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Surveying Archaeologists Across the Globe Reveals Deeper and More Widespread Roots of the Human Age, the Anthropocene
Examples of how human societies are changing the planet abound — from building roads and houses, clearing forests for agriculture and digging train tunnels, to shrinking the ozone layer, driving species extinct, changing the climate and acidifying the oceans. Human impacts are everywhere. Our societies have changed Earth so much that it's impossible to reverse many of these effects.
Some researchers believe these changes are so big that they mark the beginning of a new "human age" of Earth history, the Anthropocene epoch. A committee of geologists has now proposed to mark the start of the Anthropocene in the mid-20th century, based on a striking indicator: the widely scattered radioactive dust from nuclear bomb tests in the early 1950s.
Nuclear bomb testing left its mark in the geologic record.
National Nuclear Security Administration / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY
But this is not the final word.
Not everyone is sure that today's industrialized, globalized societies will be around long enough to define a new geological epoch. Perhaps we are just a flash in the pan — an event — rather than a long, enduring epoch.
Others debate the utility of picking a single thin line in Earth's geological record to mark the start of human impacts in the geological record. Maybe the Anthropocene began at different times in different parts of the world. For example, the first instances of agriculture emerged at different places at different times, and resulted in huge impacts on the environment, through land clearing, habitat losses, extinctions, erosion and carbon emissions, forever changing the global climate.
Human practices like burning the landscape – as in this night bush fire outside Kabwe, Zambia – have been affecting the earth since long before the nuclear era.
Andrea Kay, CC BY-SA
If there are multiple beginnings, scientists need to answer more complicated questions — like when did agriculture begin to transform landscapes in different parts of the world? This is a tough question because archaeologists tend to focus their research on a limited number of sites and regions and to prioritize locations where agriculture is believed to have appeared earliest. To date, it has proved nearly impossible for archaeologists to put together a global picture of land use changes throughout time.
Global Answers From Local Experts
To tackle these questions, we pulled together a research collaboration among archaeologists, anthropologists and geographers to survey archaeological knowledge on land use across the planet.
We asked over 1,300 archaeologists from around the world to contribute their knowledge on how ancient people used the land in 146 regions spanning all continents except Antarctica from 10,000 years ago right up to 1850. More than 250 responded, representing the largest expert archaeology crowdsourcing project ever undertaken, though some prior projects have worked with amateur contributions.
Our work has now mapped the current state of archaeological knowledge on land use across the planet, including parts of the world that have rarely been considered in previous studies.
We used a crowdsourcing approach because scholarly publications don't always include the original data needed to allow global comparisons. Even when these data are shared by archaeologists, they use many different formats from one project to another, making it difficult to combine for large-scale analysis. Our goal from the beginning was to make it easy for anyone to check our work and reuse our data — we've put all our research materials online where they can be freely accessed by anyone.
Earlier and More Widespread Human Impacts
Though our study acquired expert archaeological information from across the planet, data were more available in some regions — including Southwest Asia, Europe, northern China, Australia and North America — than in others. This is probably because more archaeologists have worked in these regions than elsewhere, such as parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and South America.
Animation showing the spread of intensive agriculture across the globe over the past 10,000 years, based on ArchaeoGLOBE Project results.
Nicolas Gauthier, 2019, CC-BY-SA
Our archaeologists reported that nearly half (42%) of our regions had some form of agriculture by 6,000 years ago, highlighting the prevalence of agricultural economies across the globe. Moreover, these results indicate that the onset of agriculture was earlier and more widespread than suggested in the most common global reconstruction of land-use history, the History Database of the Global Environment. This is important because climate scientists often use this database of past conditions to estimate future climate change; according to our research it may be underestimating land-use-associated climate effects.
Our survey also revealed that hunting and foraging was generally replaced by pastoralism (raising animals such as cows and sheep for food and other resources) and agriculture in most places, though there were exceptions. In a few areas, reversals occurred and agriculture did not simply replace foraging but merged with it and coexisted side by side for some time.
View of the Kopaic Plain in Boeotia, Greece. People first partially drained the area 3,300 years ago to claim land for agriculture and it's still farmed today.
