Earth Day Gets a Fiftieth Birthday Gift from the Coronavirus

Although celebrating its fiftieth birthday, Earth Day (April 22) this week lacked the usual demonstrations around the world to publicize its purpose.  That is, a focus on responsibility towards the earth and on adjusting our lives to respond to climate change.  If the lockdown across many countries due to COVID-19 stopped the demonstrations, it also had a beneficial effect:  no planes in the air, few cars on the ground, few trains, and fewer factories running meant that demand for fossil fuels evaporated.

The effects were evident in many smoggy cities when the air suddenly cleared.  And then a startling consequence … the price of oil dropped precipitously.  For the first time in history, it turned negative reaching as low as -$40 a barrel as wholesalers contractually obligated to receiving the oil from producers ran out of storage tanks and were paying to have it taken away.  Why?  Lacking demand the refineries had shut down and were no longer buying.

Countries are ending lockdowns although China had been threatening to reimpose one as a second wave of infections seemed to appear.  Eventually it will be over and the world will gradually return to its usual state of pumping record amounts of CO2 into the air.

One of its devastating effects now is the hot, arid Australian summer resulting in forest fires.  The unbelievably devastating fires in the 2019-20 season cost the lives of an unprecedented 800 million animals in New South Wales according to estimates.

Melting ice sheets are raising ocean levels and coastal flooding has become more common.  Yes, it is a matter of millimeters and inches in our reckoning, but it is also worth remembering that 14,000 years ago the Eurasian ice sheet melted raising sea levels by some 8 meters.

One of the worst culprits for global warming is beef.  As ruminants, cows produce vast amounts of gas (methane, more potent than CO2 for warming) as they digest their feed, and it has been suggested that if cattle were a country, they would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.  The coronavirus is closing some meat processing plants, eventually affecting the producer end of the chain, a positive for the earth if temporarily. 

Salmon and the herring family increase good cholesterol and lower blood pressure while beef and pork do the reverse.  Fish in general are good for us as are vegetables and fruits.  That people on a Mediterranean diet (less red meat, more fish, fruits and vegetables) live longer is an established fact, yet habits die hard.

The coronavirus and the lockdown drove Earth Day celebrations to the virtual world where millions gathered.  The digital landscape was filled with performances for Earth Day — teach-ins, global meets and so on.  The Pope joined in with a special Earth Day catechesis dedicated to human responsibility to care for our earth.  Political leaders including Senator Elizabeth Warren and celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio joined in with the latter making a bold plea for leaders convening on Friday at the UN to go beyond the Paris Agreement in their ambitions.  Greta Thunberg advocated a ‘real sarcastic clap’ for the corporations destroying our world, while climate warming was generally agreed to be a worse emergency than the coronavirus scare.

What can we do to help planet earth? 

Aside from being parsimonious with meat, one can also walk or bike for short trips.  Plastic bottles are an enormous waste problem.  Filtered tap water costs less, is just as safe in developed countries and avoids the plastic waste.  A car carries us plus another 3000 lbs or so of its weight propelled by fossil fuel combustion, together being one of the planet’s worst polluters.  Using public transit adds little more to what scheduled services already generate in pollution and adds some exercise since service is seldom door to door.  These simple measures are not impossible.  For Earth Day can we at least adopt the Mediterranean diet for a week?  We might like it, live longer and do the earth a world of good.

Dr. Arshad M. Khan
Dr. Arshad M. Khan
Dr. Arshad M. Khan is a former Professor based in the US. Educated at King's College London, OSU and The University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. Thus he headed the analysis of an innovation survey of Norway, and his work on SMEs published in major journals has been widely cited. He has for several decades also written for the press: These articles and occasional comments have appeared in print media such as The Dallas Morning News, Dawn (Pakistan), The Fort Worth Star Telegram, The Monitor, The Wall Street Journal and others. On the internet, he has written for, Asia Times, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, Eurasia Review and Modern Diplomacy among many. His work has been quoted in the U.S. Congress and published in its Congressional Record.