Status Quo or Silver Lining? Environmental Changes in a Pandemic

“Life [now] is somewhat more complicated than it was in the Middle Ages, but in many ways it is so much the same — violent, terrifying, full of chaos and plague, murderers and thieves. So the acknowledgement that in the midst of ourselves there is still a good part that hasn’t been corrupted and destroyed, that we can tap into and reclaim, is most reassuring.”

From Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

– – – – –

By Kathy Zawicki and Benjamin Gross

Welcome to 2020 and the pandemic experience in America: more deaths from the coronavirus than American casualties in the Vietnam War; social distancing, an economic slowdown/shutdown, and the rancorous fallout from each of the above. The current situation can certainly be seen as disturbing, overwhelming, even downright terrifying. Does a way through this morass exist? 

If we turn to media coverage, the glimmerings of hope and possibility may already be present.  Recent news has hinted at something of a shift, a move in a direction that just might lead to lives (and a world) that may be heading in a new and positive direction. All of these accounts have a common element: the environment.

In the United States, public discourse (Habermas 1989) pertaining to environmental issues and climate change during 2019 was rather limited in mainstream mass media American news coverage as reported by the watchdog group Media Matters, news about climate change comprised only 0.7% of nightly national U.S. television news and Sunday political talk show coverage during 2019.  Additionally, only 16% of this coverage involved any coverage of climate activism, and only 37% mentioned taking action or finding solutions to climate change (Macdonald 2020).

However, this lack of coverage appears to be in contrast with the public interest. Polling released by the Pew Research Center on Earth Day 2020 shows fairly widespread public concern about the environment among the U.S. public. The data shows that the majority of Americans believe that the federal government is not doing enough to protect the environment and that they believe environmental policy should be a “top priority” of the president. The public also showed a willingness to change everyday life to address the climate crisis, indicating by more than a 2-to-1 margin support for the statement “stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost” (Funk & Kennedy 2020).

As the global pandemic has forced an alteration in market production patterns around the world, writers have questioned whether a “return to normal” is what we should really desire. Instead, some have noted that changes in economic activities have had a positive effect on the environment. A recent article by Martha Henriques (2020) noted that pollution in New York has dropped by 50 percent because of measures taken to contain the virus. Articles such as this are introducing questions of “sustainability” as a unique and identifiable “issue public” (Gamson 1992) into the public sphere (Habermas 1989).

Writers within this issue public are framing whether a return to full employment and production is a healthy initiative or sustainable goal for the planet. There is debate about whether the existence of non-essential work justifies ecological harm to the planet and if that labor should return. As an example of this “sustainability” issue public framework, Simon Mair (2020) has questioned the logic of a government that is focusing on rebuilding an economy where the majority of workers hold jobs that society has not deemed “essential” in order for society to operate. As he states:

At its core, the economy is the way we take our resources and turn them into the things we need to live. Looked at this way, we can start to see more opportunities for living differently that allow us to produce less stuff without increasing misery. … All else equal, the more we produce, the more greenhouse gases we emit. So how do you reduce the amount of stuff you make while keeping people in work? (Mair 2020).

In the United States, non-essential workers are a sizeable percentage of the U.S. labor force. The Brookings Institution estimates that 49 to 62 million Americans work in “essential industries” (Tomer & Kane 2020), far less than half of the 162 million people currently identified as members of the U.S. labor force. Additionally, it has been estimated that only 28 percent of men in the United States are “essential” workers (Ayesh 2020), although a disproportionately high percentage of high income jobs are held by men. This again addresses the logic of how society values labor and what labor is important, both of which are recurrent themes that are within the framework constructed by sustainability-oriented writers.   

There are early indicators that Americans may be willing to change their way of life, perhaps even on a permanent basis. For instance, since the onset of the pandemic, the use of bicycles has been on the rise. In Philadelphia, bicycling has gone up by 150%; worldwide, it has also increased dramatically over the last few months (Schwedhelm et al 2020). In Chicago, the use of “bike-share” services doubled in the first part of March (Laker 2020). Sales of bicycles have gone up dramatically in the U.S., with at least one distributor reporting that purchases have increased by 50%, with numerous models already out of stock (Bike sales surge, 2020).    

An increased reliance on bicycles might seem obvious, given the reluctance of carless urban dwellers to chance the risk of coronavirus exposure on public transport. But this uptick in bicycle usage is also connected to a striking development, tied in to the overall decline in driving private motor vehicles: cleaner air since the onset of the pandemic. Such changes are evident worldwide.  Levels of atmospheric pollution in China and Europe, for instance, are much lower (Sommer 2020, Bartels 2020, Watts and Kommenda 2020). In Los Angeles, dramatic before-and-after photos reveal a virtually clear cityscape; estimates are that smog has been reduced by 40% (Al-Arshani 2020).  Many of America’s larger national parks have also enjoyed improved air quality, with dramatic declines in measured ozone (Roy 2020). 

