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COVID-19 Sparks a New Environmental Awareness

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In a world forever altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, a profound shift in how people perceive the environment and their relationship with it has emerged. A recent national survey conducted by the University of Auckland sheds light on this transformation. Published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology and Environmental Development, this study provides valuable insights into the environmental impacts of lockdowns, concerns regarding pandemic-generated waste, and aspirations for a greener, pandemic-resistant future.

Led by Research Fellow Dr. Komathi Kolandai and the COMPASS Research Center at the Faculty of Arts, this research, enriched by the guidance of Center Director Associate Professor Barry Milne, aimed to gauge public sentiment on several critical aspects related to COVID-19. The study explored people’s responses to the temporary pause in human-induced environmental disruptions, their philosophical contemplations about the interplay between nature and the pandemic, emotional connections to nature during lockdowns, concerns about the pandemic’s adverse effects on the global environment, and their hopes for a more sustainable future.

To gather these insights, the researchers incorporated these questions into the New Zealand version of the International Social Survey Program (ISSP) Environment questionnaire. This comprehensive questionnaire not only measures general environmental perceptions, values, and behaviors but also captures a wide range of demographic information. The survey garnered responses from 993 individuals, meticulously weighted to represent the New Zealand population and selected from the electoral roll.

One of the most striking findings was that during lockdowns when individuals were confined to their homes and immediate surroundings, a significant portion of respondents experienced a heightened attraction to nature. In fact, 35% reported an extreme attraction, while 47.5% described this connection as moderate. This suggests that despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, people found solace and inspiration in the natural world.

Moreover, more than a quarter of respondents (26.8%) engaged in philosophical contemplations about the intricate relationship between nature and the pandemic. This deep thinking was shared by a majority, with 62.6% reporting moderate levels of reflection. Surprisingly, this heightened environmental consciousness was not influenced by financial or mental health impacts due to COVID-19. It transcended pre-existing levels of environmental interest, indicating a broad societal shift.

Interestingly, even those with minimal prior interest in environmental matters expressed concerns about COVID-19’s negative environmental impacts, including the proliferation of plastic waste, masks, packaging, and hand sanitizers. This underscores the pandemic’s role in fostering a collective environmental consciousness among diverse segments of the population.

The concept of the “Anthropause,” signifying the temporary reduction in human-induced environmental disturbances, appeared to awaken greater awareness of the profound interconnectedness of humanity and nature. This awareness emphasized the pivotal role of the human-nature relationship in shaping our lives.

Another notable finding was the overwhelming support for a greener post-pandemic future. Respondents advocated for a range of eco-friendly measures to achieve this vision. However, for these aspirations to materialize successfully, structural support is essential. For instance, while the public widely endorsed working from home as an emission reduction strategy, its feasibility depends on government funding for enhanced childcare options and employer subsidies to support workers’ IT needs.

The study also highlighted strong public support for reducing the risk of future zoonotic pandemics, those transmitted from animals to humans. Respondents backed a global ban on wildlife trade and consumption, the prohibition of factory farming, and a shift towards plant-based agriculture as crucial steps in this direction.

Dr. Komathi Kolandai believes that this research underscores the significance of the pandemic-induced pause in human activity as an environmental reference point for conservation efforts. She emphasized the importance of such interludes in life, allowing individuals to reflect on their relationship with the natural world. Rather than exclusively focusing on economic recovery, policymakers are urged to acknowledge the evolving environmental consciousness inspired by the pandemic and to support the potential social transformations stemming from it.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has understandably dominated discussions on health and society, it has also imparted essential lessons in environmental awareness. Through direct observations of the benefits of reduced environmentally detrimental activities, people are increasingly supportive of lifestyles that can deliver similar outcomes in the post-pandemic era. This pause in human activity has made environmental solutions tangible, demonstrating that impactful change is not solely a vision for the future but a reality achievable now and for future generations.

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