Health crises and the environment are intertwined: Here's how to (eventually) navigate a post-pandemic world in a way that both prioritizes Mother Earth and protects future generations.

By Sarah Schreiber
August 13, 2020
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Courtesy of Environmental Justice Foundation

Model, turned accidental entrepreneur, turned sustainability advocate Lily Cole has ardent hope for a better future. After all, the author of the new book Who Cares Wins: Reasons for Optimism in Our Changing World ($31.47, amazon.com) says the harbingers of progress are already in place. "I have seen positive trends emerge and grow in recent years—movements such as conscious consumerism, stakeholder capitalism, and ideas such as Universal Basic Income and direct democracy—which give me hope that humanity has the ability to solve our many challenges and build a more sustainable, fairer world," she tells Martha Stewart Living.

Finding ways to become more sustainable within our own lives, she says, becomes even more critical when we consider the scope of the global COVID-19 pandemic—and the unfortunate fact that if it can happen once, it could happen again. "We need to look at the root causes of the crisis, as much as we focus on the symptoms, so that we can re-design our systems to minimize the risk of encountering another global pandemic of this nature again," she explains. "According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three quarters of new and emerging infectious diseases [COVID-19 included] are zoonotic, passing from animals to humans because of humanity's increasing encroachment on wild spaces and wildlife—along with our industrialized and intensive systems of animal agriculture."

Recognizing that the very same systems that significantly contribute to the climate crisis also pose an immediate risk to human health is the first step towards prevention. Ultimately, adds Cole, the coronavirus is a "wake-up call for us to think honestly and bravely about the changes we need to make to build healthier systems." Here, she shares several ways to make more sustainable choices as we enter a "new normal"—something that is, in the context of our future, sorely needed.

Don't minimize your ability to help shape a more sustainable world.

Cole doesn't sugar coat it: Many of the large scale changes required to save our planet (and keep us healthier, as a result) require political support and leadership to enact. "Put bluntly, energy and food are the most impactful issues concerning sustainability," she says. "But I would argue that unless we examine our own internal thoughts, values, and desires, we will only ever be band-aiding our problems." As individuals, we aren't able to single-handedly ban the commercial wildlife trade or regulate disruptive farming practices (though we can vote for leaders who can!), but there are ways for us to contribute to the movement—which is why first recognizing your role in the grand scheme of things is key, notes Cole.

Realize your spending power.

The first step towards sustainable living involves reflection, says Cole, notably "reflecting on what really makes you happy and how you might change your lifestyle to move towards real happiness—which often comes from less materialistic values." Realizing the true power of your money is often the effect of this self-examination, she says: "Through your daily choices, you are shaping the world, and you can exert that influence in a positive or negative way." Think of it this way: Every single purchase is a political act, one that either purports you towards a better world or blocks you from it.

Spend some time in nature.

Doing so will likely make you care more about preserving it, notes Cole. "Spending time in nature is key, as that makes it a positive, rewarding journey," she says. "It helps to love something in order to want to save it."

Eat smarter.

Food is a key part of this conversation; Cole is incredibly mindful about what she eats, and suggests sticking to organic, local offerings and avoiding any product that results from industrial intensive animal agriculture (or factory farming). Supporting regenerative agriculture, or organic food production, is another step to take, says Cole, as is decreasing your overall consumption of animal products.

Share your own research, methods, and sustainable values with your loved ones.

"I'm a fan of 'Be the change you want to see in the world,'" shares Cole, adding that reflecting on ourselves and how we consume should be first on the to-do list. "But awareness and education is massive, so being open and honest with others can be very helpful. Wherever you are at on this journey, share your learnings, your feelings, your fears, your hopes. Being open minded always leads to learning something new—it's a conversation, not a speech."

Realize that sustainability is not a trend or elective choice.

Sustainability is one of our only defenses against future health crises and environmental stability, says Cole, who also notes that preventing a pandemic, as opposed to treating one, should be the ultimate goal: "We have to start acting on scientific warnings instead of reacting in crisis mode. We need to decarbonize our economies quickly and transform our systems. I think it will feel amazing if we get to 2040 or 2050 and have transformed them: We will be the generation that helped to do that," she says. "It seems like a daunting task, but humanity has overcome other enormous challenges in the past. If we work together, we can chart a new sustainable (and perhaps happier) chapter to come."

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