The coronavirus pandemic has revealed one particularly shocking thing about our societies and economies: they have been operating on a very thin margin. The edifice seems so shiny and substantial, a world of silver jets stitching together cities of towering skyscrapers, a globe of soaring markets and smartphone connectivity. But a couple of months into this disease and it’s all tottering, the jets grounded and the cities silent and the markets reeling. One industry after another is heading for bankruptcy, and no one knows if they will come back. In other words, however shiny it may have seemed, it wasn’t very sturdy. Some people—the President, for instance—think that we can just put it all back like it was before, with a “big bang,” once the “invisible enemy” is gone. But any prosperity built on what was evidently a shaky foundation is going to seem Potemkinish going forward; we don’t want always to feel as if we’re just weeks away from some kind of chaos.
Societies, too, come with underlying conditions, and the two that haunt our planet right now are inequality and ecological turmoil. They’ve both spiked in the past few decades, with baleful results that normally stay just below the surface, felt but not fully recognized. But as soon as something else goes wrong—a new microbe launches a pandemic, say—they become starkly evident. Inequality, in this instance, means that people have to keep working, even if they’re not well, because they lack health insurance and live day to day, paycheck to paycheck, and hence they can spread disease. Ecological instability, especially the ever-climbing mercury, means that even as governors try to cope with the pandemic they must worry, too, about the prospect of another spring with massive flooding across the Midwest, or how they’ll cope if wildfire season gets out of control. Last month, the U.S. Forest Service announced that, owing to the pandemic, it is suspending controlled burns, for instance, “one of the most effective tools for increasing California’s resiliency to fire.” God forbid that we get another big crisis or two while this one is still preoccupying us—but simple math means that it’s almost inevitable.
And, of course, all these things interact with one another: inequality means that some people must live near sources of air pollution that most of us wouldn’t tolerate, which in turn means that their lungs are weakened, which in turn means they can’t fight off the coronavirus. (It also means that some of the same people can lack access to good food, and are more likely to be diabetic.) And, if there’s a massive wildfire, smoke fills the air for weeks, weakening everybody’s lungs, but especially those at the bottom of the ladder. When there’s a hurricane and people need to flee, the stress and the trauma can compromise immune systems. Simply living at the sharp end of an unequal and racist society can do the same thing. And so on, in an unyielding spiral of increasing danger.
Since we must rebuild our economies, we need to try to engineer out as much ecological havoc and inequality as we can—as much danger as we can. That won’t be easy, but there are clear and obvious steps that would help—there are ways to structure the increased use of renewable energy that will confront inequality at the same time. Much will be written about such plans in the months to come, but at the level of deepest principle here’s what’s key, I think: from a society that has prized growth above all and been willing to play fast and loose with justice and ecology, we need to start emphasizing sturdiness, hardiness, resiliency. (And a big part of that is fairness.) The resulting world won’t be quite as shiny, but, somehow, shininess seems less important now.
Passing the Mic
Mary Annaïse Heglar is one of the freshest and most important voices in the climate movement. She’s the writer-in-residence at Columbia University’s Earth Institute in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Her personal essays—most of which revolve around themes of climate justice—are some of the most engaging writing I know on a subject that often inspires earnestness; a recent favorite was in Wired magazine. This interview has been condensed for clarity.
You say, “The facts have been on our side for a very long time, but we’re still losing.” Why?
The science on climate change has been crystal clear for literally decades. As Amy Westervelt has illustrated beautifully, on her podcast “Drilled,” the fossil-fuel companies knew that before anyone else. James Hansen testified before Congress thirty-two years ago. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the precursor to the Paris Agreement) dates back to 1992. We didn’t wind up in a climate crisis for lack of information, or even for lack of clearly communicated information. What was done was not done out of ignorance—it was done out of malice and greed. If all we had to do was have the right facts, we’d have been done a long time ago.
People feel as if they can’t take part in the fight because they’re not scientifically inclined. What do you tell them?
