Critical Mass Speakers on Current Pandemic: Roland Geyer

Roland Geyer

Critical Mass Speakers on Current Pandemic: Roland Geyer

April 28, 2020

IHC Director Susan Derwin asked Roland Geyer, Professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UCSB, a few questions about his work in light of the current pandemic.

Susan: “This past fall, you were the inaugural speaker in the IHC’s Critical Mass series. In your talk, “Plastic’s Tipping Point,” you spoke about the public’s attitudes toward plastics and plastic pollution. Is the current pandemic changing your thinking about the future of the industrial production and consumption of plastics and the impact of plastics upon the environment?”

Roland: “One thing I have noticed is a big increase in plastic use and waste, from plastic bags and take-out containers to personal protective equipment. Many supermarkets currently do not let people use their reusable bags or containers. On the other hand, I started going to small local grocery stores and now buy all my fruit and vegetables unpackaged. So, I would say this pandemic shows us that the key to addressing the environmental challenges surrounding plastic is to be very mindful of the trade-offs. Some uses of plastic seem indispensable, while others clearly are not.

More broadly, I am fascinated, but not surprised, by the sharp decline in environmental pollution caused by the economic shut-downs all over the world. I read that air pollution in India has dropped so dramatically that people can see the Himalayas for the first time in decades. This tells me that, despite 50 years of Earth Day, we did not manage to substantially decouple environmental impact from economic activity and need to start questioning the imperative of relentless economic growth. Maybe the pandemic will lead us to rethink the economy, not only because of its unsustainable environmental impacts, but also because it currently seems to serve the few rather than the many.”

Susan: “Are there ways you already anticipate your work as a researcher and teacher will change once we transition out of this period of quarantine?”

Roland: “The experience of this pandemic makes me pay even more attention to the close relationship between economic activity and environmental impact. In the last few years I have started to look for social solutions to sustainability problems, rather than technical ones. I anticipate that this shift will accelerate now. I may also finally have to get serious about studying the relationship between environmental and social sustainability; something I have been avoiding in the past since it is outside of my academic comfort zone. In practical terms, this stay-at-home experience taught me that I really miss face-to-face interaction with my students, while I seem to be doing just fine without all the conference and workshop travel that is usually part of being a professor. I can’t wait to see my students in person again, while I may permanently reduce my conference and workshop travel once we emerge from the pandemic.”

Susan: “What are you reading, watching and/or listening to right now?”

Roland: “A few weeks ago I watched the latest NPR Frontline documentary called Plastic Wars. Remarkably, it has top executives from plastic industry associations on record saying that the industry knew all along that plastic recycling wasn’t viable, but they promoted it anyway to avoid plastic bans, deflect growing environmental criticism, and make the public feel less bad about using plastic. 

Currently, my wife and I are watching the TV series Babylon Berlin and The Plot Against America. They are both riveting shows and also stark reminders of what a precious, but fragile thing democracy is. I also just started reading In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, which is a fascinating non-fiction account of the American Ambassador to Germany and his family during their time in Berlin from 1933 to 1937. My wife, who is the avid reader in this family, recommended it to me, in part inspired by Babylon Berlin. The show is set in 1929 and takes place in the twilight of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s failed attempt at democracy. There seems to be a theme in my current reading and watching. By the way, watch Babylon Berlin in the original with subtitles to get the full experience.”

Photo Credit: Matt Perko