Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

How sustainable is our new-found sustainability?

The tirade of mantras and teachings that COVID-19 has generated have proven almost as tiresome and unrelenting as the virus itself. Well-intended though they are, insightful injunctions to ‘slow down’ and ‘listen to nature’ have quickly become repetitive. Yet, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t some truth in what is said.

Last year, the UN gave us 11 years to take radical action in response to the climate crisis before its effects become irreversible. The statement was powerful. It lingered in the headlines for days and in imaginations for a few days longer, but new stories moved in and people moved on. The issue is urgent but still not urgent enough to hold our attention. The spread of COVID-19, however, has proved impossible to ignore and its legacy may well be to heighten our awareness to the fragility of the world around us. If the climate crisis is the main event, COVID-19 provides a grave prologue.

Of course, political international responses to COVID-19 have varied massively, but there seems a trend across societies, fragilely articulated, towards taking some kind of care of the world in which we live.

As we all face fearful and uncertain times, there has been a surge in people savouring the simple pleasures yielded by the outside world. Even spaces typically saturated by navel-gazing have begun to look outward: social media timelines are strewn with pictures of flowers and green spaces. Such new-found sensitivity to the natural world might surely motivate increased enthusiasm to protect it against the demise posed by the climate crisis.

Even the lifestyle changes arising from COVID-19 which are not explicitly linked to environmental progress have had profoundly beneficial effects for it. Zoom meetings have replaced carbon-intensive trips across countries and oceans for an hour’s meeting, there has been renewed support for local businesses and local produce, and a rediscovering of our gardens and parks has come to compensate for missed holidays abroad. This quieter, gentler way of living is relieving some of the strain our climate is buckling under.

 Yet, whether this increased sustainability will endure after COVID-19 has abated is hard to predict. It is easy to preach commitment to these practices when there is no alternative. It is easy to proclaim our love for the world on our doorsteps when spring is in its full throes. When restrictions are eased and the trees are bare, the skies gloomy once more, what is stopping people swinging contentedly back to their old ways? 21st century lifestyle choices have been sold to us by ease and speed, so what justification is there for clinging to the slower, simpler and ways of life that we have adopted of late? The threat of COVID-19 is immediate and personal, it has forced most of us to think and act in terms of the collective good. The same approach is needed to combat the climate crisis, but without a daily death count, will we find the will to change?

It must, therefore, be the duty of those privileged enough to have choice in the matter to persevere with sustainability. Enjoying a slower life as a result of COVID-19 is a symptom of privilege. Whilst some are peacefully planting in their gardens, others are terrified by the idea of not being able to put the next meal on the table. If we are to sustain sustainability in the post-COVID world, it is the responsibility of the fortunate to lead the way. The care we have for the world and people around us has never been more starkly necessary. Let’s hold on to this newly learned wisdom.