environmental experts. iStock

The West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum recently hosted a webinar that explored the positive and negative aspects of COVID-19 when it comes to sustainability and human impact.

The webinar, held April 1 and moderated by WMSBF Executive Director Daniel Schoonmaker, was titled “Cost and Considerations of the COVID-19 Environmental ‘Silver Lining.’”

Featured guests included:

  • Michael DeWilde, director of the Koeze Business Ethics Initiative at Grand Valley State University
  • Paul Isely, professor of economics and associate dean of undergraduate programs at the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University
  • Edgar Cardenas, postdoctoral fellow, Center for Interdisciplinarity at Michigan State University and author of “Between Two Pines: Ushering in a Sustainable Future Through an Art-Science Practice”
  • Carissa Patrone, equity program manager, WMSBF

During the discussion, the speakers examined the so-called environmental “silver lining” of the COVID-19 pandemic — i.e., the idea floating around in sustainability circles right now that actions taken to reduce viral transmission of the novel coronavirus are leading to “significant” temporary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and noticeable improvements in environmental conditions in certain regions and industries.

While it’s believed these temporary reductions may demonstrate the possibility for mankind to respond to global issues such as climate change, they come with significant ethical concerns, economic challenges and disproportionate impacts, the panelists said.

They convened to explore how sustainability practitioners and stakeholders might interpret these issues as they work to promote sustainability and equity in their organizations, industries and communities.

DeWilde, as the group’s ethicist, led off by saying the very idea of a silver lining to this pandemic can feel “distasteful” to mention when so many people around the world are suffering financial, emotional and physical hardships related to the coronavirus.

Nevertheless, he said he can see at least three silver linings, the first of which is positive environmental impact.

“This is an unsustainable way to create sustainability, but nonetheless, it does bear out what many of the scientists are saying, that you can see short-term positive environmental impacts. That is good,” he said.

The second silver lining is the crisis gives people the opportunity to think about the nature of work.

“We know that overwork, especially work-related stress, causes an awful lot of illness. This is a chance to think about the way we structure work,” he said.

Thirdly, he said this global event could be seen as a “dry run” for a long-term and more “serious, unfolding issue,” i.e., climate change and the ways in which we can prepare ourselves for the coming fallout.

Cardenas added people can take this opportunity, when life is put on hiatus, to collect data on the environment and how quickly it responds, but also in terms of equity and justice, to observe the areas in which systems broke down most quickly in order to take action to prevent the most vulnerable populations from being impacted in those ways again.

Patrone said she believes the planet could return to equilibrium without an event such as this one that causes mass suffering, if only people would use this time to re-examine “business relationships, the intersection between sustainability and equity, and our health care system” using a systems change model to reimagine a new way of living.

She sees the mutual care for one’s neighbor that has arisen during this crisis as a silver lining.

“There’s a new sense of collectivism that has happened, whether it’s through volunteerism and people dedicating time and putting themselves on the front lines, to making grocery store runs or medicine runs for the older folks, to these mutual aid circles that have been popping up all over,” Patrone said. “This collectivism can definitely be leveraged to then combat things such as climate change and environmental degradation moving forward.”

Isely cautioned that a lot of the positive side effects happening now — which Schoonmaker noted include a reduction in air and car travel and a shutdown of business activity that comes with environmental impacts — are short term and will ultimately run counter to social and sustainability goals, i.e., the virus’ impacts are disproportionally on “people on the bottom end of the income stream,” the price of oil falling will make it harder to incentivize businesses to switch to renewable resources or people to buy electric cars, and capital streams for investing in new sustainability ideas will dry up as the economy struggles to regain its footing.

Schoonmaker also noted cons to the crisis including increases of 20% to 30% in residential waste going to landfills, rollbacks in recycling and environmental regulations, and just as many computers and just as much electricity running, but at homes instead of offices.

In support of the short-term nature of the environmental benefits of this time, Cardenas quoted a line from environmental activist Donella Meadows, from her book “Thinking in Systems: A Primer”:

“Your factory is torn down, but the rationality that would produce it is left standing, and that rationality will simply produce another factory. For revolution destroys the government, but the systemic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, and those patterns will repeat themselves.”

He said now is the time to rethink what the mission of business should be.

DeWilde said when this comes up in the classes he teaches, an obvious answer might be business exists “to turn a profit,” but in West Michigan, business owners, employees and those who study business don’t necessarily default to that answer and instead include other factors, such as building social and community capital, experimenting with sustainability and looking for “other ways to do well by doing good.”

Patrone said this is currently illustrated by the businesses that are revamping their models right now to support the creation of critical health care resources, such as manufacturing PPE and medical supplies, and the employees and community members who are volunteering to help on the frontlines.

Cardenas called this a “pro-social” approach to doing business, and this perspective can help build a societal “robustness … so that you don’t have these collapses.”

Isely said the problem with that view is that “businesses still have to be in business,” and with the pandemic surge predicted to last well into May, businesses can’t help people if they don’t have the cash on hand to survive as an entity.

“For them to be thinking about sustainability, they first have to worry about their very survival,” he said, adding that the federal relief bill will not be enough for every business to last through June, unless more legislation passes with additional aid.

Patrone said from a social responsibility standpoint, equity gaps in our society are becoming apparent in terms of infrastructure such as access to home internet to work remotely — with only 16.2% of U.S. Hispanic workers, 19.7% of African Americans, 29.9% of whites, 37% of Asian Americans and 31.4% of non-Hispanic or Latino workers who can telework.

Cardenas added this gap is concerning because it also means children of lower income families who don’t have internet will fall further behind as the school year moves to an online class format.

Parents whose children are out of school and don’t have access to daycare but still have to go to work also are disproportionally affected by this crisis, he said, and low-income communities and communities of color also are more likely to have underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus, while they also have less access to health insurance to pay for hospitalizations.

The panelists agreed these problems of intersectionality and inequity will need to be solved by re-examining and reimagining those systems following this crisis.

DeWilde said he hopes if anything good comes out of this time, it’s that people will adopt a spirit of humility, as well as “fidelity” to things like evidence, facts, data and truth, so that the country can rebuild its institutions based on scientific literacy and critical thinking after the crisis is over.

Isely agreed.

“If we get to a point where there’s some more trust in institutions, it’s going to be easier to have these discussions without having it go to a false narrative,” he said.

Cardenas added too much of the misinformation floating around social media surrounding COVID-19 is based on ideologies rather than facts, which undermines a community’s ability to unify in solving pressing problems.

“I think there needs to be a much deeper discussion and a much deeper integration around what the facts are,” he said. “For sustainability, it really is about what values we want to uphold and what we want to see in the world.”


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