Earth Day in the World of COVID-19

By: Patricia Chadwick

It was fifty years ago when Earth Day was declared – I remember the event as though it were yesterday. In Cambridge, Massachusetts where I was living at the time, the denizens of Harvard Square were elated to have another cause for demonstration – at least this was less disruptive than the daily and nightly clashes between the police and an assortment of students, supportive professors, beatniks and members of the Hari Krishna sect, in opposition to the Vietnam War.

That first Earth Day had special meaning for me. I lived within walking distance of the beautiful Charles River, the winding boundary between Boston and Cambridge and I had vivid memories of picking buttercups along its banks when I was no more than four years old. My mother had told me many times how she, as a teenage girl, loved to swim in the river, but by 1970, a mere 25 years later, the waters of the Charles were so polluted that it was toxic. If a sailor or a sculler accidentally fell into the river, it necessitated a trip to the hospital for a tetanus shot.

The last half century has seen the river return to health along with many other rivers in this country. Giant strides have been made in restricting industrial discharge, ridding lakes, rivers and streams of their pollution; and wetlands restoration has also made huge gains. Even air pollution is trending, albeit slowly, in the right direction, but global industrial growth makes it a “two-steps-forward, one-step-back” process. Vehicular and air traffic continue to grow unabated. That was all part of yesterday and yesteryear.

Then COVID-19 hit us, and the world as we knew it came to a screeching halt. In the space of a few weeks, we followed the dictate to quarantine ourselves in our houses and apartments; “work from home” became the new order – for those who were lucky enough not to be laid off.

Until a few weeks ago, the notion that huge swaths of our economy could carry on without a single employee showing up in the office or even leaving home, was unfathomable. While telecommuting has been in existence for decades, and has been a growing trend, the proclivity to make it a corporate-wide practice has not materialized, particularly among large companies where corporate culture tends to be slow to change. Now, in the space of a month, the workplace in our country has been altered forever. We have proven that Zoom and Webex meetings can obviate the need for conference rooms and intercity travel.

Gone too, as we work from home, is the “daily commute” – that often two to three hours of each day spent by millions of Americans in traffic congestion or crammed onto a subway or train. Could that too be a thing of the past?

Think of the benefits. On a human level, there would be a reduction in stress as employees, instead of rushing out to commute to work, could have a couple of extra hours in the day for themselves and their family – time to exercise, go for a walk, have a leisurely breakfast, or take a child to school. The lack of stress associated with commuting, in and of itself, would add to human productivity. And with millions of cars no longer being driven to and from work, the congestion, as well as the wear and tear on the highway system, will be measurably reduced. And, to the point of this missive in honor of Earth Day, those millions of cars will no longer be spewing carbon dioxide exhaust into the atmosphere, thereby reducing one of the main causes of climate change.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, here is a picture of Los Angeles (Courtesy of Getty/Reuters/Business Insider) before and after Governor Newsom issued the stay-at-home order.