But are these events a true herald of change? Might such developments be lasting and transformative? Or will things simply revert to past practice once the pandemic has passed?   

The future, of course, remains unknown, but sociologists have posited numerous theoretical models for how change occurs in society. Esteemed American sociological theorist Talcott Parsons speaks of the process of change getting underway when the environment is modified, or when external forces threaten the status quo (Ritzer 2013); in the present instance, the existence of coronavirus has altered the world. According to the process that Parsons outlines as leading to social change, the first step is for society to react to these modifications or threats by engaging in what he refers to as adaptation.

Clearly, adaptation — even if only grudgingly accepted in some quarters — has been taking place these last few months. But what of additional changes, changes with a view beyond the increased use of bicycles and the existence of cleaner air? Are other benefits possible? 

Imagine, for a moment, an affirmative answer to that question. Then consider the details of what often passes for “normal” life in contemporary times:  stress, busy-ness, (arguably) self-centeredness, all of it primarily and increasingly played out in an urban setting. And then contemplate the words of Hans Gelter (2020), a university professor in Sweden. Writing of the difficulty some might feel in regard to establishing a connection with nature, and the benefits of being able to foster and enjoy such a connection, he noted that “[t]he feeling of being a part of the river or the mountains seems too spiritual to most people…The ability to be absorbed by a place is a state of mind, a skill that needs training. Many modern people have lost this ability” (emphasis added). 

Even if one is put off by the mysticism or poeticism of his words, Gelter’s thoughts are significant when examined in the context of the recently released ranking and analysis of the happiness of nations (Fox 2020, World Happiness Report 2020). While measures such as wealth distribution, incidence of crime, and access to quality medical care are inarguably crucially important to a country’s health and well-being, a connection with nature is also of apparently special significance.  Interestingly, Gelter’s work focused on Scandinavian nations, all of them known for an emphasis on, and clear enjoyment of, outdoor-related activities. Perhaps not surprisingly, Scandinavian countries (in line with results from previous incarnations of the annual report) occupy six of the top ten places in the current ranking of the world’s happiest countries (Fox 2020). In contrast, the U.S. ranked 18th.

But again, consider the increased use of bicycles, and the cleaner air. Thinking on a larger scale, perhaps such changes could translate to modifications in other environmentally-related circumstances, involving a wider range of people. For example, a recent study concluded that for children, greater access to green space was connected to a lower risk of psychiatric disorders, a benefit extending through adolescence and into adulthood (Engemann et al 2019). Mere proximity to nature, it would seem, can be of great benefit.  And perhaps this awareness could even help to transcend the racial divisiveness of America. Typically, for instance, African Americans have been more often victimized by episodes of environmental racism, and they are drastically underrepresented in positive environmental issues and involvement with nature-related recreational activities (Finney 2014). Might that be addressed as well?   

While the writers above represent hope that the pandemic will have a silver lining in the form of a healthier global environment, the president has steadfastly focused on a status quo “return to normal” as quickly as possible. For example, the Trump administration, even in the midst of sweeping shutdown restrictions due to the pandemic, recently gave approval for ongoing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in eastern Montana (Brown 2020, Davidson 2020). This project is largely regarded as a boon to oil companies, yet the construction goes on even now, with existence of that activity being only lightly covered by major media venues.

Would an ability to regain that “good part” of ourselves perhaps lead us to more awareness of the environment, more of an inclination to follow environmental news, and ultimately more of a tendency to act to protect a shared and treasured natural environment? If any or all of these positive outcomes could come to pass, it would mean that the most unlikely of outcomes had become reality:  in the midst of a global pandemic, the finding of a silver lining.   

Kathy Zawicki earned a Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Iowa.  She is an assistant professor in the department of sociology and criminology at St. Bonaventure University, where she has taught since 2001.  Previously, she was employed as a child protection worker.


Benjamin Gross earned a Ph.D. in Sociology at Michigan State University. He is currently an associate professor in the department of sociology and criminology at St. Bonaventure University, where he has taught since 2011. His research interests include media and society, American politics, racial inequality, and social psychology. He also says he is “very fond of professional sports and animal rescues.”    


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Categories: Jandoli Institute, Media, Research Essays, Writing Actross Disciplines


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