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Serenity describes the ambience surrounding this section of the Crystal River on Sunday morning just outside of Carbondale as the geese, ducks and birds revel in and above its pristine waters. There are many indications – anecdotal and otherwise – that Mother Earth is seeing some benefits from the change in habits wrought by COVID-19.

If there’s one bright spot to the darkness of the new reality it’s Mother Earth’s recovery, seen in all kinds of increments.

Fewer vehicles on the road are easier on the air quality. Darkness has returned to the night sky and the silence of social distancing allows moments for thoughtful decisions. Birds sing louder or maybe we are just more open to hearing them.

Basalt is an epicenter of thought and research on the environment. Rocky Mountain Institute and Roaring Fork Conservancy stand side-by-side between Two Rivers Road and the river, but their influence reaches much deeper and is increasingly important as the COVID-19 impacts continue to be assessed.

In email conversations with the leaders of Rocky Mountain Institute, Roaring Fork Conservancy and Chris Lane, a Basalt resident and CEO of Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, we asked for some observations on how this crisis can be a long-term win for Mother Earth.

Roaring Fork Conservancy

Rick Lofaro, executive director

RFWJ: What does earth’s rebound tell us about resilience?

RL: The earth and all natural systems are both fragile and resilient. As humanity, we challenge the fragility of these systems as the norm. Now that much of the (harmful) human activity has subsided for the time being (due to COVID-19), natural systems respond favorably. The same can be said for rivers. For example, many dams have been removed over the last decade in the Pacific Northwest and the recovery of rivers is truly remarkable. Locally, a strong water year in 2019 and above average snowpack have kept our rivers healthy and resilient.

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Serenity describes the ambience surrounding this section of the Crystal River on Sunday morning just outside of Carbondale as the geese, ducks and birds revel in and above its pristine waters. There are many indications – anecdotal and otherwise – that Mother Earth is seeing some benefits from the change in habits wrought by COVID-19.

RFWJ: Are you at all hopeful that any of the practices now in place (driving less, consuming less) will become permanent habits?

RL: I am hopeful that some of the practices in place will become permanent habits. I am also hopeful that our leadership and policies will work toward addressing climate change and use this stark yet positive example as to what can occur if humans can change behaviors.

RFWJ: Without directly or indirectly assigning blame — is it possible that our treatment of the environment has brought about the kinds of conditions that either made humans more susceptible to COVID-19 or promoted its spread?

RL: Hmmm…I don’t have a good answer for this one.

Lofaro later wrote: It really is amazing from the emissions side what is happening.

Aspen Center for Environmental Studies

Chris Lane, CEO

RFWJ: What does Earth’s rebound tell us about resilience? (I am thinking of recent reports from Venice — where the water has improved measurably — and air quality readings in Los Angeles).

CL: Generally speaking, I wouldn’t necessarily characterize the Earth as “rebounding” just yet. Yes, China has had significant decreases in greenhouse gas emissions in January and February. But most greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, methane, and refrigerants remain in the atmosphere for more than 100 years and their associated warming effects continue as well.

On the other hand, direct air and water pollution from global fossil fuel combustion has instantly and dramatically decreased in many areas due to the global shutdown of industry from COVID-19 pandemic. Air quality – specifically particulates, nitrogen oxides, and other criteria air pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides and ozone — has improved in many urban areas around the world – from Wuhan to Los Angeles to Rome. Nature has a way of naturally attenuating – healing itself — when humans allow it.

RFWJ: Are you at all hopeful that any of the practices now in place (driving less, consuming less) will become permanent habits?

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Early on Monday morning, with no cars on the road, this llama takes its time as it searches for sprigs of new spring grass that are just beginning to sprout in the field.

CL: I think society is learning some powerful lessons about how to survive while consuming far fewer resources. This directly reduces our impact on the environment. Will this create lasting habits? Probably not over the long term. Humans have proven that, sadly, money is a stronger driver of human behavior than protection of the environment. But it is ACES’ job to make the case for the environment. We have our work cut out for us. And, I’m hopeful for the younger generation who has more at stake and is better than any generation prior at consuming complex information and acting upon that data.

RFWJ: Without directly or indirectly assigning blame – is it possible that our treatment of the environment has brought about the kinds of conditions that either made humans more susceptible to COVID-19 or promoted its spread?

CL: Climate change has certainly affected certain insect-borne diseases like Zika, malaria, and West Nile virus, among many others. Stated simply: more warming means more opportunity for insects carrying disease to survive, thus increasing the chance of spreading a disease. Previous coronavirus outbreaks emerged from direct human exposure to animals, e.g. SARS from civets (nocturnal Asian mammal) and MERS from camels.

According to the Scripps Research Institute, this novel coronavirus evolved naturally most likely in bats then transferred to reptiles then humans. If humans were not interacting with captive or wild animals as much, then transfer of a virus to humans would diminish. Are these most recent coronaviruses related to climate change or human impacts on the environment? No one knows for sure.

