Let's Choose to Return to Better

The protections put in place through "Safe-at-Home" orders, and the residual behavioral changes that will last for months to come, are critical measures meant to buy our healthcare workers time and ultimately save lives. Still, after nearly nine weeks, I find myself becoming increasingly antsy, longing for the day when I can gather with my neighbors for our monthly meatball dinner, or take my kids to the playground, or relax with a book in my local coffee shop, or hug my parents.

I'm acutely aware of how fortunate I've been so far during this tragedy: I'm healthy as is my immediate and extended family, I'm financially secure, and I have access to good healthcare. My privilege has afforded me the opportunity for reflection, and in that space I've returned again and again to the words of the late Robert Kennedy: "Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live."

COVID-19 has taken a previously unimaginable toll on the physical, mental and financial well-being of people around the world. As public life begins slowly opening up across the nation, there is much talk by elected officials, business leaders, and the press about when and how the world will return to "normal."

But here's the thing: I don't want a return to normal. I want a return to better.

What does a return to better look like?

I've found I don't need to stretch my imagination too hard. During this forced global pause, some of the answers have appeared in plain sight.

A return to better means breathing easier.

As people travel less and commerce slows, greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming have dropped 8%--the largest annual decrease ever recorded. (Of course to keep within the recommended global annual temperature rise of 2.7°F, we would need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions about 7.5% per year for the next decade, but still...).

For those who suffer from respiratory ailments, a reduction of greenhouse gases should come as a breath of fresh air (pun fully intended). Globally, outdoor air pollution prematurely kills 4.2 million people each year (including about 200,000 in the United States). So far, Los Angeles has seen its concentration of air pollution drop 31% from this time last year, and some of the largest cities around the world have experienced drops of 60% or more.

A return to better means supporting local production.

It took just a few days of global lockdown for consumers in the U.S. to viscerally understand the fragility of our interconnected global supply chains. Panic buying aside, country-level quarantines on goods crossing borders created shortages on our grocery store shelves, but also across the manufacturing sector. Distilleries started making hand sanitizer. Mascot manufacturers started making personal protective gear. And there is a resurgence of people wanting to grow their own food. The renewed focus on local or regional production (when reasonable) only serves to strengthen our resilience to future disruptions.

A return to better means rethinking how we treat people, including workers.

What kind of a world do we live in when we deny a significant portion of our workforce, not to mention those not in the workforce, access to affordable health care (and in the case of employees, paid sick leave)? The contagious nature of COVID-19 means we all suffer when all people aren't able to put their health first. This pandemic has laid bare the inequities within our society, and with it enlivened the discussion around how we choose to value, or not, all people, regardless of their income. We can't in good conscious move forward as a society without addressing the fundamental right people have to healthcare.

A return to better means connecting to each other.

Over the past two months of the safer-at-home order, I've witnessed more people enjoying the simple pleasure of going out for a walk. (So many, in fact, that I fear the country's dogs are getting way too used to multiple daily walks and are hoping we stay home forever....our cats, not so much).

In all of our walking around our neighborhoods we have rediscovered something: the serendipitous, affirming conversations (while maintaining social distance, of course) that occur between neighbors out for a stroll. People are connecting with friends and family virtually, yes, but we are also connecting with the man down the block whom we never spoke with and the family around the corner that we've always meant to introduce ourselves too. A cornerstone of a resilient community is the number and quality of social connections people have in their community. We're laying the foundation for that right now.

A return to better means rehumanizing our streets.

Cities dedicate an astounding 30-40% of their land area to motor vehicles. However, as more city-dwellers quell their cabin fever in local parks, some find it difficult to maintain social distance in increasingly crowded green spaces. Simultaneously, bike shops are going gangbusters as legions of people have had a chance to discover the simple joys of biking.

As these two realities combine, cities like Boston, Minneapolis, and Oakland are blocking off hundreds of miles of streets to through traffic so that 1) people have more space to spread out outdoors and 2) the surge of pedestrians and bikers are safe.

It turns out some local leaders see the benefits of this turn towards foot- and bike-centric transportation in reducing noise and air pollution, promoting healthy, active transportation, and reducing traffic congestion. Seattle, for example, even plans to make some of these closures permanent.

A return to better means sparking our ingenuity.

In another 18 months, most of the current disruption might be behind us. But this will not be the last pandemic we face, nor the last disruption in our lifetimes. In fact, the economic and social disarray resulting from climate change, the next foreseeable widespread disruption, makes our current situation seem like small peanuts, indeed. Under a business as usual approach, the projected cost of climate change to the global economy over the next 30 years is in the trillions of dollars, and the health and well-being of billions will suffer.

Our current situation is like a trial run testing our ability to prevent and adapt to disruption. Our lack of preparation, at least in the U.S., is glaring and has given empirical proof to the axiom "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." However, the ingenuity and fortitude displayed by our local leaders, business owners, and citizenry is breathtaking both in size and scope. The world came together and changed course in a relative instant. How can we leverage this ingenuity to mitigate and prepare for the myriad challenges we face in the coming years and decades?

The decisions we make now as we re-boot our society post-COVID-19 can return us to normal, meaning an out-of-balance world based on extraction and rampant inequality. Or we can choose instead to move toward the future we all want: one in which the entire ecosystem in the Driftless area, humans included, has the opportunity to thrive.


Casey Meehan

Director of Sustainability and Resilience at Western Technical College

La Crosse, Wisconsin

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400 7th Street North - Coleman 207, La Crosse, WI 54601

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