By Sonja Fransen & Beatriz Cardoso Fernandes, UNU-MERIT, with Dominique Jolivet, University of Amsterdam (MISTY project). This article was shared as part of a United Nations University Migration Network series that explores the interrelations and acute challenges of migration, climate change, and COVID-19.
Can the global health pandemic provide a ‘window of opportunity’ to change the way we think about sustainability? A new study by researchers from the Migration, Transformation and Sustainability (MISTY). project and UNU-MERIT finds that for almost a quarter of Amsterdam residents surveyed, the coronavirus has increased their interest in sustainability.
Can a global health crisis affect our attitudes towards sustainability?
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity for researchers to study how a global health crisis affects the way people think about sustainability issues. Academic literature shows that attitudes are not stable over time. They are dependent on one’s social environment — and a change in this environment can change the way individuals think about certain social issues. In fact, major ‘shocks’ can profoundly change individual attitudes.
In our study, almost 24% of Amsterdammers reported more interest in sustainability issues compared to the start of the pandemic. When asked why, many respondents said that the pandemic had been a ‘wake-up call’, prompting the realisation that we, as global citizens, should take better care of the environment and each other:
“The crisis makes obvious both some of the ways in which our way of life is not sustainable, and the capacity we have to adapt quickly to a new environment with increased constraints.” (Male, 31 years old, first-generation migrant)
“The coronavirus has exposed in a painful way that a limit has been reached with what the earth can handle from humanity.” (Male, 52 years old, second-generation migrant)
Some individuals also mentioned that simply spending more time at home gave them more time to think about ‘larger’ societal questions such as pollution, overconsumption, and social ties in their neighbourhoods and city. Contrary to our expectations, those who were more affected by the pandemic (socially or economically) were not more likely to become more concerned with sustainability issues. Instead, higher educated individuals and those with migration backgrounds reported increasing awareness of sustainability issues. Moreover, the neighbourhoods in which people resided played a big role as well. For example, individuals residing in the centre of Amsterdam expressed more concerns compared with those living in the suburbs. Further research on this topic will have to show why this is the case.
A turning point in our views on sustainability?
Apart from expressing their fears and concerns, many Amsterdam residents also articulated their hopes that this crisis would create a turning point in our thinking on sustainability at local, national, and global levels. Whether the global health pandemic will support lasting transformations to sustainability remains to be seen. Despite reporting increasing awareness of the importance of leading sustainable lives, few respondents (on average between 5-10%) reported changing their actual behaviour since March 2020 in terms of consumption, energy use, or recycling. This shows that changing attitudes do not necessarily translate into action.
This article was first posted here as part of a United Nations University Migration Network series that explores the interrelations and acute challenges of migration, climate change, and COVID-19. As a build-up to International Migrants Day on 18 December 2020, the series examines these connections at local and global levels, highlights impacts on migrants, and provides evidence-based insights for United Nations member states, governments, and policymakers.