Rebuilding society after the pandemic must not mean trashing the planet

COVID-19Social IssuesThought-provoking

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Margareth Sembiring reveals the risks involved in ignoring the environment in a post-COVID society.

From the very start of the international response to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was evident that the environment had been placed on the backburner. In the first few months, when the world was gripped by anxiety over a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the market, governments’ most common strategy was to quickly produce as much PPE as possible to meet skyrocketing demands. The fact that this equipment is mostly made of plastics, the arch-enemy of environmental campaigns, did not seem to matter at all. 

Likewise, the immediate threat to life has rendered the fossil fuel origins of plastic products completely irrelevant. The use of these products is, of course, at times justifiable, although most people would see when and how much to use them as a matter of personal judgment. 

But the emphasis on meeting human needs – which is often done at the expense of the environment –  points to a deeper issue. It reflects society’s underlying “as it suits us” attitude towards the environment that has arguably hampered the effectiveness of various environmental protection measures thus far.

Worsening waste management 

The world’s fear-driven response to this pandemic, which has resulted in heaping plastic trash onto already large mountains of plastic trash, is expected to add up to an estimated five billion tonnes of plastics that have ended up in landfill or in the natural environment since the 1950s. Globally, only nine per cent of plastics ever produced have been recycled. 

This demonstrates the existing inadequacy in waste management capacity that the pandemic response has evidently exacerbated. Not only are disposable masks and other PPE debris found littering the oceans, they are also littering the streets. Around 15-20 million informal waste collectors, who are often among the poorest and most vulnerable in society, also put their health at risk from scavenging potentially infected garbage piles.  

These observations suggest the need for limitations in the ‘human security first’ approach to the environment. Considering the existing complex environmental challenges and the race against time to meet the 1.50C Paris climate target, a shift from ‘human security’ to a more ecological perspective is needed. This would change the way society utilises earth’s resources and enable effective measures to address environmental worries. And doing so will in fact make the world a more secure place for mankind to live in, whereas abuse of the environment only puts our future on this planet ever more at risk.

Rethinking human security  

The care of the environment has long been seen primarily from the human security lens. Climate change is a nightmare because of disaster prospects and their potential impacts on food availability, social stability, international security, and other human needs. Plastic waste is a pressing issue because microplastics that fish consume will eventually end up in human digestive systems. In other words, the health of the ecology itself is rarely the main motive behind the environmental protection agenda.

The pandemic response has brought to the fore the tension between prioritising human needs and the care of the environment.

In March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) urged the PPE industry to increase its manufacturing capacity by 40 percent. This was to meet the world’s demand for 89 million disposable masks, 76 million gloves, and 1.6 million goggles every month. 

The pandemic-driven rush for plastic-made disposable masks was projected to lead to a massive jump in global sales from US$800 million in 2019 to $166 billion in 2020. Unfortunately, the laudable intention of providing sufficient PPE quickly has ignored the eventual repercussions on the environment. 

A similar response at the societal level is seen in the continuing use of disposable masks among low-risk populations. This is despite the WHO recommending their use mainly for health workers, people with COVID-19 symptoms, people caring for COVID-19 patients at home, and at-risk people. After the PPE supply chain was successfully restored, reasonably priced PPE products can easily be found in the market. 

This, combined with convenience, hygiene, better protection, and other personal reasons, has probably led to a continuing preference for disposable over reusable fabric masks. A recent survey in the United States revealed that  more than 70 per cent of respondents aged 18 to 64 years had been using fabric masks. But of that group within the same week, around 60 percent of them had also donned disposable masks and 35 percent had worn N95 masks.

Despite the availability of more environmentally friendly alternatives, it is again clear that the emphasis on human convenience can easily trump environmental considerations. 

Integrating the ecological perspective 

Considering that humanity and the environment are so interconnected and mutually impacting, an ecological perspective is urgently needed to complement the current approach to environment and climate issues. The ecological perspective means being constantly aware of humanity and the environment sharing the same space on Earth.

It calls for an integral consideration of pressures on the weakest in society, the environment, and other living beings, in every area of decision-making. It means enlarging the focus beyond one’s immediate needs and showing a willingness to bear some inconveniences in a spirit of solidarity towards the collective good of wider society. 

In the specific example of mask use, the ecological perspective will encourage people to set aside personal convenience and opt for reusable masks based on risk assessment.

Governments can help by encouraging low-risk population to use fabric instead of disposable masks, or even regulate the use of disposable masks only for those who really need them.

Similarly, as economies are re-opening and eager to rebound, an ecological approach will mindfully take into account the implications of a certain recovery strategy on resource use, the environment, and the most needy, not only within national borders but also beyond – especially when global supply chains are involved. We live on the same planet and environmental impacts know no boundaries as climate change attests. 

For a start, governments should consider applying concepts akin to private sector-intended Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) principles to make necessary adjustments to national recovery packages. ESG, can be defined as the practice of considering material environmental, social and governance issues in the investment process.

Care of the environment cannot be exercised only as and when convenient.

Pushing the environment to the backseat and thinking it can be dealt with later is simply untenable. There are already enormous environmental stresses resulting from decades of it playing second fiddle to economic convenience. 

An ecological approach must be an intrinsic part of the decision-making process for resource use in crisis response and in the post-COVID-19 world. If not, that post-COVID world is likely to be a highly dangerous and unpleasant place to live in.

This is a lightly edited version of an article which was first published on 8th September in RSIS Commentary, the newsletter of The S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies: https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/CO20168.pdf It is re-published here with the editor’s permission.


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