As we slowly emerge from a global pandemic, it feels as if a bright new dawn has risen after a long night. Will we forget the darkness and bury it deep in our collective subconscious, or will we remember the lessons learned? Unfortunately, as with all disasters, we too often settle into comfort without correcting the problems that got us here in the first place. Human ability to adapt to a “new normal” is our great evolutionary advantage, and society has picked up right where it left off. Disease, genocide, war, inflation… is this humanity’s legacy? Sure, maybe COVID gave us some nice benefits too — remote work, stronger relationships with family and nature, and a greater sense of empathy and interconnectedness — but those will surely be forgotten amidst our helter skelter lives. To rebuild in the wake of disaster provides opportunities for progress and innovation, to redesign our systems to work for everyone. We, as ecophiles, cannot develop complacency in our fight for change, as the need to prepare for the climate catastrophe becomes all the more dire.
Lesson #1: Mitigation is easier than remediation.
Remember all that talk about “bending the curve”? Well, the COVID curve was just a warm up for what a climate catastrophe curve could look like. And we had no choice but to react against COVID (even though doctors had been warning about the risk of a global pandemic for years), so most of our actions were aimed towards remediation, rather than proactive mitigation efforts (but thank Science for PCR research). This largely mirrors the climate narrative, where scientists have been sounding the alarm about “global warming” for decades now. (Anyone see Don’t Look Up?) But was anything done about it before the Paris Agreement in 2016? Not really, unless you count dedicated corporate denialism.1 And now that we are in the midst of the climate catastrophe (and yes, it is here, don’t let anyone tell you differently), we have yet again lost decades of mitigation. Now, instead of thinning our forests to lessen drought stress, and buttressing our cities against sea level rise, we are spending billions on emergency response instead of disaster prevention, all while continuing to emit ever-increasing amounts of carbon. Instead of funding innovative research in clean energy and battery storage, we are cleaning up after wildfires, hurricanes, and oil spills. Decades of climate inaction have stacked the cards high against infrastructure resilience and jacked up the costs to the point where we can’t afford not to do anything!
Now let’s be clear on one thing… we have the financial and technological capacity to stop climate change right now. We also have a political and economic system that is unwilling to sacrifice Gross Domestic Product for the greater good. It’s no surprise to anyone that corporate greed has actively denied climate change to protect their bottom lines. What is not so obvious is that capitalism has monopolized natural capital, a functional necessity since it predicates itself on destroying the environment by overextracting natural resources to fuel unsustainable growth, much as it has extracted social capital by marginalizing poor communities as slave labor and exploited, underpaid workers without rights throughout history. While the planet’s oligarchs control private investments and national budgets, greed will always pervade the dialogue surrounding mitigation efforts. Until we can recognize a triple bottom line of people and planet over profit, our economic and technological systems will cause perpetual dysfunction in the Earth system.
Lesson #2: Justice must be served.
Was it a coincidence that the onset of a global pandemic also coincided with the largest mass movement for racial justice since the civil rights era? No. When a public health crisis hits poor minority communities hardest, that’s an environmental justice issue. When “essential workers” are lifted up as the economy’s saving grace while receiving no guarantee of health, safety, or hazard pay, that’s an economic justice issue. When an unarmed black man’s life is taken by a white police officer, that’s a racial justice issue. We as a society have finally woken up to the structural inequalities built into our country’s framework, designed by and for white supremacists, and we have had enough. The pandemic has brought environmental justice into the lexicon, and demonstrated the intersections between race, place, and wealth that cause poor, black and brown neighborhoods to be at a higher risk of death from COVID-19. And guess what, these communities around the globe are already experiencing the most severe impacts of climate change. To institute a fair response to the climate crisis and solve environmental problems, we must also combat poverty.
Oh, and while we’re talking about social justice, let’s just say it again for the people in the back: capitalism is racist. Or I should say, the racialization of capital was necessary for the White man to place himself on top of the New World Order. The overextraction of natural resources and marginalization of human resources is designed purely for the benefit of the Global North’s Top 1%. Meanwhile, the rest of the world suffers the consequences of our privileged, materialistic lifestyles. FYI, many countries are still experiencing a raging COVID pandemic. Or did you forget that other people are suffering just because America is not? The relationship between COVID mortality and poverty is the same link that connects climate change impacts to poverty, which is the same thread we can trace through post-colonial global histories. So here’s the kicker… justice cannot be served without a paradigm shift. Until the world can embrace a socialist mindset, where wealth can be redistributed to help those with the greatest need, natural catastrophes will continue to harm the most vulnerable. Environmental justice requires a complete restructuring of global priorities, and a little social enlightenment wouldn’t hurt.
Lesson #3: Everything is connected.
Whether we like it or not, the first month of the pandemic was a global experiment in human influence. What happens when people are stuck inside and cannot exert their usual influence on the planet? Surprise surprise… Lover Earth prospers. We are a literal infection, polluting the air, water, and land. Remove the infection (even temporarily), and all the organs heal. Animals re-populated the suburbs immediately, emboldened by the lack of noise and people. The skies cleared up in a week, allowing Indians their first glimpse of the mighty Himalayas that had been obscured by smog.2 Even our carbon dioxide emissions dipped for the first time in years, a glimmer of hope for the climate crisis that would soon be dashed by our voracious appetite for travel post-pandemic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as happy as the next tourist to travel again, but now we might consider how our privileges affect others.
COVID showed us just how connected we all really are. Airplanes carried the virus around the world in the span of hours, and contact tracing mapped our endless social networks so that even 6 degrees of separation still put you in quarantine. Our “individual rights” don’t mean much when careless actions could result in someone’s death. Is our personal freedom really more important than the health and wellness of an entire community? The initial shock of the pandemic humbled mankind and changed our perspective to see the connections. We all felt the unprecedented shared trauma, and it kindled a deeper appreciation of humanity, family, and freedom. Unfortunately, pandemic fatigue soon set in and our selfishness returned. We have seen directly how proclamation of civil liberties (i.e., anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers) actually perpetuated and worsened the crisis. The burden on the healthcare system created the need to regulate society for the greater good. No one wants to accept responsibility, but a state of willful ignorance is no longer acceptable when the planet needs you to care. At a certain point, personal decision-making needs to be bolstered by education at the earliest levels. Otherwise, we are doomed to let the least educated and most wealthy decide our fate.
The point is this… we need to do better. If we want this to be a symbiotic relationship, we are going to have to change our behaviors. COVID was a product of modern culture, and a particularly grotesque example of such. As the problems and inefficiencies in our society have become crystal clear through this unfortunate experiment, we need to reflect on how to improve the future rather than fall back into our old ways and make a bigger mistake next time. COVID was just the practice run… it’s only going to get worse. But we can be ready, if we are willing to make sacrifices and recognize the seemingly infinite consequences of our actions. It starts with knowledge.
Written in collaboration with Jane Honicker-Graup, who has dedicated her adult career as a nurse for public and non-profit institutions, to provide a public health perspective of COVID