What I tell them is, “Girl, me, neither!” But you don’t need a scientific background or inclination to be part of the climate movement or conversation. This is not about science; it’s about justice. The science proves the severity of the injustice, sure, but it’s not the entire story. There’s a place for everyone in the climate movement because everyone, even the smallest toddler, understands the concept of “no fair.”
Everyone always asks me, “What should I be doing as an individual?” But is that even the right way to frame the question?
I get that question all the time, too, and it’s really frustrating. As I argue in my article, if you’re ready to graduate beyond the things that everyone should be doing—like cutting your carbon footprint, and voting for the climate, and showing up to demonstrations—then you’ve reached the point where you’re ready to become a bona-fide climate person. That means you’re past the one-size-fits-all activism. It’s time for your activism to mold to you, and only you can do that. No one told Greta [Thunberg] to strike, no one told Jamie and Nadia [the teen-age climate activists Jamie Margolin and Nadia Nazar] to help start Zero Hour. They just did it. No one told me to write—in fact, plenty of people told me not to! There’s so much to be done on climate, and so much that the people already involved with it haven’t thought of. There’s so much room for new ideas and new voices, so if you’re a new or aspiring climate person, you’re right on time. The better question would be “What can I do next?” An even better question would be “How did you find your niche in climate?” And then take those answers and carve out your own niche.
As Earth Day approaches, Denis Hayes, who spearheaded the original observance, in 1970, writes in the Seattle Times about what had been the plans for a mass fiftieth-anniversary day of action next week. The activities will be going online, instead, at EarthDayLive, but Hayes points out that we’ll get a real chance to show our commitment on November 3rd. His essay is worth looking at for the vintage photographs alone, but he adds an aside that I didn’t know: just days after the original protest, in which some twenty million Americans participated, the escalation of the war in Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State drove it out of the news.
Cutting down rain forests is a bad idea because it helps wreck the climate. It also increases the chances that diseases will jump from animals to humans, according to a new Stanford study. The veteran writer David Quammen distills some of those lessons in a new interview, based on his book “Spillover,” from 2012. I confess that I had no idea that one in four mammal species on our planet was a bat.
The Times has a doleful piece on Nepali climate migrants leaving their home villages because of the Himalayan drought. According to one official, ongoing bouts of extreme weather across the region threaten to “reverse and undermine decades of development gains and potentially undermine all our efforts to eradicate poverty.”
President Trump keeps rolling back environmental regulations, but one of the few silver linings to the incompetence of this Administration is that it frequently manages the rollbacks with the same flat-footedness that it brings to, say, epidemiology. This means that the courts often overturn them; last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit restored a regulation that prohibited businesses from using chemicals in refrigeration systems that contribute to climate change.
In Kansas (of all places), a judge appointed by the former far-right governor Sam Brownback (of all people) ruled that the utilities could not charge people a monthly fee more for putting solar panels on their roofs. The surcharge—similar to plans put in place across the nation by utilities who fear that the quick penetration of solar power will undercut their revenues—would have in some cases extended the time it takes for residents to pay off their systems from thirteen years to thirty-nine. That the judge was the appointee of an anti-environmental governor makes the ruling “almost a cherry on top of an ice-cream sundae,” as one advocate put it.
Judy Twedt, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington, managed to put the Keeling Curve of rising carbon dioxide to music—“it gets screechy at the end,” she admits, as the numbers keep rising. Here’s a short interview with her, and her tedx talk, and her home page, where you can check out the score she made from the data record of melting sea ice.
A Guide to the Coronavirus
- How to practice social distancing, from responding to a sick housemate to the pros and cons of ordering food.
- How the coronavirus behaves inside of a patient.
- Can survivors help cure the disease and rescue the economy?
- What it means to contain and mitigate the coronavirus outbreak.
- The success of Hong Kong and Singapore in stemming the spread holds lessons for how to contain it in the United States.
- The coronavirus is likely to spread for more than a year before a vaccine is widely available.
- With each new virus, we’ve scrambled for a new treatment. Can we prepare antivirals to combat the next global crisis?
- How pandemics have propelled public-health innovations, prefigured revolutions, and redrawn maps.
- What to read, watch, cook, and listen to under coronavirus quarantine.