Lucas Stephens, CC BY-SA
The Deep Roots of the Anthropocene
Global archaeological data show that human transformation of environments began at different times in different regions and accelerated with the emergence of agriculture. Nevertheless, by 3,000 years ago, most of the planet was already transformed by hunter-gatherers, farmers and pastoralists.
To guide this planet toward a better future, we need to understand how we got here. The message from archaeology is clear. It took thousands of years for the pristine planet of long ago to become the human planet of today.
And there is no way to fully understand this human planet without building on the expertise of archaeologists, anthropologists, sociologists and other human scientists. To build a more robust Earth science in the Anthropocene, the human sciences must play as central a role as the natural sciences do today.
Ben Marwich is an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Washington.
Erie C. Ellis is a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Lucas Stephens is a research affiliate in archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
Nicole Boivin is the director of the department of archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
Ben Marwick receives funding from the Australian Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the National Geographic Society.
Erle C. Ellis received funding from the National Science Foundation for this project under grant CNS 1125210. He is a fellow of the Global Land Program, a member of the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, and a senior fellow of the Breakthrough Institute. He is a member of the American Association of Geographers.
Lucas Stephens receives funding from the American Council of Learned Societies. He is a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and Senior Research Analyst at the Environmental Law and Policy Center and a Research Affiliate at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
Nicole Boivin receives funding from the Max Planck Society. She is Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, an Honorary Professor at the University of Queensland, and a Research Affiliate at the Smithsonian Institution and University of Calgary.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jeremy Deaton
You may have heard about the hole in the ozone layer, which hovers over Antarctica. It has shrunk over time thanks to policies that curbed the use of ozone-depleting chemicals. In the nearly 40 years that NASA has kept track, it has never been smaller. That's the good news.
Polar stratospheric clouds activate the chemicals that deplete the ozone layer. NASA
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By Stephanie Woodard
Many Americans are now experiencing an erratic food supply for the first time. Among COVID-19's disruptions are bare supermarket shelves and items available yesterday but nowhere to be found today. As you seek ways to replace them, you can look to Native gardens for ideas and inspiration.
Aubrey Skye, Standing Rock Sioux tribal member, tills gardens for himself and other tribal members. He does some by hand, and others with this tractor. Photo by Stephanie Woodard.
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By Kristeen Cherney
Skin inflammation, which includes swelling and redness, occurs as an immune system reaction. While redness and swelling can develop for a variety of reasons, rashes and burns are perhaps the most common symptoms. More severe skin inflammation can require medications, but sometimes mild rashes may be aided with home remedies like aloe vera.
When Aloe Vera for Redness May Treat Irritation and Inflammation<p>Aloe vera has anti-inflammatory properties that may help <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/home-remedies-for-rashes" target="_blank">soothe skin rashes</a>. As a bonus, aloe is also thought to have antimicrobial capabilities, which may in turn help to prevent infections. Additionally, aloe vera gel is known for its ability to help moisturize your skin without leaving any residue that heavy creams sometimes can.</p><p>While aloe vera can't cure any skin disease or treat every single instance of skin inflammation, here are the instances where it could possibly help:</p><h3>Burns</h3><p>Aloe vera gel is perhaps best known for its ability to help treat burns. If you've ever had a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/skin/aloe-vera-for-sunburn" target="_blank">sunburn</a>, you may have used an OTC gel to help reduce itchiness, redness, and overall irritation. The same concept may apply to mild heat or chemical burns.</p><p>To use aloe vera for burn treatment, apply it liberally to the affected area multiple times per day. You may know it's time to apply more if your skin starts feeling hot. Aloe vera is safe to use until symptoms of your burn start to improve after a day or two.</p><p>While aloe vera may provide temporary burn relief along with a cooling effect, it won't reverse any damage that may have been done to your skin. It also isn't an appropriate treatment for <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/burns" target="_blank">more severe burns</a>, which can include symptoms such as boils, blisters, and peeling skin.</p>
