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By Rita Foth

Empty shelves in the grocery store. Shortages of essential protective gear for frontline medical workers. Long delays on shipping. 

While these shortages range from severe and life-altering to minor inconveniences, everyone has experienced some degree of product unavailability during the pandemic. 

A light-hearted yet infuriating example is the pillaging and plundering (when did we all turn into pirates?) of the toilet paper aisle. How many of you have gone from store to store looking for toilet paper because you were lucky enough to run out around the start of quarantine? I know I certainly have. 

Obviously, some shortages have greater implications than others, but one implication looming behind every shortage is that they will continue to happen long past the pandemic if something doesn’t change. 

We live in an era where an entire grocery trip is just a click and a delivery away, an era of ordering just about anything off the internet and having it arrive at our door days later. This is the era of seemingly unlimited resources. Businesses have closed the gaps in their operations so efficiently that there is almost never a mistake, never a time where a product is unavailable. Beyond that being a simply remarkable feat, these practices have shifted our perception. Many people no longer look at the world through a lens of limited resources. That concept has been hidden behind the curtain. A consumer who looks at the world as unlimited is a consumer that many businesses want. 

But, if you’re reading this blog, you are well aware of the fact that the planet simply cannot sustain a population that consumes as if resources are unlimited.

Yet here we are. Consuming as if there’s no end in sight.

But what if, among all the devastation and disruptions caused by the pandemic, there is a silver lining. What if this pandemic has made people look differently at the objects they buy and how they use them? 

It is hopelessly optimistic to assume that people will suddenly change the way they purchase and consume items, yet I can’t help but think that staring at barren grocery store aisles won’t have an impact. 

Together with many other people in this country, I’ve been privileged enough throughout my life to never worry about scarce resources or where I will get my next meal. But does a system struggling to keep up with demand force people to reckon with the limited and finite nature of everything around them? Even if it’s an infinitesimal reckoning, it’s still a reckoning. And it is exactly what’s needed to push the environmental movement forward. People have worked for decades to move the environmental movement from the fringe to the mainstream, but the much of the general population continues to choose the easiest path: ignorance. If it’s not affecting me directly, why should I care? Now people know why they should care. In fact, they’ve been slapped in the face with why they should care.

I’ve wondered for a long time whether people would change their behaviors without a major event that forced them to wake up. I always assumed it would take the form of a natural disaster, but the unlikely foe has been a global pandemic. 

My greatest hope is that we can emerge from our homes and emerge from this pandemic a changed world. Not only changed because of the lives lost and the hardships endured, but also changed because we learned to take from the planet with a recognition of its limits. Because recognizing our planet’s limited capacity to sustain us is the first step in the long, arduous journey toward learning to sustain ourselves on this planet.

Rita Foth was born and raised in the mountains of Colorado and went to school in Washington state. She moved to D.C. in December 2019 to see what the “other Washington” had to offer. She is currently looking for jobs in environmental nonprofits.