What will society look like as we recover from COVID-19? Will young people still have good opportunities for employment as they finish their education? Will our elders be able to enjoy their freedom without fear of infection? These questions have been on my mind, and some of the possible answers are hard to face.
But coming from another angle, are there ways we can improve society for when we do get back up and running? If we look closely, there are some hidden opportunities amidst this storm of upheaval, and I’m hoping for a couple in particular.
For starters, some of our neighbors are struggling through quarantines with their small businesses; maybe we can become more intentional with where we spend our money! Also, we have heard of improved air quality due to the quarantines; maybe voters can see the value in a healthier environment and initiate some progress there.
Supporting smaller, locally owned businesses may not always mean getting the lowest price. Big box stores rely on goods produced on the other side of the world.
If a company can pay its workers a dollar a day and avoid any safety standards, or if they can dump waste directly into their river, production costs are far lower. Even factoring in the expense of shipping their goods clear across an ocean, they are able to charge a lower price and win a lot of customers.
But those rollback prices are artificially low because of some serious hidden costs. In order to move >10 billion tons of containers and other bulk cargo annually, maritime transport requires a fleet of 90,000 cargo ships. But just one ship can produce as much carcinogenic and asthma-causing chemicals as 50 million cars!
These ships use very low-grade fuel oil which contains 2,000-times the sulfur content as U.S. grade diesel. While fuel efficiency and emission standards for cars and trucks have dramatically improved in recent decades, helping to reduce lung and heart disease impacts, the shipping industry remains one of the least regulated and most polluting parts of global transportation.
We probably think of manufactured goods filling these cargo ships, anything from fully assembled furniture to children’s toys. But a large part of our imports are agricultural goods like sugar, fruits and meats, and American farmers are being impacted. The U.S. catfish industry has struggled to compete with the low prices charged by Asian producers.
This is an industry that 20 years ago sold over 600 million pounds of fish – just from Mississippi alone! I don’t know about you, but even if a Vietnamese “catfish” weren’t shipped halfway around the world on a pollution-spewing cargo ship, I still might question their production practices compared to U.S. products.
Another agricultural import with an outsized environmental impact is beef, much of which is produced by slash-and-burn practices in the Amazon rainforest. U.S. beef is produced at long-established ranches that can date back generations and enjoy a tradition of excellence. Our environmental laws balance production with conservation, and local production means a safer, fresher, environmentally friendly product.
A recent report found that three-fourths of our imported cattle goes toward hamburger production as a way to meet our enormous demand for low-cost burgers. But when we choose the cheapest fast food beef available, hidden within that low cost comes pollution from shipping, rainforest destruction, and safety concerns.
When visiting any small town in Mississippi, we can see the consequences of our consumer choices in each closed storefront or struggling farm. If we can choose to accept some minor inconveniences, or perhaps a slightly higher sticker price, shopping at small businesses would help lead to a greater economic recovery from COVID-19.
If we buy foods produced by American farmers, we can be proud to support an industry that is essential to some local community.
But the benefit of these choices may go even further; by shopping local and buying American, we can reduce carbon emissions and promote an economic response to climate change.
Chris Werle of Lamar County is the Mississippi state coordinator for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.