When Aloe May Worsen Symptoms<p>Aloe can help alleviate symptoms of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/rashes" target="_blank">skin rashes</a> that are mild in nature. However, it's not considered an effective treatment for more serious inflammatory skin conditions. Aloe vera may also—in rare cases—cause skin inflammation. Don't use aloe vera if you have an allergy to it.</p><h3>Can aloe vera cause a skin rash?</h3><p>While considered safe for most people, there is a risk of an allergic reaction to aloe vera. In such cases, you might see signs of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/contact-dermatitis" target="_blank">contact dermatitis</a>, which can develop when your skin comes in contact with an irritating or allergenic substance. Symptoms may include:</p><ul><li>redness</li><li>hives</li><li>itching</li><li>skin rash</li></ul><p><span></span>If you've never used aloe vera before, you should conduct a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/allergy-testing#testing" target="_blank">patch test</a> to make sure you're not allergic. This involves applying the gel to a non-conspicuous area of skin, such as the inside of your elbow. The downside is you have to wait at least 24 hours to see if any irritation develops. If no such reactions occur, then it should be safe to use the product on your skin rashes.</p>
Can Aloe Vera Make Eczema Worse?<p>Aloe vera won't likely make eczema worse unless you're allergic to it. The greater risk is relying on aloe for eczema treatment when it may not actually work. Aloe vera gel could temporarily alleviate feelings of burning, but it can't treat the underlying causes of your eczema rashes.</p><p>Sometimes eczema rashes may bleed due to scratching. You should not apply aloe to broken skin, as this can increase burning sensations.</p>
When to See a Doctor<p>Aloe vera can help soothe certain cases of skin inflammation, but most effects are temporary at best. If your symptoms last longer than a few days, get progressively worse, or spread throughout your entire body, then it's time to see a doctor to evaluate your skin rash.</p><p>A doctor may also refer you to a dermatologist, who specializes in the treatment of skin disorders. They can help diagnose the cause of your rashes and help treat the underlying source of inflammation, rather than the symptoms alone.</p><p>You should also see a doctor if you experience any negative reactions after using aloe gel. This could indicate an allergy to aloe vera. If you suspect an allergic reaction, stop using aloe right away.</p><p><em>Never </em>take aloe vera gel or cream, aloe latex, or whole-leaf extract orally.</p><p>Seek immediate medical care if you suspect your rash <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/skin-infection" target="_blank">is infected</a>. Signs may include fever, blisters, and pus-filled lesions in your rash. Extremely painful rashes also require medical attention.</p>
Takeaway<p>Due to its ability to soothe inflammation and wounds, aloe vera can be a temporary solution to treat the symptoms of a mild burn or skin rash. However, aloe vera isn't a viable treatment option for more severe burns or severe inflammatory skin conditions, such as eczema and rosacea. Stronger medications are needed for more severe skin rashes.</p><p>While rare, aloe vera may also cause an allergic reaction in some people. Always conduct a skin patch test for use, and discontinue any aloe gel products if you notice any new rashes.</p>
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By Katie Lambert and Sarah Gleim
The United Nations suggests that climate change is not just the defining issue of our time, but we are also at a defining moment in history. Weather patterns are changing and will threaten food production, and sea levels are rising and could cause catastrophic flooding across the globe. Countries must make drastic actions to avoid a future with irreversible damage to major ecosystems and planetary climate.
