Over the past two months, many of us have encountered news articles, Snapchat videos, and Twitter posts about COVID-19’s effects on global climate change. Even during the first few weeks of the pandemic, I took note of media headlines about the decline of carbon emissions and videos of goats running through Scotland’s seaside towns. Supposedly, the Earth is “healing itself”: the air is cleaner and wildlife are reclaiming spaces in the midst of worldwide social distancing.
One Twitter thread responded to these environmental changes, claiming that “we [humans] are the virus.” This thread grasped my attention, and after thinking about its contents, I determined that I disagree. We are not the virus, and coronavirus is absolutely not the Earth’s vaccine (also suggested by this Twitter post).
The problem behind the climate crisis is not broadly our existence as humans. Time and again, communities spanning geographies and time periods have shown that it is possible to live in non-environmentally destructive ways. The problem is our economic system of consumer capitalism, and even more fundamentally, how we have come to conceptualize “value.”
In Dr. Ellen Bales’s Global Environmental History class, we have discussed how humans perceive and assign value; the economy is one language of valuation, community a second, the environment a third. Currently, economic languages of valuation seem to override all other possible languages of valuation; we value profit, and undervalue each other. The result of this attitude is our current economic system of consumer capitalism, in which “things” are relentlessly marketed to us as consumers. The system has convinced us that we can buy and re-buy our happiness.
For me, the lockdown has highlighted that we cannot buy our happiness. No factory-made products shipped across the world, flown across the country, and trucked through highways can bring us what we are really looking for: physical proximity to our peers and communities. People are social creatures; we crave the company of others. My experience of being separated from my friends and family outside of my household has left me feeling unhappy, irritable, and empty. An Amazon delivery of skincare products, mini waffle makers, or binoculars cannot make up for the fact that I am saddened and frustrated at having to maintain a six-maybe-seven-or-eight-just-to-be-safe-foot distance between my boyfriend and me.
On a more pragmatic level, millions of people have been hurt by the economic fallout of the lockdown. Millions are struggling to provide themselves and their families with basic resources; many do not have the disposable income to spend on new products, most of which are designed with planned obsolescence—to end up in a landfill—anyway.
The demand for new “things” is undoubtedly changing as a result of the pandemic: what we want—and what we can afford—is to spend time with our family, friends, and other members of our communities. By moving away from an economic language of valuation to one of human interaction and community, we have the opportunity to create an economy that is much less reliant on factories, shipping, and disposable packaging. This kind of economy would be much more sustainable.
Realistically, in the wake of this pandemic, large companies are going to fall back into the same environmentally-degrading practices they had been touting pre-COVID-19, and consumer capitalism is not going to fall apart as quickly as needed to alleviate the global climate crisis. There are also, obviously, serious drawbacks to hastily ridding our civilization of consumer capitalism. However, as consumers, we should use this time as an opportunity to change our purchasing habits.
We can make efforts to reuse and repurpose as much as possible, and buy as little as possible. Use what you have until it is no longer useful, buy second-hand (and you can look up some DIYs if you need to tweak it), and when you do need to buy a new product, look into purchasing a locally-sourced or sustainably- and ethically-made version of that product. For example, when I do buy clothing, I shop at second-hand stores or from brands that make an effort to be sustainable and are transparent about their production methods.
A continuation of consumer capitalism post-lockdown does not mean that our economic system will or should remain as it is. Right now, we have the time and space to reimagine a more sustainable global economy that prioritizes us and our communities over profit, and in turn causes less damage to the Earth.