April 22nd. As the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, I and other environmental activists had been preparing eagerly to celebrate this milestone–a day that would mark the vital need for protecting the environment. All events (rightly so) have been cancelled or pushed aside as we now focus inward to protect our loved ones–indeed, humanity–from the immediate threat of the Covid-19 pandemic.
What does all this mean for the environmental movement as grassroots efforts come to a screeching halt, and protecting the environment is viewed as a distant and unnecessary concern?
It’s only natural to cast aside seemingly unimportant issues as we struggle with the urgency to protect the safety of loved ones: Protecting the environment can wait until our lives are back to normal. Right? And hey, there’s a silver lining here: Carbon emissions have plummeted! Yay!
Here’s the sad reality: That drop in emissions is an aberration; a temporary hiccup in the relentless upward tick in global emissions. More importantly, special interests for polluting industries aren’t waiting around for the pandemic to end. They’re actually taking advantage of the distraction to push forward their own agendas.
In the brief time period since this crisis began, lobbyists and supporters of the fossil fuel and chemical industries have ramped up their efforts to undermine environmental protections and policies. Let’s take a look at how busy they’ve been:
- After heavy lobbying from the oil and gas industries, the EPA announced that on March 26 that it will suspend enforcement of environmental regulations and fines during the Covid-19 outbreak. Other industries may also be able to take advantage of this ability to pollute with no repercussions. There is no end date for this new policy.
- The plastics industry has used the pandemic to attack plastic bag bans and create consumer fear with unfounded claims about the cleanliness of reusable bags.
- The EPA’s list of products that will eliminate Covid-19 includes numerous chemicals that are toxic to humans and the environment, despite the fact that many, if not most, environmentally-friendly products will suffice. In addition, the EPA has introduced “flexibilities to manufacturers of disinfectants and other pesticides,” relaxing its oversight of toxic substances.
- As part of its ongoing campaign against environmental regulatory protections, the Trump Administration is expected to announce rollbacks of the Obama-era fuel efficiency standards that are designed to curb car pollution.
- The oil industry, recognizing an opening with the coronavirus crisis, has moved “with breathtaking speed” to begin construction of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline. This is all the more astounding given that the brakes have been put on most non-essential construction.
- The National Mining Association had attempted to take advantage of the crisis by lobbying to include tax relief in the COVID-19 stimulus package that would have supported abandoned mine clean-up and workers stricken with black lung disease.
In short, the federal government and industry groups have seized the opportunity to exploit the distraction caused by the coronavirus epidemic in order to thwart environmental progress. Now more than ever, it’s up to us to ensure environmental protections aren’t compromised.
The Environment and Human Health
Another reason we can’t put environmental activism on hold is that it’s personal: continued destruction of the environment puts human health at risk. The fact of the matter is that this health crisis is largely a result of environmental degradation and habitat loss–an example of how human manipulation of our natural world can have devastating consequences.
Through massive deforestation and agricultural activities, humans have relentlessly dismantled and upended the natural world, delivering new and potentially deadly infectious (zoonotic) diseases right into our homes.
And it’s not just habitat loss. Climate change has altered traditional climate zones, increasing the range of all manner of wildlife–animals, birds, insects–that migrate into human habitats. Some of these changes may seem benign (an increase in deer populations chomping on your plants) but other changes (increases in cases of Lyme disease) can be deadly to humans and native ecosystems.
If this pandemic has taught us anything it’s that planetary health and human health are inextricably linked. The only way to prevent future crises to humankind is to protect the environment and fight climate change through carbon emissions reductions. What can we do?
Protecting the Environment from Home
You may be confined to your immediate home surroundings but you can still make a difference, even with small, simple actions. These actions aren’t meant to be an additional burden. Instead, they’re steps that can be folded into your regular routine.
Protecting the environment can start at home by making simple lifestyle changes for you and your family:
- With Earth Day just around the corner, try some Easy Earth Day Tips, many of which can be accomplished at home, while others can be planned for future action.
- Instead of using disposable products that unnecessarily generate waste and contribute to environmental pollution, try to use reusable alternatives.
- When cleaning, avoid cleaning products with toxic chemicals in favor of green products that protect you and the environment.
- If you have a yard, consider transforming it into one that’s healthy for you and the environment by minimizing the use of toxic fertilizers and pesticides.
Reduce Your Household Carbon Footprint
First, understand what carbon footprint means, and then calculate your carbon footprint so you have a benchmark from which to improve.
There are a number of ways you can reduce the carbon footprint of your home, from increasing its energy efficiency to reducing water usage. My post on Simple Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint will get you started.
Protecting the Environment With Diet
If you’re like me, now that you’re stuck inside you’re doing a lot of cooking. You may not know this, but your food choices affect climate change. That’s right, you can help reduce your carbon footprint by making climate-friendly food choices. One of the main ways to do this is to eat less (red) meat in favor of more plant-based foods.
While you’re making environmentally friendly food choices, try to cut down on food waste, which is a chief contributor to climate change. One way to “recycle” your waste and turn it into nutrient rich soil is to try out composting.
Amidst the stories of human devastation, we’ve all heard of extraordinary acts of generosity. In my town, the collective desire to assist those in need is boundless: from neighbors starting sewing circles for masks, to others organizing fundraising drives for local businesses. I’ve taken inspiration from these humanitarian efforts.
Environmental activism is an extension of this human impulse to help others. When we recognize our inescapable bond with our natural world, it makes sense to expand our efforts to protect the environment and take climate action.
Yes, you can help the environment even while housebound. One way is to nurture a love of nature in your children, but you can make a difference in other ways:
- Understand the issues. If you’re stuck inside, try learning something new about the environment, or take a crack at books with environmental themes.
- Take action by making donations, getting involved with a group, or supporting environmental causes.
- Start your own initiative or support a local campaign. A few ideas:
- Plastic straws reduction campaign to cut down on plastic straw pollution.
- Plastic bag law. I spearheaded one in my town. Follow these steps to do one in yours.
- Community composting. I helped start one in my town and we followed in the footsteps of a neighboring community and our local schools.
- Healthy Yard campaign. I helped start one, and share my tips on how to start your own here.
- Support political candidates with strong records for protecting the environment. This is a big year for elections and your vote has the power to make a difference that benefits the environment.