Big Smile, No Teeth: Covid-19 gives us a glimpse of a world we could have


  • Living
  • Monday, 27 Apr 2020

This combination of pictures shows a street leading to the Delhi’s Presidential Palace on March 24 (left) and the same street photographed on April 2. Amid the world's biggest Covid-19-caused lockdown in India, Delhi's 20 million citizens are revelling in azure skies and clean air – a welcome respite in a city that is normally considered one of the world's most polluted. — AFP

Have you seen the video of a jellyfish swimming through the canals in Venice? It’s clearly visible cruising through a body of water where its sighting would have been unthinkable a month ago? It’s a sign that nature is reclaiming the previously human-tainted canal system of Venice.

Images like this are popping up everywhere. Recordings of crystal clear blue skies in places like Dehli and Los Angeles where normally the sky is mired in the grey haze of pollutants. All these are signs that the global lockdown taking people out of the environment is actually really good for the environment.

No surprise there.

As industry has shut down, as we’ve curbed our travel, thus curbing polluting-spewing trains and cars, our carbon footprint has dropped globally.

The changes were noticed first in the pandemic's original epicentre in Wuhan, China. Nasa and the European Space Agency, which have pollution-detecting satellites, noticed a decrease in nitrogen dioxide. Then there was a drop in carbon dioxide. At first this was just around Wuhan but as the country generally shut down, the drop spread to all regions of China. Experts estimate that the pandemic-caused lockdown in China has wiped out a quarter or more of the country's CO2 emissions over the past four weeks, from mid-March to mid-April.

And this effect has happened all over the world.

So does this mean we’re headed for some kind of environmental utopia when the pandemic eventually ends?

Not necessarily.

During the 2008 global financial crisis, many industries stopped or shut down temporarily to weather the storm, but when they came back they increased output to make up for the time they lost. Experts point to this example as what will happen when various virus-caused lockdowns and movement restrictions end. Industry will continue again, perhaps at increased speed, and the environmental gains made will be erased multiple times.

Indeed, Ralph Franklin Keeling from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the United States believes fossil fuel use would have to decline by 10% around the world, and that decline has to be sustained for a year, to have a meaningful effect on CO2 levels. This doesn’t seem like something that can be achieved even in a pandemic. And if this does happen due to the outbreak, we might have other problems at that point.

So the world is set to go back to it’s environment-destroying self when all this is finished.

But why should it?

The parallels between this Covid-19 pandemic and climate change are many. Both are disasters that have the potential to kill large portions of the population. One happens faster, Covid-19, the other takes more time, climate change.

But with Covid-19, the world has quickly sprung into action because deaths were imminent. We’ve closed down all but essential businesses to keep our population safe. The economy will suffer but human life came first.

Isn’t this the exact same situation we have with climate change? Just on a longer time scale.

Covid-19 has shown that a response many would call unthinkable a year ago is the new normal now. With climate change we wouldn’t even need to shut down the economy. Just the parts that are extremely harmful to the environment. The ones that put our futures at undue risk.

The stimulus packages being passed in country after country, universal basic income being given to citizens now because they can’t work, – this could happen to anyone in these industries. And with climate change we have the advantage of doing this a sector at a time. In smaller portions to transition to a global economy that can address the environmental crisis just like we’re addressing the Covid-19 crisis now.

John Atcheson, CEO of Stuffstr, a company that deals with sustainability in fashion says, “What we’re witnessing is consumer demand changing radically within a matter of weeks, driven by the very primal instinct for survival. This is the kind of behavioural change for which climate activists have been campaigning, almost completely unsuccessfully, for years.”

Consumer demand has already changed. People are commuting less, consuming less – maybe this becomes the new normal. Maybe the images of a jellyfish in Venice canals or blue skies over Delhi will remind people of the world we could have. The world we need to have if we’re going to address climate change and survive on this planet.

Or maybe not.

One thing is for sure, things will not go back to “normal”. This isn’t a war, in that it’s not us against them. It’s us uniting to save each other. But the lasting effect of this global disaster will be like a world war in that it will shift paradigms and instil new values, and our generation will forever discuss time in terms of before and after Covid-19.


Big Smile, No Teeth columnist Jason Godfrey – who once was told to give the camera a ‘big smile, no teeth’ – has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at lifestyle@thestar.com.my and check out his stuff at jasongodfrey.co. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.
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