Hi all, I hope you’re doing well during a period that many news organisations insist on referring to as “these uncertain times.” I know a lot of us are struggling right now with medical problems, lost work, unemployment benefits bureaucracies, anxiety about family and friends we can’t physically hang out with any more and all the other ripple effects of this virus. 2020 sure is a strange time to be alive.
A friend recently told me that the COVID-19 pandemic is this generation’s equivalent of a world war. He pointed to the economic upheaval, how it has interrupted everyone’s plans, the ways in which you and I are making small sacrifices to ease the strain on those battling the virus on the so-called “front lines.”
Now, a global pandemic with a mortality rate currently estimated at between two and four percent is scary, tragic and destructive — but undoubtedly less so than a world war. My friend was mostly referring to the pandemic’s potential to completely remake the world we live in. We’ve already seen free market-oriented governments in Australia, the United States and United Kingdom pass the kind of sweeping social welfare policies that, in normal times, would cause Mitch McConnell, Boris Johnson or Scott Morrison to pass out under an overload of apoplectic rage.
Amid the sweeping government reforms, we’ve also seen the usual wave of human resilience, positivity and support that accompanies this sort of thing. I don’t know about you, but friends and family have been sending me ridiculous amounts of positive or downright hilarious quarantine content — memes, videos, music, podcasts — and taken together, it all speaks to the human ability to band together in a crisis. There is a whole lot of suffering going around right now but, as a society, we will get through this.
As I watch all this unfold through my computer screen and in the strangely empty streets of my neighbourhood — Seattle was the United States’ first epicentre, and has been under some kind of quarantine order for more than a month now — I’m finding hope from what feels like a deeper source. This pandemic has shown our capacity for action, to neutralise an external threat and remake the world for the better in the process. And that kind of affirmation comes at an opportune time.
For years now, many of us have despaired at the global community’s apparent inability to put any kind of real effort into avoiding the worst effects of global heating. The Paris Agreement sounded nice, but most governments are way behind their obligations, trying to weasel their way out of them or, in the case of the world’s biggest economy, are set to withdraw completely later this year. Climate scientists, economists and geopolitical agencies have been shouting about what awaits us if we don’t act — a spiralling series of ecological collapses and natural disasters, corresponding social collapses, migrations and even war. Everyone whose job it is to know about this stuff is telling us that nothing good lies down the path of inaction.
Yet here we are, still inertia-bound on that same path. Maybe this is humanity’s fate, we wondered. Maybe we’ve lost the ability to act on such a massive scale?
And then the coronavirus exploded across the globe. Government officials who still check for reds under the bed before they go to sleep each night are enacting the kind of social policies that might have moved Che Guevara to raise an eyebrow. We’re finding new ways to work, to connect with one another and support businesses while observing public health guidelines. Auto plants and factories have, in a matter of weeks, turned into ventilator manufacturing machines. Teams of scientists are racing to create a vaccine, operating under the assumption that we’ll have one within two years.
In other words: humanity has opened its toolbox and is using every available resource to solve a giant problem. And it’s working.
A while back I listened to an interview with Saul Griffith, an Aussie inventor who now lives in San Francisco. His company, called Otherlab, was contracted by the U.S. Department of Energy to track and map the entire country’s energy flows, which means he knows crazy stats like how much liquefied natural gas becomes how much carbon dioxide and electricity, how much of that electricity is lost to inefficient floor heating versus non-LED lighting. That sort of thing — but on a massive scale.
The conversation (which I highly recommend listening to) was sparked by a blog post Griffith wrote in which he argues that the United States has all the tools it needs — electric vehicles, battery technology, efficient electrical heating, cheap solar and wind power — to electrify its energy system and, in doing so, largely eradicate about 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (the rest come from agriculture, industry, forestry and so on). Doing so, he claims, would not even require any kind of sacrifice in terms of energy use — Americans can still have their big SUVs and their McMansions, they’ll just be electric SUVs (which are way more fun to drive) and electrically heated homes.
Of course, comparing COVID-19 and climate change as equally solvable issues is not exactly fair. One is a public health crisis on a massive scale, the other is an energy, infrastructure and even cultural problem. And, of course, no virus has yet found a way to funnel campaign donations to politicians. If it had, I’m sure we’d (still) be hearing politicians telling us that people’s jobs depend on COVID-19, that COVID-19 isn’t really that harmful, that COVID-19 is a hoax invented by the Chinese.
Here in Seattle, state and local leaders calmly explained the steps they were taking — shutting schools, banning large gatherings, shuttering all “non-essential businesses,” expanding unemployment benefits — and why they were important. By and large, people have responded by following the guidelines. We understood the stakes, and we understood what we have to do. Several weeks ago, the experts were predicting 50 deaths a day in Washington State. Now they’re saying the state has passed its peak of infections — 24 people passed away on our worst day thus far, in late March — and the governor is sending extra ventilators to harder-hit states. So far, we have succeeded in flattening the curve.
Heaven forbid we need the environmental equivalent of a COVID-19 to make us wake up and start taking the threat seriously, just as this pandemic has done for our personal and political awareness of social and public health systems. We have the tools and the capacity to avoid the worst of climate change. It will be hard, but it’s far from impossible.
I want to leave on an (even more) hopeful note. Just as people can and do adjust quickly to new circumstances, so does the rest of the natural world. After just a few weeks of lockdown, air pollution levels plummeted in China. Water quality in the notoriously polluted Ganges River reportedly improved by 40-50 percent between the abrupt announcement of India’s nationwide lockdown on March 21 and the publication of this news story on April 4. And Venice’s usually turgid canals have turned clear, inviting fish and even swans back into the city.
The Earth will quickly return to a healthier equilibrium for all of us. So let’s get through this pandemic, then push our leaders to use that same energy to work on reorienting our society to more sustainable energy sources.