Certainly having more humans on the planet with more interaction with animals bred in captivity is directly linked to this most recent novel virus transferring to humans. Pollution can weaken our immune systems which could theoretically affect our ability to fight coronaviruses. But a direct and definitive link from this novel coronavirus to broader human impacts on the environment is inconclusive at this time.

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Shoppers at City Market this week found more regulations, adjusted operating hours and shortages of popular items, including toilet paper and certain dry goods. However, stores selling essential goods are finally starting to catch up with demand.

RFWJ: Any other thoughts about Mother Nature during this time of COVID-19?

CL: The biggest lessons we can learn from this pandemic include: Humans must learn to live WITH nature and stop going against it. Science, not politics, MUST inform and dictate our policies from COVID-19 response to climate change mitigation. The cost to PREVENT an environmental or human health disaster, whether it be air and water pollution, food security, climate change, oil spill, or global viral pandemics, is much less than the cost to our economy to deal with them after they have occurred.

As it’s been said before, ‘our economy is the wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.’

Thus, we must protect and live in harmony with our environment and its natural ecosystem services in order to not only survive, but also prosper. You can’t eat, drink or breath GNP (gross national product)! Our very survival as a species is completely dependent upon natural systems. If we forget that fact, we put ourselves at risk. ACES’ job is to teach people about that connection to, and dependence upon, nature.

Rocky Mountain Institute

Amory Lovins is teaching an intensive Stanford virtual course all this week but sent along a piece by Gwynne Dyer as representative of his views.

The Plague: A Few Changes

By Gwynne Dyer

They teach you in journalism school never to use the phrase “...X has changed the world forever”. Or at least they should. Covid-19 is certainly not going to change the world forever, but it is going to change quite a few things, in some cases for a long time. Here’s nine of them, in no particular order.

1. The clean air over China’s cities in the past month, thanks to an almost total shutdown of the big sources of pollution, has saved 20 times as many Chinese lives as Covid-19 has taken. (Air pollution kills about 1.1 million people in China every year.) People will remember this when the filthy air comes back, and want something done about it. India too.

2. Online shopping was already slowly killing the retail shops. The lock-down will force tens of millions who rarely or never shop online to do it all the time. (Yes, all the websites are crashed or booked until mid-April now, but there will be lots of time to scale them up to meet the demand.) Once customers get used to shopping online, most of them won’t go back, so retail jobs will be disappearing twice as fast.

3. Not so radical a change with restaurants, but basically the same story: more take-aways and home deliveries, fewer bums on seats. Habits will change, and a lot of people won’t come back afterwards. Food sold out the door generates much less cash flow than food served at the table, and half of the waiters’ jobs are gone. There will be a severe cull of restaurants.

4. Once it becomes clear that ‘remote working’ actually works for most jobs, it will start to seem normal for people not to go in to work most days. So a steep drop in commuting, lower greenhouse-gas emissions, and eventually a lot of empty office space in city centers.

5. There will be a recession, of course, but it probably won’t be as bad or as long as the one after the financial crash of 2008. It isn’t a collapse of ‘the market’ that has cost people their jobs this time. It was a virus that made them stop working, and governments are doing far more than ever before to sustain working people through what will probably be a long siege.

Raptor nest jb photo_8832.jpg

Serenity describes the ambience surrounding this section of the Crystal River on Sunday morning just outside of Carbondale as the geese, ducks and birds revel in and above its pristine waters. There are many indications – anecdotal and otherwise – that Mother Earth is seeing some benefits from the change in habits wrought by COVID-19.

When the virus is tamed and they can go back to work, the work (in most cases) will still be there. Although there will also be a few trillion dollars of extra debt.

6. Don’t worry about the debt. Banks have always created as much money as the government requires. Put too much money into the economy and you’ll cause inflation, which is bad, but just replacing what people would ordinarily be earning so that the economy doesn’t seize up is good.

7. What is being revealed here is a deeper truth. ‘Austerity’ – cutting back on the welfare state to ‘balance the budget’ – is a political and ideological choice, not an economic necessity. What governments are moving into, willy-nilly, is a basic income guaranteed by the state.

Just for the duration of the crisis, they say, and it’s not quite a Universal Basic Income, but that idea is now firmly on the table.

8. Collective action and government protection for the old and the poor will no longer be viewed as dangerous radicalism, even in the United States. Welfare states were built all over the developed world after the Second World War. They will be expanded after the Plague ends.

Indeed, if Joe Biden were to drop out of the presidential race tomorrow for health reasons, Bernie Sanders would stand a fair chance of beating Trump in November.

9. Decisive action on the climate crisis will become possible (although not guaranteed), because we will have learned that ‘business as usual’ is not sacred. If we have to change the way we do business, we can.

So it’s an ill wind that blows no good (a saying that was already old when John Heywood first catalogued it in 1546). Some of the anticipated changes are definitely good, but we are going to pay an enormous price in lives and in loss for these benefits. It could have been dealt with a lot better.

And the West should learn a little humility. Taiwan, South Korea and China (after the early fumble) have handled this crisis far better than Europe and North America. These are already more dead in Italy than in China, and America, Britain, France and Germany will certainly follow suit.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.