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Blue Light Disrupts Your Sleep<p>Your body has an internal clock that regulates your circadian rhythm — the 24-hour biological cycle that influences many internal functions.<span></span></p><p>Most importantly, it determines when your body is primed for being awake or <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/10-reasons-why-good-sleep-is-important" target="_blank">asleep</a>.</p><p>However, your circadian rhythm needs signals from the external environment — most importantly daylight and darkness — to adjust itself.</p><p>Blue-wavelength light stimulates sensors in your eyes to send signals to your brain's internal clock.</p><p>Keep in mind that sunlight and white light contain a mixture of various wavelengths, each of which has a significant amount of blue light.<a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18075803" target="_blank"></a></p><p>Getting blue light, especially from the sun, in the daytime helps you stay alert while improving performance and mood.</p><p>Blue light therapy devices may help treat depression, and blue light bulbs have been shown to reduce fatigue and improve the mood, performance, and sleep of office workers.</p><p>Yet, modern light bulbs and electronic devices, especially computer monitors, likewise produce large amounts of blue light and may disrupt your internal clock if you're exposed to them during the evening.</p><p>When it gets dark, your pineal gland secretes the hormone <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/melatonin-and-sleep" target="_blank">melatonin</a>, which tells your body to get tired and go to sleep.</p><p>Blue light, whether from the sun or a laptop, is very effective at inhibiting melatonin production — thus reducing both the quantity and quality of your sleep.</p><p>Studies link melatonin suppression in the evening to various health problems, including metabolic syndrome, obesity, cancer, and depression.</p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>Blue light in the evening tricks your brain into thinking it's daytime, which inhibits the production of melatonin and reduces both the quantity and quality of your sleep.</p>
Tinted Glasses May Help<p>Amber-tinted glasses offer the easiest and most effective way to avoid blue light exposure at night.</p><p>These glasses effectively block all blue light. Thus, your brain doesn't get the signal that it's supposed to stay awake.</p><p>Studies show that when people use blue-light-blocking glasses, even in a lit room or while using an electronic device, they produce just as much melatonin as if it were dark.</p><p>In one study, people's melatonin levels in the evening were compared across dim light, bright light, and bright light with tinted glasses.<a href="http://press.endocrine.org/doi/full/10.1210/jc.2004-2062" target="_blank"></a></p><p>The bright light almost completely suppressed melatonin production, while the dim light did not.</p><p>Notably, those wearing the glasses produced the same amount of melatonin as those exposed to dim light. The glasses largely canceled out the melatonin-suppressing effect of the bright light.</p><p>Likewise, blue-light-blocking glasses have been shown to spur major improvements in sleep and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-brain-foods" target="_blank">mental performance</a>.</p><p>In one 2-week study, 20 individuals used either blue-light-blocking glasses or glasses that didn't block blue light for 3 hours before bedtime. The former group experienced major improvements in both sleep quality and mood.</p><p>These glasses have also been found to greatly improve sleep in shift workers when worn before bedtime.</p><p>What's more, in a study in older adults with cataracts, blue-light-blocking lenses improved sleep and significantly reduced daytime dysfunction.</p><p>That said, not all studies support the use of blue-light-blocking lenses or glasses. One analysis of several studies concluded that there's a lack of high quality evidence supporting their use.</p><p>Nevertheless, blue-light-blocking glasses may provide some benefits.</p><p><strong>Shop blue-light-blocking glasses <a href="https://amzn.to/2WmW4M8" target="_blank">online</a>.</strong></p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>Some studies suggest that blue-light-blocking glasses may increase melatonin production during the evening, leading to major improvements in sleep and mood.</p>
Other Blocking Methods<p>If you don't want to use glasses every night, there are a few other ways to reduce blue light exposure.</p><p>One popular way is to install a program called f.lux on your computer.</p><p>This program automatically adjusts the color and brightness of your screen based on your timezone. When it's dark outside, it effectively blocks all blue light and gives your monitor a faint orange hue.</p><p>Similar apps are available for your smartphone.</p><p>A few other tips include:</p><ul><li>turning off all lights in your home 1–2 hours before bedtime</li><li>getting a red or orange reading lamp, which doesn't emit blue light (candlelight works well, too)</li><li>keeping your bedroom completely dark or using a sleep mask</li></ul><p>It's also important to expose yourself to plenty of blue light during the day.</p><p>If you can, go outside to get sunlight exposure. Otherwise, consider a blue light therapy device — a strong lamp that simulates the sun and bathes your face and eyes in blue light.</p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>Other ways to block blue light in the evening include dimming or turning off the lights in your home and installing an app that adjusts the light your laptop and smartphone emit.</p>
The Bottom Line<p>Blue light, which is emitted from smartphones, computers, and bright lights, may inhibit your sleep if you're exposed to it at night.</p><p>If you have a history of sleeping problems, try reducing your exposure to blue light during the evenings.</p><p>Amber-tinted glasses may be particularly effective.</p><p>Several studies support their ability to <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/17-tips-to-sleep-better" target="_blank">improve sleep quality</a>.</p>
Junjira Konsang / Pixabay
By Matt Casale
For many Americans across the country, staying home to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) means adapting to long-term telework for the first time. We're doing a lot more video conferencing and working out all the kinks that come along with it.
