The real climate benefit of remote work
The pandemic has created an opportunity to cement remote work as a climate solution. And it's not just about cutting out driving.
Soon after the pandemic lockdowns went into effect people started discussing the climate implications of everyone working from home. The initial conclusion was that since a large portion of workers no longer had to commute by car, emissions would fall significantly. To some extent this has proven true but as with any complex issue the real answer is that it depends on many factors. As an example, consider that offices are generally more energy efficient than individual households. Sustained remote work could increase energy demand as homeowners rely on older air conditioning systems that draw more power to achieve the same indoor temperature as an office building. If a particular electrical grid is heavily reliant on coal or gas then emissions might actually go up. Seeing this complexity got me thinking about what other benefits remote work could have as it relates to mitigating climate change. My current hypothesis is that the real climate benefit of remote work is that it creates more opportunity for each of us to reconnect with whatever nature exists around us. Thereby making us care a little bit more about how climate change impacts our lived-in surroundings. And that matters because caring is the precursor to all action.
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not very rigorous to support a hypothesis with only personal anecdotes but I’m going to push ahead anyways. To set the stage for my remote work hypothesis we have to go all the way back to childhood road trips where my parents would tell my brother and I to look at the trees as we traveled down I-95. I distinctly remember my response to this suggestion being, “They are just trees, what’s there to look at”. That is to say, nothing in my past has foreshadowed a real fondness for natural surroundings. Yet a year and a half into a pandemic induced remote work* lifestyle I’ve noticed a marked change in how much I care for the trees, shrubs, flowers, and animals that surround me (despite living in the middle of a city).
How remote work created this perspective change is not complicated. It allowed me to be at home for most of the day where I’m fortunate to have a large tree that’s right outside my apartment unit. And even more importantly, this tree just happens to be a favorite spot for the famous parrots of San Francisco.
At first I was genuinely shocked to see parrots no more than a foot away from my window. But over the last few months they’ve become familiar and I’ve become attached. About 10 to 20 of them visit my street seemingly every other day between 4:00 and 5:00 PM. Usually around 3 or 4 parrots will come to the tree to nibble on its flowers. The parrots might be alternating days because there's also another flock of birds that visit the trees on my street quite frequently. I'm now able to know the parrots are nearby based purely on the difference between their squawking sounds and those of their rival gang. It's only taken a few months to grow accustomed to this rhythm of bird activity. Recently however the tree’s flowers have withered and as a result the parrots have not stopped by. My first thought was that the tree was dying because of the western drought but after some research on the type of tree, a red ironbark eucalyptus, my concern has been somewhat relieved - the trees are quite drought tolerant. Seemingly the flowers have just done their job for the year. It only took a few days before I noticed that I hadn’t seen or heard the parrots. I was surprised at how fast I picked up on the change. For now my hope is that the parrots are getting their sustenance from somewhere else in the city and that they’ll return when the flowers bloom again.
While this story about the parrots is the driving anecdote behind this hypothesis on remote work’s climate benefits, the more broadly applicable anecdote is walking. Remote work eliminates commutes and generally results in more flexible schedules. The perfect conditions for adding a walk into the daily routine. And for us humans, walks are great. The physical health benefits of walking are well documented and now the mental health benefits of walking, especially in nature, have supporting evidence as well. But we should also consider walks from the perspective of the neighborhood plants. They receive our attention as we stroll past them each day. This builds awareness which means that if an invasive species takes root then someone might notice and take action. It’s a two way street and we often forget that we have a role to play in sustaining the natural world around us. So even if there’s no tree by the window with parrots, remote work makes it possible to connect with a neighborhood or city block through the most basic act of a walk.
What started as just a few seconds of staring out the window at tree branches each day led all the way to finding myself on the SF Tree map website investigating which species of tree was outside my window and then assessing how this might affect the parrot's behavior. One immediate lesson that I've repeatedly heard but now experienced is the interconnectedness of nature. While you might start off only concerned with one plant or animal, you quickly end up caring about the whole ecosystem because everything depends on everything else. This is much more powerful when lived as opposed to read about in a book.
Coming back to remote work and it's opposite, 9-5 office work, the clear implication is that with the latter my whole parrot experience would have never happened. I might not even know the parrots visited the tree let alone understand the pattern of their visits. Proximity and continuity are both equally important when it comes to creating connection with the natural world. Traditional 9-5 office work can’t provide either of those. It forces us to divide ourselves in both time and space. Commuting miles away from our homes on a concrete river only to spend hours in the midst of a concrete jungle makes it nearly impossible to establish any rhythm with nature. But all it takes to re-establish some sense of connection is a tree by the window and a few moments to observe it with each passing day. Remote work can't apply to every job and doesn't solve all the problems that plague our relationship to the Earth but it does help create the conditions for fixing what's broken.
How all of this relates back to mitigating climate change is simple. If you don’t care, you won’t act. Climate change is often portrayed as this big scary monster that can only be averted with an equally big and powerful force. But the truth is that preventing the worst will take a billion small local actions that are loosely going in the same direction. The first step needed for all that action is re-establishing a sense of belonging to the places we live. Modern work and technology have disrupted our ability to do so right as we need it the most. Before we can act on the local level and demand change from the bottom up, we have to care. And in order to care we have to really know our surroundings. The parrots have done that for me. Walks too. Learning more about San Francisco's public works division or lobbying to keep streets in SF car-free are things I wouldn’t have considered a year ago. But now I care. And while there might not be an immediate impact on emissions, this attention to surroundings leads towards a new standard of accountability. Concern for a place leading to climate action is not a new idea. But the pandemic induced remote work surge is a new opportunity to help make that idea more of a reality. With that in mind I'll end with this passage from an article by Naomi Klein that inspired this post. I suggest reading the article in it’s entirety as well.
“Climate change is place-based, and we are everywhere at once. The problem is not just that we are moving too quickly. It is also that the terrain on which the changes are taking place is intensely local: an early blooming of a particular flower, an unusually thin layer of ice on a lake, the late arrival of a migratory bird. Noticing those kinds of subtle changes requires an intimate connection to a specific ecosystem. That kind of communion happens only when we know a place deeply, not just as scenery but also as sustenance, and when local knowledge is passed on with a sense of sacred trust from one generation to the next”
* My currently jobless version of remote work :)
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