Borders are closing, people are hoarding, governments are panicking, and businesses are folding. These are indeed unprecedented times for humanity, and how we manage, prevail and evolve from this experience will be part of defining the future of our species and our planet. Fear, uncertainty and lack of clarity has led to increasing isolation of nations and communities. There are two ways this could go, on the one side racism, nationalism, protectionism, and extremism, and on the other empathy, togetherness and collaboration. I hope it becomes a lesson in the importance of taking care of each other, not in shutting people out.

But I’ve also observed something else during the last couple of months. Two things that have struck me from the constant updates on news sites, social feeds and forums that, once noticed, I am finding hard to ignore.

Our focus, actions and behavior have shifted, as globally we’ve moved down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The first thing I noticed is the disappearance of questions and conversations pertaining to climate change. The ink on the new EU Green Deal is not even dry, yet what would once have been front and center on most forums and agendas does not even make it on to the inside pages. Our global consciousness has shifted towards survival, and, as a species, immediate threats to our lives and our safety always takes precedent. Enlightened self-interest only happens when we’re closer to the top of the pyramid and all our basics are covered; with the pandemic raging across the globe, we’ve all been bumped down a few levels and are now first and foremost looking to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

So, on the surface, it seems all efforts, all activities, and all initiatives have moved away from the larger threat to our planet and towards the immediate, more tangible threat to our lives.

But as a consequence of this shift, we’re also seeing a natural change in behavior and attitudes that, consciously or not at this stage, can positively impact the planet and our future world – a silver lining within the dark cloud of COVID-19.

I call this “a disaster-triggered circular economy.”

The circular economy is an idea where we move away from the old linear way of consumption – produce, use, discard – and towards a “bio-based” economy where what we use is produced with the purpose of being reused, recycled or repurposed. During 2019 we saw the idea of a circular economy gain a bit of traction especially in the West, with governments and businesses starting to “future proof” their operations by introducing processes and products that ensure life beyond the linear. It has, however often, been seen as an expensive move and a “nice to have,” and while money was still being made using the traditional ways, more often than not, hard to justify a change for the better of the planet.

Now, with nations isolating themselves, consideration of where we get our food and products from suddenly becomes more important. How much we can use (ref: queues for toilet paper and hoarding antiseptic) suddenly comes into question, and how individual countries deal with waste, if we can no longer ship it off out of sight and out of mind, could quickly become a global disaster.

Maybe COVID-19 might become known as the disaster that triggered a more sustainable way of living.

Out of the ashes

China closing down factories, shutting its borders and quarantining millions of people was a frightening message of the severity of this virus. We looked on with fear and pity as Wuhan and beyond shut themselves off from the world, giving us a glimpse into what was to come. We saw the human suffering, as we as humans do, but what also became clear, apart from the possibility of a pandemic, was the sky. The air became clearer than it’s been since the Cultural Revolution.

Air pollution levels in China dropped by roughly a quarter in the course of a month, as coal-fired power plants and industrial facilities scaled down. Levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant primarily from burning fossil fuels, were down as much as 30%, according to NASA.

This trend is now becoming evident across the world as emissions decrease, production halts, and transportation slows down.

People are starting to rethink their consumption patterns as access to goods and services is becoming more difficult. Trends and conversations indicate that we are now questioning what we really need; stopping up to assess and consider what we buy and how we buy it, as circumstances mean old purchase habits and consumption without consideration is no longer a given. We’re acting now more out of scarcity and necessity. The green and sustainable trend has been slowly gaining traction across the globe, but the forced change in consumption this virus might inflict could accelerate a change in business operations and production to help them cope with a slowing in trade and increasing difficulties in waste management.

So, what could our world look like then, in the aftermath of the Coronavirus?

Local produce, urban farming, re-use and product swapping are trends already on the rise, and, with the continuous escalation of the virus, I expect these trends to grow faster and stronger as innovations will be introduced to secure this new way of living.

Disruption happens when markets, consumers and industries overlap in demand for change. Disruptions to production, storage, consumption and waste management must come as nations need to increasingly rely on their own abilities to produce, distribute, recycle or discharge.

Countries relying on imported energy – oil, coal and gas – will need to start looking at sources they can develop and own at home. Energy transition will escalate now as innovation and solutions in solar, wind and water are set to leapfrog older solutions. Sustainable farming will grow as countries provide for their local communities and mass-export slows. Ocean protection and restoration can have a fighting chance, with local provision potentially reducing overfishing and international tourism coming to a slow stop.

These are young-bud thoughts and hopes during these extraordinary times, but maybe, once the pandemic comes to a halt and we return to normality, we can continue some of the positive habits, trends and behaviors that have been inspired as a consequence of something so challenging.

Here’s hoping anyway.