A Catalyst for Environmentalism: Will a Global Pandemic Be the Nudge We Needed for Lasting Change?
Updated: Jun 16
This morning, I woke when it was still dark, and hiked out to “Inspiration Point” in Bryce Canyon National Park to watch the sunrise over the “hoodoos”, towering spires of sandstone that formed over a millennia of erosion. Bryce is normally open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, but along with all of the other National Parks across the United States, it was forced to close as the Covid-19 pandemic rocked the country, and had just re-opened its gates to visitors shortly before the Memorial Day holiday. As I sat there watching the glow on the horizon get brighter and brighter, a deer came trotting out onto the paved trail, looked over at the people lined up along the railings to photograph something she got to see every day, then snorted and ran down into the canyon. On my way back off the trail, I had the opportunity to chat with a park ranger: “You should have seen the animals around here the last couple months. The prairie dogs were running around the roads without a care, we found mountain lion tracks on the Rim Trail, and there have been elk frequenting the area around the Visitor Center instead of people.”
We’ve seen the news and heard the stories about how the global response to the pandemic has reduced emissions and greenhouse gasses, how wildlife is thriving in an environment without human influence, how the planet is finally getting a chance to breathe… but how long will it last? When the economy bounces back, and restrictions on travel are lifted, will some of these more positive changes in environmentally disruptive behavior continue?
Nudging individuals to take measures to reduce their own consumptive behavior, lower emissions, and be more cognizant of their personal impact on the planet has always been a challenge. Humans are biased towards the familiar, and it’s even more difficult to make changes when their efficacy depends on collective action. We don’t know for sure if our neighbor is going to be taking his bike to work instead of driving, having virtual meetings instead of flying across the country, or choosing alternative energies. Asking people to change their ways with no assurances that others will do the same defies our very nature.
Now, in a post-Covid19 world where emergency legislation has forced us all to act together, we’re seeing first-hand the effects that changing our behavior can have on the planet, and nothing is more convincing to humans than a first-hand account. Staying close to home, enjoying more time outdoors, buying only what we need as budgets tighten instead of being wasteful… these changes have made positive impacts. And in times of great change, it’s easier to accept and form new habits that stick with us. A study on habit change by Phillippa Lally, published in the 2009 European Journal of Social Psychology, found that it takes an average of 66 days to form new habits. In addition to that, we know from behavioral science that humans are subject to the “status quo bias”, a principle whereby people are biased to keep things the way that they are, even if they didn’t originally choose it. It’s possible that after a year of growing accustomed to doing things differently, we may be able to emerge from this current crisis with habits that are better for the planet, and a deep appreciation for nature which has been the only solace for many who’re struggling with their mental and physical health.
The towering hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park are made up of billions of individual grains of sand. Without each individual, there would be no spectacular valley of bright orange spires over which to observe the dawning of a new day.