Silver linings and COVID-19

It turns out we can in fact make drastic changes for the sake of humanity.

It’s no exaggeration that as a global society, we are facing a crisis unlike anything most have ever seen. If we don’t act swiftly, significantly, and immediately, our mere existence on this planet may become highly jeopardized.

That paragraph refers to COVID-19, right?

Or is it the climate crisis?

Truth be told, it could be applicable to both. We’re just more acutely aware of the COVID-19 pandemic because we are currently feeling its effects and see how our individual behavior is either hurting or helping. It has a rapid feedback loop.

The climate crisis, on the other hand, has a long and slow feedback loop. Our individual actions are just as critical, but their effects are spread out over a longer timescale. As humans, we aren’t well-adapted to responding to these slower feedback loops, even if the evidence is clear and they are in our best interest. Consider the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1: You watch a news report about COVID-19 but don't take it seriously. You touch a hard surface, forget to wash your hands, touch your face, then fall ill to COVID-19 but thankfully recover. You realize the news report was right after all and adjust behaviors.
Scenario 2: You watch a news report about the climate crisis but don't take it seriously. You continue using vast amounts of fossil fuels and supporting land-degrading agricultural practices through everyday purchases. Decades later, ecosystem collapse causes economic collapse and society's hand is forced towards adopting regenerative practices at the global level. You realize the news report was right after all and adjust behaviors.

Which scenario leads to the most immediate change in behavior?

The first, of course, and at the present moment we need to be deploying every possible action we can to slow down this viral pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we must also sit and wait for the global economic collapse in scenario #2 before we adjust those behaviors.

In fact, as deadly and devastating as this current COVID-19 pandemic may be — and acknowledging that things will continue to get far worse before they get any better — if we look closely, there might actually be a faint silver lining that gives hope for the future.

Silver Linings

It’s bad out there. We don’t mean to downplay that in any way, shape, or form, but the media has that one covered, but in these trying times there is another story to be told.

In the midst of this crisis, we are seeing that individuals, industries, and governments alike all fully capable and willing to make drastic changes for the sake of their fellow man.

Seemingly overnight, we are seeing drastic reductions in consumption and travel, a sudden interest in local food systems, in-person events quickly pivoting towards virtual models, businesses adopting new business models to serve communities in need, friends and families (even strangers) connecting from afar to support one another and share resources… all initiated by everyday people, yearning for connection and a sense of normalcy.

In China, there has been a 25% drop in energy use and emissions over a two week period, likely leading to a 1% decrease in China’s total carbon emissions for the year, while in New York, recent travel restrictions have led to a 5-10% decrease in CO2 levels.

NO2 density in China. Source: BBC/NASA

These decreases in travel and energy usage are promising, but when governments lift travel restrictions and inevitably look to restimulate their economies, will we slingshot back in the direction of over-production, bringing emissions right back to where they would have been anyways?

The trajectory of post-corona society depends on each of us playing our part.

Was that work travel truly critical after all?

Could that meeting have been an email?

Do we revert back to the pre-corona business model that made a killing but we were fine without?

Do we continue to support those local farmers we started buying from because grocery stores were cleared out?

In Holistic Management, we often incorporate “planned disturbances” — intentional pattern-interrupts to the system — designed to bring about fresh perspectives and permission to compost once-useful actions that no longer serve.

Perhaps COVID-19 is an unplanned disturbance of sorts, one that we most definitely did not want, but one that we and the planet so desperately need.

As the dust settles and we emerge into a world that looks nothing like it did before, perhaps we will realize that business as usual has been leading us on a collision-course towards inevitable environmental and economic collapse.

Perhaps we will wake up to the fact that land-degrading agricultural practices are wreaking havoc on more than just our nutrition, our soils, and our wildlife. Habitat loss, after all, is a key driver for creating breeding grounds for infectious diseases. When habitat is destroyed, species become more densely packed into what livable habitat remains, increasing the risk of species-to-species disease transmission like the bat-to-pangolin-to-human pathway hypothesized to have brought us COVID-19. As we saw with H1N1, similar transmission occurs when animals are taken off pasture and crowded into confined feeding operations.

Perhaps we will see that regenerative agriculture, decreased usage of fossil fuels, and business models that truly serve humanity are the inevitable path forward.


Looking to contribute in some positive way during this crisis? Consider becoming a Regenerating Member of the Savory Institute. As markets take a hit, we as a 501(c)(3) non-profit are anticipating a significant downturn in donations which will greatly affect our mission. If there was ever a time to support land-healing agricultural practices so as to prevent further global catastrophe, now is the time. For just a few dollars a month, you can make the world of a difference. As they say, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
Bobby Gill

Bobby Gill

Bobby leads development and communications for the Savory Institute. A Biological Resources Engineer by training, Bobby was a lead scientific reviewer at the FDA before making the leap into the regenerative space where he now explores the intersectionality of personal and planetary health, and how to distill the complexity of these issues to new audiences. Watch Bobby’s TEDx talk: “It’s Not the Cow, It’s the How”
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