Public Internet- the road less travelled.
Author: Gladwyn d'Souza | Category: Environment | Date: 06-23-2020
The virus achieved in two weeks what the Bay Area Air Quality Management District tried to do for 70 years- clear skies so that we can breathe. The immense benefits to the environment were evident early. Asthma incidents have declined world wide but more dramatically in once heavily-polluted cities like Beijing. People in New Delhi were amazed to see the snow capped Himalayas for the first time. Around San Francisco Bay people were stunned by the transformation caused by substantially less driving- animals could congregate instead of getting run over, people were able to talk to a neighbor across the street, children played in the street, and even our bay waters were running cleaner.
Air Quality improved because people were forced not to drive, by regulators who responded decisively to Covid-19. Business switched to allowing employees to telecommute. The resultant improved air will save many more lives. Marshall Burke, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Earth System Science, and Deputy Director, of the Center on Food Security and the Environment, at Stanford University said “I calculate that the reductions in air pollution in China caused by this economic disruption likely saved twenty times more lives in China than have currently been lost due to infection with the virus in that country.” Covid-19 is a great example of how decisive leadership can save lives in multiple areas.
A third area where lives were saved was from reduced crashes on our roadways. The following headline caught my attention recently: “California COVID-19 Traffic Report Finds Silver Lining.” The article said “Crashes and Traffic Are Down by Half, Saving State $40 Million Per Day During Shelter-In-Place. https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/california-covid-19-traffic-report-finds-silver-lining. That’s right it isn’t a typo- $40M per day, an average day when California would be expected to lose about 15 lives. Savings include not having to deploy the CHP for crashes on the roadways.
Enviromentalism is the fight over uses of the landscape. The Cherokees won the first great environmental fight in Worchester v. Georgia (1832) over use of the southern Appalachian Mountains. The vicious racist president Jackson transformed the victory into appropriation by refusing to uphold the court ruling. Sixty years later Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina fought over toxic air from copper smelting in the southern Appalachian mountains (See Ducktown Smoke: the Fight Over the South’s Greatest Environmental Disaster. By Duncan Maysilles). “At the national level, the landmark ruling issued by Justice Holmes in the Georgia case transformed the private law of nuisance into a constitutional remedy to advance a state’s interests in its natural resources against the impact of transborder pollution.” The consequences of the fight would eventually lead to and be quoted in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) which recognized green house gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The Court declared for the first time that carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases were pollutants within the meaning of the Clean Air Act and thus the EPA “has the statutory authority to regulate the emission of such gases from new motor vehicles.”
Covid-19’s cleaner air has put our governments and the Bay Area Quality Management District on the spot. For decades they’ve wasted our time with ineffective spare the air and transit promotions to preserve uses of appropriation advanced by developers. The air just got dirtier and more toxic and entire species disappeared. The Spotted Owl once common in the south bay haven’t been seen in a decade as roads expanded. The checkerspotted butterfly is now a poster child of disappearance due to the increasing commute. They echo the ghosts of salmon, beaver, wolf, bear and tule elk once common on the bay shore.
Everywhere environmentalists have realize that we cannot stop global warming without first ending the commute. Now overnight Covid-19 has shown how. It’s essential going forward for government and companies to figure how we can continue to remote work. Today while writing this essay my neighborhood’s overloaded internet went down. Comcast said about 1000 homes were affected. I switched to using data on my cellular plan but how many people can afford to be connected at all times? The monopoly internet companies have been reluctant to provide robust internet for our neighborhoods despite decades of federal and state subsidies. Like Covid-19 regulators, we need regulators to be decisive about climate change. For the commute to go away we need a broad economy-wide possibility of remote work.
There are many other environmental benefits of remote work. People working from home have aleady decreased the demand for office space. In the San Francisco Bay Area much of the new office space, that household names like Google, Facebook, and Genentech are building, have come at the expense of our bay shorelines and a worsening commute. In one stroke, two environmental boogey men have been slain- irresponsible consumption of bay wetlands essential to defend against the force of Sea Level Rise, and the growing asphalt dome keeping a lid on climate change poilicy. Crime has gone down significantly because houses aren't empty anymore during the "commute". Offices have reduced emissions because employees are teleconferening instead of flying. Airlines stocks have tanked as planes, a major contributor to climate change, have been grounded. Car sales, a critical component of fossil fuel infrastrucure, have declined. Cities like Oakland have implemented safe streets which allow ciitzens to walk or bike safely for their errands. Insuarance companies in response have begun refunding premiums. Huge fleets of oil tankers offshore are stranded with their fully loaded cargos as the demand for oil itself has evaporated. Finally less utilized roads can be removed, taking away one of the great death threats to species.
All of these changes have the possilbity to be made permanent if we can deliver robust high speed internet. It's time for policy makers to act decisively and make the lessons of Covid-19 permanent. Emily Atkin writes in Heated, "The long-term solution to climate change must be to transition away from fossil fuels entirely—which means replacing gas-powered cars with vehicles powered by renewable electricity. But that transition is going to take a long time—so in the meantime, Butner and Hein argue, it makes sense to just reduce the amount of driving taking place in general. And the easiest way to reduce the amount of driving taking place is to allow workers who can work from home to do it." The internet must be the road less travelled if humanity on this planet is to get a chance to breathe.