The author (above) wrote this while working from home, baby in tow. Emily Anderson (author's wife/home office mate)<p>The coronavirus will pass, but it's looking more and more like remote work will stick around. This time has demonstrated that, despite the ups and downs many of us have experienced, <a href="https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/04/06/telecommuting-will-likely-continue-long-after-the-pandemic/" target="_blank">telework works</a> for way more of us than we knew.</p><p>Even before this we knew that there were several benefits for both employers and employees to sidestepping the office. <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/andrealoubier/2017/07/20/benefits-of-telecommuting-for-the-future-of-work/#3f278e0916c6" target="_blank">Studies have shown</a> that it can lead to increased productivity, higher morale and lower employee turnover. It can also reduce real estate and office operation costs for employers.</p><p>We may now also be seeing some larger societal benefits that make the case for taking telework even further. Our current situation has provided a window into how a reduction in driving, buoyed, in part, by a greater adoption of telework, could relieve some of the stress on our overburdened transportation system and help heal at least a portion of the environmental damage it causes.</p><p>Today, roads that would normally clogged at all hours of the day are <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/photos-empty-airports-trains-roads-during-coronavirus" target="_blank">virtually empty</a>, even during rush hour. And the reduced car travel leads to fewer crashes and less air pollution, which harms human health and contributes to global warming. Air that's usually cloudy with smog has cleared. Los Angeles, which has notoriously pollution-choked skies, could recently boast having the <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/07/us/los-angeles-pollution-clean-air-coronavirus-trnd/index.html" target="_blank">cleanest air in the world</a>. And this year, experts predict, the transportation transformation will contribute to the <a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-coronavirus-set-to-cause-largest-ever-annual-fall-in-co2-emissions" target="_blank">largest-ever annual decline in global carbon emissions</a>.</p>
Virtually empty Los Angeles streets on May 7. Chris Yarzab / CC BY 2.0<p>Clearly not every job can be done from home, and it's not just commuting for work that has come to a halt during coronavirus lockdowns. In 2017 only around <a href="https://nhts.ornl.gov/assets/2017_nhts_summary_travel_trends.pdf" target="_blank">28 percent</a> of total miles driven were work-related. Even if telework continues or expands on a much larger scale, non-work-related car trips — shopping, recreation, visits to doctors and the like — can be expected to go back to normal.</p><p>Still, telework's potential for taking cars off the road can clearly have an impact on global warming emissions and air pollution. Just how much of an impact could telework have? As it turns out, the answer is a significant one — and with a few important steps, the benefits can be even greater and more sustainable.</p>
How Much of the Workforce Could Reasonably and Permanently Transition to Telework?<p>According to the U.S. Census Bureau, <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/13/people-who-work-from-home-earn-more-than-those-who-commuteheres-why.html" target="_blank">5.2 percent of U.S. workers</a> — around 8 million people — worked from home in 2017. But that's still just a fraction of potential teleworkers. Earlier this month researchers at the University of Chicago found that <a href="https://bfi.uchicago.edu/wp-content/uploads/BFI_White-Paper_Dingel_Neiman_3.2020.pdf" target="_blank">37 percent of U.S. jobs can plausibly be performed at home</a>. The U.S. workforce reached <a href="https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/CLF16OV" target="_blank">164.5 million</a> in February 2020, before the pandemic, meaning approximately 61 million of those workers could plausibly telework permanently once the economy starts up again.</p><p>Of course, the full economic consequences of this public health crisis are still unknown. It's possible that coronavirus-related job losses will impact the overall number of those employed for some time. But for these purposes, this assumption of 53 million new remote workers will be useful to illustrate the potential impacts of telework.</p>
How Much Driving Would Full-Capacity Telework Avoid?<p>In 2019 Americans drove a total <a href="https://afdc.energy.gov/data/10315" target="_blank">3.23 trillion miles</a>, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The DoE doesn't break that down by reasons driving, but we know that in 2017 there were <a href="https://nhts.ornl.gov/assets/2017_nhts_summary_travel_trends.pdf" target="_blank">683 billion total commute miles</a> driven. Reducing the commuting workforce by about 32 percent (37 percent of total workers who could telecommute minus the 5.2 percent of them who already do) would theoretically decrease commuting totals by about 219 billion miles.</p>
