Financial Times, by Simon Kuper
19th March 2020
For all its horror, the pandemic may change our habits when nothing else could.
By the time this horror ends, it might have changed our way of life. Already, the coronavirus has achieved something that government policies and moral awakening couldn’t: it is pushing us into green living.
The nature of work, commuting and shopping changed this month. If that transformation sticks, then one day we’ll have happier and more productive societies, and we’ll look back on December 2019 as the all-time peak in global carbon emissions.
First of all, the pandemic may show that offices are an outdated way to organise work. This is something I have suspected since my three-year office experience in the 1990s. I was amazed at the inefficiency of the set-up: people spent much of the day distracting each other by gossiping, flirting, bitching about the boss or complaining about that morning’s commute. I’ve worked happily alone for 22 years now.
Offices exist largely so that bosses can check whether workers are doing the work (or at least putting in face-time). But nowadays, data can do much of the monitoring. Meanwhile, improved workplace software such as Slack and Zoom lets employees collaborate from home.
The tech may actually outperform real life: a professor who has hurriedly learnt Zoom told me he liked the way the software can instantly create small break-out groups of students to work on a problem. In an auditorium, everyone has to pack their bags, find a room and grab a coffee on the way.
Now that entire countries are learning to work from their bedrooms, many employers may end up concluding that they can ditch expensive office space. That wouldn’t merely reduce emissions, and liberate metropolitan workers from ghastly commutes (the daily round trip averages well over an hour in cities such as New York, Chicago and London).
The shift would also reduce urban house prices, as some offices get converted into homes, and some workers are freed to leave the city. In the next year or two, virtual-reality software will let the boss (or at least the boss’s avatar) step into underlings’ home-offices to root out shirking.
In short, work could follow dating, shopping and game-playing in going virtual. That would make life greener but also more isolated. To compensate, neighbourhoods will need more communal spaces. Already the death of bricks-and-mortar retail has allowed coffee shops and co-working spaces to take over high streets. But we’ll also have to build more playgrounds (with some for adults), community centres and parks.
Another benefit: the pandemic may help stop the decades-long rise in business travel. I discovered last week that each time a trip was cancelled, I mostly felt relief. I know the benefits of business travel: the two books I’m currently writing both came out of meeting someone while at a conference. So did my previous book.
However, most trips probably cause a net loss of productivity. While you search for the one or two useful people to talk to amid the 300 carbon-emitting duds at a disappointing conference, you’re missing work at home. Moreover, most conferences feature a lot more wannabe sellers than buyers.
Nowadays it’s quicker to find the perfect counterpart on LinkedIn. As for content, well-made virtual conferences could be as compelling to watch as good TED talks or TV — and more so than the endless panels of executives talking their own books.
As for shopping, even before the coronavirus we were shifting towards a world where the shop comes to you. That movement just accelerated, possibly for ever. It’s much greener for a supermarket to send an electric van (or a cargo-bike) to 100 homes in a neighbourhood than for all those people to drive to the supermarket. Some could ditch their cars.
Even in the very short term, the green lining to this pandemic is surprisingly large. Air pollution kills about 1.1 million people in China alone every year. The fall in pollution during the country’s lockdown in January and February “likely saved 20 times more lives in China than have currently been lost due to infection with the virus in that country”, calculates Marshall Burke of Stanford University’s Department of Earth System Science. He adds: “The fact that disruption of this magnitude could actually lead to some large (partial) benefits suggests that our normal way of doing things might need disrupting.”
That’s particularly true since climate change makes pandemics more likely. It expands the natural habitat of infectious insects such as mosquitoes, while reducing the habitat of animals, with the effect of pushing both into closer contact with humans.
Governments need to make good use of the current pandemic. Many states are preparing a fiscal stimulus. Donald Trump wants to bestow much of it on the carbon emitters that could go bust in the incipient recession: airlines, cruise ships, oil producers and his beloved hotel industry (which lives off travellers’ emissions). Forward-looking governments will instead prioritise green industries, while helping workers who lose their fossil-fuel jobs.
It turns out that developed countries (except possibly the US) can still do collective government-led wartime-style mobilisation. It’s a muscle we’re going to need.