On the Environment: Let’s Not Return to Normal

Kulak-Lawrence Preserve (Photo courtesy of FoHVOS)

By Lisa Wolff

Like other special occasions occurring during this pandemic, Earth Day celebrated its 50th anniversary on April 22, 2020 amidst reduced gatherings and fanfare. Environmental organizations throughout the world scaled back plans for commemorating the important day.

In an interesting twist of fate, as the world’s human inhabitants suffer the negative impacts of COVID-19, our environment has thrived. By shutting down industrial activity and reducing travel, the coronavirus pandemic has slashed air pollution levels around the world according to satellite imagery from the European Space Agency.

In addition to cleaner air and water globally, wildlife is experiencing a resurgence. Social media feeds are exploding with local sightings of Bald Eagles and other flora and fauna that used to be rare to spot. Perhaps wildlife is filling the spaces where humans are not.

Unfortunately, it is reasonable to expect that once activity resumes, corresponding pollution levels will also return. However, it might be possible to take a more mindful approach to “opening the country” without a return to previous levels.

Obviously, coronavirus is a ridiculously high price to pay for reduced pollution levels, but better water and air quality can dramatically improve lives and is grounds for hope. This crisis has exposed numerous areas of potential improvement. Ideally, adversity could be the impetus for true transformative change to our environment and our community.

When initial Stay-At-Home measures were imposed, a notable exception was made for walking outdoors. Previously medical and environmental experts had long evangelized the health benefits of nature, yet the general public has oftentimes ignored the guidance. But with a health crisis looming, people took that advice to heart and record numbers began getting outside and connecting with nature.

People got out so much that the Governor issued an executive order to close down State and County parks due to crowding. He left the door open for municipalities to keep their preserves open if they could ensure distancing measures would be followed.

Locally something beautiful happened. Hopewell Valley mayors reached out to nonprofit organizations like FoHVOS, D&R Greenway, NJCF, and the Lawrence Hopewell Trail and together they collaborated to keep trails open where feasible. Speaking in a single voice, they figuratively said, “We are here for you. Our public lands are for the public to enjoy if you can do so responsibly.” They provided a thoughtful approach to put community welfare first. Not surprisingly Princeton and Lawrence municipal leaders announced they would stay open as well.

Our uncertain future has given rise to so many collaborations. Valley municipalities, schools, and churches formed the highly successful Hopewell Valley Food Pantry for those experiencing food insecurity.

Community groups formed to thank medical workers, first responders, and essential workers we may have taken for granted in the past.

Sidewalk chalk messages of hope, birthday car parades, scavenger hunts, local musicians performing online, #BotanicalBlurbs sharing local nature, and random acts of kindness have nourished our soul and connected us socially when we couldn’t do physically.

Schools used 3D printers to make face shields for first responders. Sourland Spirits repurposed their distillery to address hand sanitizer shortages.

While these organizations have always had good community relations, their ingenuity, urgency and singlemindedness to cooperate for the public good exceeded the levels obtained under “normal” conditions.

Improving climate results, emerging heroes, inspiring movements, and shifts of consciousness are incentives to embrace a different future. But the extensive devastation caused by Coronavirus across all of society, but especially those most vulnerable, provides the most compelling reason for change.

When world reopens, “going back to normal,” is just not enough.  We should aspire to collectively put preventative measures in place to ensure history does not repeat.

Some of us are taking small steps now. For example, keeping preserves open and ensuring physical safety is worth the extra effort when you consider that depression and mental health can worsen without exposure to nature, domestic abuse increases without an outlet outside the home, and underserved populations have less access to green spaces.

Our environment appreciates that we could not celebrate Earth Day as we had in the past. Reflecting on the lessons we’ve learned in the past month can be the basis of a profound force for change. Let’s not Return to Normal.

Lisa Wolff is the Executive Director of Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space

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