A traffic jam on January 17. Raphael Labaca Castro / CC BY-SA 2.0<p>Of course telecommuting won't let us avoid logging <em>all</em> of those miles, since people may occasionally still need to travel to an office for meetings and may need to make new trips they wouldn't otherwise have taken (you can't stop at the grocery store on the way home from work when you work at home). Various studies have found that telecommuting actually reduces driving somewhere between <a href="https://ww3.arb.ca.gov/cc/sb375/policies/telecommuting/telecommuting_brief120313.pdf" target="_blank">60 and 90</a> percent of commute vehicle miles traveled (VMT). We'll split the difference and calculate that telework reduces commute miles by about 75%, meaning the new teleworkers could avoid around 164 billion miles driven.</p>
U.S. Department of Energy, Alternative Fuels Data Center<p>Still, that much of a transformation may not work for everyone, as people will still need to do face-to-face work — and, let's be honest, the other thing the lockdowns have taught us is to appreciate the value of regular social contact. That said, even if most people worked from home two to three days a week and the actual VMT reduction were closer to 2 or 3 percent, the difference would still be significant — especially considering that VMT has been <a href="https://afdc.energy.gov/data/10315" target="_blank">steadily rising</a> since the 1970s, except for a few years during economic downturns. Even if just a quarter of American workers started working from home one day a week, total vehicle miles traveled would fall by <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063006473" target="_blank">1</a> percent — not a huge amount, but enough to make a difference on a grander scale.</p>
Impact on Global Warming Emissions<p>The cars and trucks we drive every day are major sources of air pollution and global warming emissions. Transportation as a whole accounts for <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">28</a> percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., more than any other source. Light-duty vehicles and medium- and heavy-duty trucks are responsible for<a href="https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/fast-facts-transportation-greenhouse-gas-emissions" target="_blank"> 82</a> percent of the transportation sector's emissions.</p><p>The average American car or SUV emits <a href="https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/greenhouse-gas-emissions-typical-passenger-vehicle" target="_blank">404 grams</a> of carbon dioxide (CO2) per mile traveled. So reducing commuting by 164 billion miles would avoid 66 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually. These are significant emissions reductions, but they'd only make a small dent in total transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, which reached nearly <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">1.9 billion metric tons</a> in 2018.</p>
Impact on Health-harming Air Pollution<p>People across America regularly breathe polluted air, which increases their risk of attacks and other adverse health impacts, and even premature death. In fact, in 2018 <a href="https://uspirg.org/sites/pirg/files/reports/EnvironmentAmerica_TroubleintheAir_scrn.pdf" target="_blank">108 million Americans</a> lived in areas that experienced more than 100 days of degraded air quality. Our cars and trucks are a major source of this pollution, which includes ozone, particulate matter and other smog-forming emissions.</p><p>There's a reason the air has cleared over many of our major cities during the coronavirus lockdowns. When you remove cars from the road, you also remove smog. The lockdowns have resulted in an extreme reduction of VMT — between <a href="https://frontiergroup.org/blogs/blog/fg/america-pause-vehicle-travel-during-covid-19-and-what-comes-next" target="_blank">68 and 72</a> percent across the country (and in some places closer to 90 percent). Assuming that telework has contributed something close to its peak potential reduction of 7 percent, it seems likely that it has played at least a supporting role in helping to clear our skies.</p>
Additional Emissions Reductions From Reduced Traffic<p>The average American commuter wastes <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/22/us/traffic-commute-gridlock-transportation-study-trnd/index.html" target="_blank">54 hours</a> a year stuck in traffic. That's lost time with friends and families, lost productivity at work, wasted money, tons of unnecessary stress, and a lot more pollution from idling cars.</p><p>Traffic patterns are complicated because traffic is <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2014/12/4-steps-to-tackling-traffic-congestion/" target="_blank">non-linear</a>, meaning there isn't a one-to-one ratio of percentage of cars removed to percentage of traffic alleviated. As such, just a <a href="https://www.accessmagazine.org/spring-2017/the-access-almanac-traffic-congestion-is-counter-intuitive-and-fixable/" target="_blank">few extra cars</a> on or off the road can have an outsize impact on traffic. Reducing commute VMT by up to 7 percent would have a huge impact on rush hour traffic (when bottlenecks are at their worst and most of that driving occurs). A greater adoption of telework could give people back some of those 54 hours so they can spend it doing the things that matter to them. And slow moving or stop and go traffic results in <a href="https://www.accessmagazine.org/fall-2009/traffic-congestion-greenhouse-gases/" target="_blank">greater emissions</a> than free-flowing traffic. So freeing up the roads and alleviating traffic for the remaining will result in even greater emissions reductions.</p>
