Modern civilization is fashioned of fossil fuels. Coal and oil have enabled infrastructure, technology, and living standards for masses of people that were only dreamed of by tiny elites a few hundred years ago. Realization that heavy use destroys the biosphere has hardly made a dent on emissions. We enjoy our current conveniences and want to continue eating in the style to which we have become accustomed. Complacent inertia strips mountainsides and pumps holes to spew carbon ubiquitously.
Almost infinite conflicting predictions concern changes ushered in by this pandemic. I forlornly hope it becomes the proverbial “whap alongside the head” that knocks sense into society. In particular, I wish our excessive use of combustion would slack off. Recent health, economic, and social crises could help us to move on. Imagine a world without internal combustion engines, few jet airplanes, many windmills and solar panels, insulated “green” homes and offices _ cleaner air each year. And, yes, we could still work, eat, and be entertained.
Progression in that direction has been going on for some time. Texas produces huge quantities of wind energy, homes are sheathed in solar panels, electric vehicles are mandated in places like China and Europe. Various technologies proclaim breakthroughs week by week. Younger generations had already rediscovered the joys of living in energy-efficient apartments in cities. The cost of “renewable” energy has been dropping dramatically. But there seemed to be a very long slog ahead, simply because society was used to multiple vehicle households, high heating and cooling bills, work that demanded frequent travel, and all the other assumed requirements of life.
Biology has a term called “punctuated equilibrium” which describes what may be happening. Little changes keep creeping into an organism, until some dramatic environmental event makes a few of these changes so useful that its owner becomes dominant. For example, if people begin to work a few days from home, there will be no need to own more than one car. If trips are shorter and less frequent, small electric vehicles work just fine. If solar panels lower energy bills at home and office they will multiply.
All of such changes have cascading effects on industry. Electric utility companies already notice a drop in power demand, but if homes really start to go off-line, the cost of maintaining an electric network of wires and transmission stations becomes exorbitant. If fewer cars are used less often, the underfunded road network will wither and encourage rail bulk transport. Work from home is likely for service industries, electronic connections finally leap to prominence over face to face business travel. Many factories (filled with robotic labor) will relocate to places like deserts where solar power is cheap and frequently available. The list is long and strange. And once started, the progression is self-sustaining. It becomes too expensive and annoying to fight trends _ just like the replacement of horse-drawn transportation in a decade or so.
Although I hate yard crews because of noise, they are indicative of hopeful home trends _ renting or sharing power equipment. The same is true of using cleaning services. Home delivery of goods is more power efficient than multiple individual vehicles making short trips. Solar panels, efficient lighting, decent insulation and windows all cut down on energy use and save money. These and other similar issues are all of a nature that becomes more asymptotically common _ fads which are good for the environment. All of these have been given a giant boost by the pandemic lockdown.
Anyway, I am breathing clearer this year. The air has rarely seemed so delicious. Admittedly, in the last few weeks, traffic has returned and mowers and blowers resumed their roars. Peace and quiet gone with the return of economic activity. As everything gets back to “normal” I fear that all my hopes and dreams are only hopes and dreams after all. We have learned nothing.
What nature remains seems to have adapted anyway. I realize that my little locality does not represent the world, and my personal observation is hardly universal. Yet local extinctions seem to have occurred, not only in reptiles like snakes and turtles, but in all species not cohabiting with man (e.g. gulls, raccoons, chipmunks, pigeons, rats, crows, dogs, cockroaches, etc.) Insects are too sparse. Thousands of plant species are gone with the snows of yesteryear. Perhaps nothing can stop our march to sterility.
For a few moments, however, let me pretend there is a silver lining somewhere. That a tipping point has been reached towards something better. That trends aligned against fumes will begin a virtuous cycle that eventually ends smog forever. I realize it is probably no more likely than any other fantasy of being saved by the supernatural, but I am grateful for any improbable fleeting vision of good to which I can momentarily cling.