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Coronavirus in a Time of Conspicuous Consumption

For the affluent, painful restrictions could be an opportunity to reorient toward more climate-friendly ways of living.

Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Rancho Gordo, a California-based seller of dried heirloom beans, reports that sales have quadrupled in the past few weeks. (A variety named Royal Corona remains its top seller, despite the name.) As anyone who has visited a supermarket recently might gather, beans seem to be the obvious choice for the coronavirus-panicked shopper: They are cheap, last a long time on the shelf, and are versatile. They also make a comforting stew or soup in times of crisis.

The bean boom—which actually began before the coronavirus hit—is positive news for those concerned about the future of our planet. Beans are one of the lowest-carbon sources of protein, producing one kilogram of carbon emissions per kilogram of beans, compared to 32 kilograms of carbon per kilogram of beef.

But the bean boom is the least of the coronavirus shutdowns potential climate tie-ins: As social isolation has ramped up, people are traveling and consuming less, and carbon emissions have fallen dramatically. The New York Times reports that air quality in the usually smog-choked Los Angeles is drastically improved; there is “basically no rush hour.” And it would certainly be wonderful if the coming Great Depression levels of unemployment were met with an appropriate level of investment in green jobs—if L.A.’s laid-off workers could be employed building public transit to replace the city’s awful freeways, building a more livable city and planet for all.

Unfortunately, given Democrats’ difficulty getting even basic economic security measures past Mitch McConnell, we probably shouldn’t expect a Green New Deal to materialize in the near future. And ultimately, that sort of policy reform is probably what the climate crisis will require. But the coronavirus does offer a number of lessons for how Western consumer culture can adapt to the reality of climate change. In particular, better-off Americans who will find the social and economic impacts of the coronavirus the least dangerous should take this crisis as a reminder that devouring resources is not the only way to live life. Those comfortable enough to ride out social isolation working from home and eating heirloom beans are also those whose carbon emissions are generally highest and who could do with learning and adapting to consume less, to travel less, to live simpler and more sustainable lives.

Fighting climate change does not mean we all have to live in monastic deprivation, eating crickets and weeds. But it will mean some changes to our lives. A just transition to a greener world will mean proportionately more disruption to the better-off; globally speaking, this means middle-class Americans, too. The current mode of global capitalism is to produce more than can be consumed, to always ensure an adequate supply of whatever those with the means to purchase it could ever imagine, never mind the waste or human toll of this process. It means two-day delivery, regardless of the conditions of warehouse workers and delivery drivers; it means products shipped from around the world available to those who can afford them, from fruit to furniture. It means walking into a grocery store and seeing more red peppers and shiny apples piled high than customers could ever hope to buy, leading to certain waste (and the wasted time and labor of those who pick them). A silver lining of this crisis would be if the upper-middle class of this country whose peacetime lives are filled with mindless consumption could learn to live a little more simply.

This is not to say that being trapped at home is some sort of pleasant vacation for most. The ramifications of social isolation are likely to be devastating. Those trapped in abusive domestic situations, who have lost service jobs due to shutdowns, or who are elderly and already lonely—and untold others—will suffer because of this. They will suffer even more without proactive efforts from their government and their local communities. We have hit pause on society to an unprecedented degree—but one feature of American society that will certainly persist is the danger and precarity faced by those with lower incomes.

The urgent need to level the playing field applies both to how we protect each other from the coronavirus and how we stave off climate disasters. The rich have already begun to explore the ways in which their privileged position and wealth can protect them from the trouble facing the rest of the country. They have fled to their upstate homes or to actual bunkers, or procured tests; some have even attempted to secure personal ventilators (that they undoubtedly do not know how to operate). Many have warned for years that this is what the rich will do when climate change, too, threatens their way of life: retreat to fortified bunkers, with no apologies to the rest left behind. The only way to ensure that this does not happen is to dramatically lessen the gap between the rich and poor.

Focusing on personal consumption habits alone cannot and will not avert climate change, not least because organizing sufficiently large quantities of people to go vegan and ditch their cars in order to pressure corporations to stop farming cattle and producing automobiles would be impossible. No amount of bean-buying can stop climate change. But the panicked bourgeoisie who might be inclined to fear the measures needed to fight climate change would do well to focus on the simpler pleasures of life under lockdown—a life that is undoubtedly far more restricted than what we would have to do to slow or halt global warming. And the sudden and violent nature of the coronavirus crisis can be remembered in years to come as a time of much greater sacrifice as we prepare for climate change—which can be resisted with less disruptive, more pleasant adjustments to our lives.

If you are safe and provided-for in this crisis and have felt any sort of peace in the quiet indoor life of the last weeks—in cooking beans instead of grabbing an unsatisfying burger or in innovating new ways to spend time with friends—hold onto it. The future will have to look different and has never felt less certain. But if we get through this crisis, let’s hope we will have learned that a life without voracious consumption is nothing to fear. It is something to demand.