What Needs to Happen for Telework to Live Up to Its Potential?<p>It's clear that telework can have significant societal benefits, including less global warming pollution and cleaner skies. But significant benefits are only possible if everyone whose job could plausibly be done from home has that opportunity.</p><p>To reach that goal, several barriers must be overcome:</p><p><em>Technology: </em>We've all had technical mix-ups when using Zoom or Google Hangouts or one of the other conferencing platforms. But the real technological barrier is access to broadband. <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/internet-broadband/#who-has-home-broadband" target="_blank">Roughly three-quarters</a> of American adults have broadband internet service at home, but the rate of access is much lower in rural parts of the country, according to a report by Pew Research Center. Those locations often don't have broadband infrastructure and even <a href="https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/04/06/telecommuting-will-likely-continue-long-after-the-pandemic/" target="_blank">14</a> percent of households in urban areas lack access, usually because they are not able to afford it. States should make funding available to develop broadband capacity in underserved areas.</p><p><em>Employer policies and managerial reluctance</em>: Coronavirus lockdowns across the country have forced employers and managers to adapt to large-scale telework quickly on an emergency basis, meaning these barriers are less likely relevant now than before. But general employer and manager <a href="https://www.gao.gov/assets/690/683455.pdf" target="_blank">reluctance</a> to embrace working from home has slowed this transition. Cities and states can encourage employer acceptance of telework by providing <a href="https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2019/07/25/gov-baker-proposes-telecommuting-tax-break-for-companies" target="_blank">tax benefits</a> or other incentives for greater adoption.</p><p><em>Car-centered transportation policies: </em>Our current transportation policies often incentivize driving or parking. From commuter and parking benefits to decades of outsized spending on <a href="https://uspirg.org/reports/usp/highway-boondoggles-5" target="_blank">highway infrastructure</a>, we tip the scales toward getting behind an automobile's wheel. In other words, our transportation policies are meant to move cars rather than incentivize things, such as telework, that would take cars off the road.</p><p>We need to rethink this approach and shift toward better "<a href="https://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/plan4ops/trans_demand.htm" target="_blank">Transportation Demand Management</a>." This requires the implementation of a set of strategies aimed at maximizing traveler choices. Those strategies should include greater employer and employee incentives for telework, as well as policies designed to facilitate more walking, biking, ridesharing, vanpooling and public transportation use.</p>
Bikeshare in Milan, October 2019. Guilhem Vellut / CC BY 2.0<p>That's important, because the potential gains we'd see from telework would only be sustained if that shift were paired with other policies to ensure those commuter miles aren't just replaced with other trips. We usually talk about this in relation to widening or building new highways, but when you open up highway capacity, it usually fills quickly. This is what the wonks call "<a href="https://uspirg.org/reports/usp/highway-boondoggles-5" target="_blank">induced demand</a>." People who otherwise would have driven at a different time of day, taken a different route, taken public transportation or would have avoided traffic on the highway some other way, come back to the road. The same could happen here if additional measures aren't taken.</p><p>It's likely that, even after the coronavirus lockdowns are over, telework is going to become more and more common in the American workforce. As it does, the environmental benefits will be significant. In a time when climate change presents an existential threat to life as we know it and millions of people across the world are subjected to unhealthy levels of air pollution, we need to be taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to solving these problems. Telework can clearly be a significant part of the long-term solution — especially if we take further steps to maximize its potential.</p>
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By Richard leBrasseur
The COVID-19 pandemic has altered humans' relationship with natural landscapes in ways that may be long-lasting. One of its most direct effects on people's daily lives is reduced access to public parks.
