Sustainability in the time of coronavirus

We can see a sustainable future—we just have to get there

Posted 4/28/20

“One small thing,” Larry Reeger said, “one small virus, and the world slowed.”

For Reeger, sustainability coordinator and associate professor of green building and …

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Sustainability in the time of coronavirus

We can see a sustainable future—we just have to get there


“One small thing,” Larry Reeger said, “one small virus, and the world slowed.”

For Reeger, sustainability coordinator and associate professor of green building and renewable energy at SUNY Sullivan in Loch Sheldrake, there are signs of possibility.

For many people, the world is a hard thing made of asphalt and suspicion. But currently, across the globe, people are seeing pollution-free skies for the first time in years—it’s what our world could look like beyond flattening the curve. Reeger’s view of sustainability wants more than that for everyone.

This doesn’t mean ignoring the human and economic toll COVID-19 is taking. But, at a Zoom workshop on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, participants contemplated a tiny ray of hope amidst the horror.

He flashed slides of cities, before and after the virus sent people home: Foul water and crystalline water. Cities, once smog-filled, now with clear air. Streets thick with cars now deserted.

“What we have seen, we can’t unsee,” he said.

Science backs him up. NASA satellite data in March shows nitrogen dioxide levels 30 percent lower than in the years 2015 to 2019. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) found a 31 percent drop in petroleum usage between January 1 and March 13 and forecast “significant decreases in U.S. liquid fuel demand during the first half of 2020 as a result of COVID-19 travel restrictions... EIA expects that the largest impacts will occur in the second quarter of 2020” ( 

Attendee Jim Heisel observed, “Taking humans out of the picture for two months does improve the environment.”

But virus or not, climate change is progressing. “In no way am I saying that carbon dioxide levels will stay like this,” Reeger said. Eventually, we will all emerge from lockdown. It might take time for the effects to dissipate, but eventually, pollutant levels will go back up. Meanwhile, UN climate change talks were postponed, and there is concern that responding to the pandemic’s immediate threat will overshadow the other crisis.

Climate change’s effects will add on to the mounting national debt. Reeger listed them: more flooding, more fires and stronger storms. “These are things that cost money... that impact taxpayers,” he said.  “Hurricane Sandy cost $50 billion in damages... We’ll continue to be hit by these impacts.”

But we have seen the possibilities, and therein lies the future of sustainability.

It’s not just about recycling. Reeger calls for a focus on connection and mutual support. (See “What is sustainability?” below.)

SUNY Sullivan is serving as a model. Reeger described how it’s building partnerships with New Hope, Sullivan Renaissance and Catskill Mountainkeepers, among other groups. Such partnerships have been the way of things in nonprofits for years, but now that needs to spread to the greater community.

How does this translate for a person at home?

First, the road map (see below) offers suggestions from several sources.

Second, we hear a lot about how people are scared right now, and part of that anxiety is driven by our financial fragility. For those who own houses, they might own “too much house,” resulting in high energy bills, he said.

“What if that home was built more sustainably or had upgrades after an energy audit was completed? The utility bills go down. What if a person installs a photovoltaic system on their roof or joins a community solar project? When it is sited and installed correctly, they will be paying significantly less for electricity over the life of the photovoltaic system.”

And more. Reeger argues that, ultimately, this sustainable lifestyle will encompass everyone. In an email, he explained, “When we shop local and support our neighbors, we are building a resilient community. When we buy our produce, meats and eggs from our local farmers, we are investing in our future and preparing for the next economic downturn. When we talk to each other, listen, ask more questions and act for the good of all, we are building resilient, more sustainable communities.”

“Everyone” means everyone. Our ability to recycle or shop locally is also a privilege. Sheltering in place can be a matter of necessity, Reeger said, because the world outside is unsafe: there are dangerous neighborhoods, blighted landscapes, frightened people fleeing terrible conditions.

Reeger talked about the importance of Hope Farm at SUNY Sullivan, showing photos of young people working in the garden. It’s a project that lets kids from both urban and rural areas grow food for the college, getting a chance to live the cycle of growth from turning over the soil in spring to the year’s final plowing.

What they have seen, you might say, the students cannot unsee.

The road map

Reeger points to two major resources to find our way to sustainability: “These are suggestions for our planet on how to live.”

Project Drawdown ( is focused on reaching “drawdown,” known as “the future point in time when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline.” They suggest reducing activities that release carbon dioxide into the air, supporting greenhouse gas sinks and focusing on creating a more equal society.

Project Drawdown has a table of solutions that starts with restoring abandoned farmland and ends with addressing leaks in water distribution (

And the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals ( asks people to donate, to vaccinate, to focus on responsible consumption and much more.

Reeger emphasizes that we focus on the following:

  • The need to strengthen the resilience and adaptability of small-scale and family farms.
  • Supporting our local community.
  • Ensuring everyone gets a chance at a healthy life.
  • Using geothermal heating and cooling to reduce the use of fossil fuels.
  • Ensuring the availability of clean water.
  • Shopping mindfully.

Reeger sees that “we’ll have less money to spend” in the future, but “as consumers, we influence the demand for new products... We can switch to more climate-friendly systems.”

He elaborated in an email. “Sustainability is using less plastic, eating organic and recycling, but [it] is much more than that. Sustainability is building a resilient community—a local community that you live in as well as the community beyond.

“A resilient community continues to thrive [whether] our economy is stable or not... We must lead a life of intention [without being] influenced by advertisements or the next big thing,” he said.

 It can be done, and Reeger cites SUNY Sullivan as an example. Their on-campus farm, Hope Farm, uses organic methods to grow food. Food waste from the college kitchens is composted. Seventy-five percent of their electricity comes from the college’s solar farm.  Heating and cooling are done with a geothermal system.  Best of all, “students are integrated into the process,” he said, tilling the soil, growing the food and harvesting. It’s an unparalleled opportunity for students from the city who may only see food wrapped in plastic in a grocery store.

What is sustainability?

Larry Reeger asked that question partway through the April 22 Future of Sustainability workshop. Everyone knows, right? It’s recycling, eating mindfully and doing what we can to ease our burden on the earth.

But to be able to do that is a privilege, which means that “sustainability” needs to be expanded to make room for everyone. Some of us are so deeply entrenched in poverty that we eat what we can find; who cares if it’s organic?

Reeger proposes a different definition, less about doing certain things and more about connections—in other words, we who are lucky enough to have can help those who don’t. It’s about “building a resourceful community that will continue to thrive [whether] our economy is stable or not.

“[Sustainability] involves the environment, the economy and social aspects,” he said in the workshop, then elaborated in an email: “Sustainability is building a resilient community, a local community that you live in as well as the community beyond... It should not cause irreversible change to the environment, and it should be economically viable.

“Sustainability is the relationship between environmental protection, social progress and economic growth. Every decision we make or action we take impacts that relationship and they are connected.”


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