With all schools in New Jersey in distance learning mode, the dedicated staff of Columbia High School’s award-winning student newspaper, The Columbian, proudly present their third on-line edition at thecolumbianchs.
Emission levels are falling, demand for energy is dropping, air pollution levels are declining and wildlife is seemingly reemerging. Is COVID-19 the catalyst for sustainability that the community has been looking for, or is it simply making the environment worse?
A CHANGING WORLD
COVID-19 has proven itself to be devastating as it has caused over 115,000 deaths across the country, and over 12,000 deaths in New Jersey alone, according to NPR. It has shut down businesses, schools, places of worship, public activities and parks around the Maplewood-South Orange (MAPSO) community, disrupting many lives and causing people to be separated in a time when they might need community the most. While the virus is problematic for the lives of Columbia High School (CHS) students and the rest of the MAPSO community for many reasons, by forcing people to limit physical interactions with each other and the world around them, the virus has indirectly affected, both positively and negatively, the state of the natural world.
NATURE’S INCREASING POPULARITY
“The use of the reservation has increased dramatically. … I would say possibly five fold [of what it was before the COVID-19 period]… minimally three times as many people.”
While there has been an increase in litter, Percher explained that there has also been an increase in erosion to the trails due to heavier usage, which is wearing them down and hurting the ability of the Conservancy. Both of these issues are managed by small volunteer groups from the county or from the Conservancy, which makes maintenance a slow going process. Percher pointed out, “If you like the trails, realize that it’s maintained by the Conservancy,… [and] we’re trying to boost our membership because we find we need this… increased effort [to help with trail preservation].”
However, while the increase in attendance at the Reservation has caused some issues, the benefits of it are starting to be revealed. The higher attendance has shown people in and around the community that, like Percher says, they “have a regional park at [their] doorstep [that] is an enormous attraction… [which] is quite exceptional.” This rekindling of passion for the Reservation that people now feel as a consequence of the pandemic can bring new possibilities to the Conservancy and the reserve, all of which would help preserve the Reservation and maintain its natural beauty. Percher believes it could raise the number of volunteers and funding for trail maintenance, as well as popularize the benefits of the Conservancy and the Reservation, which will help to sustain both.
THE ANIMAL KINGDOM
Egelberg made note of the fact that this increase in exposure to animals around the community can also be attributed to a change in the behavior of the animals themselves, stating that “the world that [the animals] knew two months ago is completely different now.” This would have the potential to entirely shift how and where humans and animals interact, at least during the time when restrictions are still maintained, leading to more run-ins with nature than usual for some people in the community.
THE PUSH FOR SUSTAINABILITY
COVID-19 has also affected the environment of MAPSO by altering the amount of emissions and the way residents use energy. Earlier this year, the International Energy Agency announced in their 2020 report that “global energy demand declined by 3.8% in the first quarter of 2020,” with the demand for non-renewable energy like coal and oil, “falling by almost 8%… [and] nearly 5% in the first quarter,” respectively. The Agency also announced that “renewables were the only source that posted a growth in demand,” while other experts, like Carbon Brief, have announced that “emissions for the whole of this year are likely to be between 4% and 7% [lower],” which, if these statistics persisted, can be positive for the environment as less greenhouse gases will be released into the atmosphere. This is most likely the case for MAPSO as well, as Walter Clarke, a Village Trustee of South Orange and a member of multiple environmental protection and sustainability committees, believes that the emission levels of the community “[have] to be down because… the commuter parking lots in town are nearly empty” due to a majority of employers switching to a work-from-home format, cutting at least “several hundred vehicle trips a day” in MAPSO alone. Clarke also attested to the fact that he has seen more people running and biking who may not have done so in a long time, like Garrett Diegnan, ‘21, who has “definitely been driving a lot less than before, … [and] been trying to get outside and try different outdoor activities [like running],” during this pandemic period. This can lower emissions and conserve energy even more as people defer to activities right outside their doorstep instead of spending time in the car or using up energy in the house.
“Emissions for the whole of this year are likely to be between 4% and 7% [lower],”
And COVID-19’s impact may not only be felt in MAPSO’s emission levels and energy usage. Clarke believes that the sustained economic downturn that experts and economists predict, while being financially destructive, “may allow people to… look at a Green New Deal.” Clarke was referring to a collection of legislation that will advance reforms to address problems with climate change and sustainability, because instability in the economic system often prompts a desire for change. This could have the potential to drastically improve the community’s, as well as the nation’s, relationship with its environment, and its efforts towards preserving it.
With all of the changes that COVID-19 has started to bring along, whether or not these positive changes can be sustained becomes the question. To help the community with this challenging task, Percher and Clarke have provided MAPSO with a few tips and tricks for maintaining environmentally sustaining habits:
- Make informed consumer choices, with Clarke saying that people in the community should “Choose carefully what [they] purchase and consider its full life.”
- Stay on the trails at the Reservation.
- Be energy conscious and try to use as little energy as possible, or use more environmentally friendly energy sources.
- Dispose of trash properly and in an environmentally conscious way.
- Go outside and get in touch with the world so you can, as Clarke said, “get that connection back to the earth and get a sense of your place on the planet.”
Clarke believes some of the impacts of COVID-19 itself, such as the economic downturn, could lead to sustained improvement to the environment. “Because of the upheaval [it has caused]… people will be less invested in the old ways of doing business, and will be forced to creatively come up with new alternatives,” said Clarke. “And frankly, if it’s revolution rather than evolution, you may have a better chance of a truly sustainable system being instituted.”
Designer: M. McBride