Making Healthy Places<p>Olmsted was born in 1822 but became a landscape architect rather late in his career, at <a href="https://www.olmsted.org/the-olmsted-legacy/olmsted-theory-and-design-principles/olmsted-his-essential-theory" target="_blank">age 43</a>. His ideas evolved from a diverse and unique set of experiences.</p><p>From the start, Olmsted recognized the positive effect of nature, noting how urban trees provided a "<a href="https://loa-shared.s3.amazonaws.com/static/pdf/Olmsted_Trees.pdf" target="_blank">soothing and refreshing sanitary influence</a>." His "sanitary style" of design offered more than mere decoration and ornamentation. "Service must precede art" was his cry.</p>
Olmsted's 1874 plan for the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington, DC. Architect of the Capitol<p>Olmsted came of age in the mid-19th century, as the public health movement was rapidly developing in response to typhoid, cholera and typhus epidemics in European cities. As managing editor of Putnam's Monthly in New York City, he regularly walked the crowded tenement streets of Lower Manhattan.</p><p>At the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, Olmsted led efforts to improve sanitation in Union Army military camps and protect soldiers' health. He initiated policies for selecting proper camp locations, installing drainage and disposing of waste, ventilating tents and preparing food, all designed to reduce disease. And in 1866 he witnessed adoption of New York's <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Health_Bill" target="_blank">Metropolitan Health Bill</a>, the first city law to control unhealthy housing conditions.</p>
Antidotes to Urban Stress<p>The insights Olmsted gained into connections between space, disease control and public health clearly influenced his landscape architectural career and the design of many urban park systems. For example, his design for the interlinked parks that forms Boston's <a href="https://ramboll.com/-/media/files/rgr/lcl/bgi_final-report_mit_boston_20160403.pdf?la=en" target="_blank">Emerald Necklace</a> foreshadowed the concept of green infrastructure.</p><p>This system centered on stagnant and deteriorated marshes that had became disconnected from the tidal flow of the Charles River as Boston grew. City residents were dumping trash and sewage in the marshes, creating <a href="https://landscapes.northeastern.edu/water-sanitation-and-public-health-in-boston/" target="_blank">fetid dumps that spread waterborne diseases</a>. Olmsted's design reconnected these water systems to improve flow and flush out stagnant zones, while integrating a series of smaller parks along its trailways.</p>
Parks in the Time of COVID-19<p>Today researchers are documenting many health benefits associated with being outside. Spending time in parks and green spaces clearly benefits urban dwellers' <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2007.09.009" target="_blank">psychological, emotional and overall well-being</a>. It <a href="https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph10030913" target="_blank">reduces stress</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916591231001" target="_blank">improves cognitive functioning</a> and is associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s40471-015-0043-7" target="_blank">improved overall health</a>.</p><p>In my view, government agencies should work to make these vital services as widely available as possible, especially during stressful periods like pandemic shutdowns. Certain types of public green spaces, such as botanical gardens, arboretums and wide trails, are well suited to maintaining social distancing rules. Other types where visitors may be likely to cluster, such as beaches and playgrounds, require stricter regulation.</p><p>There are many ways to make parks accessible with appropriate levels of control. One option is stationing agents at entry points to monitor and enforce capacity controls. Park managers can use timed entries and parking area restrictions to limit social crowding, as well as temperature screening and face mask provisions.</p>
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