I’m fortunate. This slowdown is giving me time with my grandchildren, who are with me, and to think about what has mattered most in my life, what has given me the greatest joy and satisfaction, and where I hope the world may go after I’m gone.
As an older male, I’m in the population facing the highest risk from COVID-19, but my reflections on this pandemic go beyond my own life and death. Difficult as it is now, this pandemic will subside and we’ll be able to think about how to move forward.
This is a challenge for all people. I’ve always been struck by science-fiction movies in which alien invaders arrive and begin killing humans. Governments worldwide unite against a common enemy as ethnic, religious, economic and political differences fall away.
Maybe COVID-19 is the alien invader that could unite our species. But the pandemic is just one of several dangers we face. Collectively, these offer an opportunity to reset priorities and direction for ourselves and society.
My parents married in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Those were difficult times, but work, family, and community got them through. “You have to work hard for the necessities in life, but don’t run after money as if having a new car, a big house, or fancy clothes makes you a better or more important person,” they often said. Money is not the goal of existence; the goal is a life well-lived.
We’ve had multiple calls to change our ways because the sum of human activity has become toxic to the planet’s life-support systems. But we’re caught in political and economic systems that render environmentalists as “special interests” with impossible agendas.
Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring documented the ecological impacts of pesticides like DDT. It appeared to be a powerful tool to control insect pests, but we didn’t understand its full implications. We still don’t know enough about how the world works to anticipate the repercussions of our powerful ideas and inventions.
In 1992, before the Rio Earth Summit, more than half of living Nobel laureates joined more than 1,600 senior scientists from 71 countries to sign the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course…Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about,” it stated.
Humanity did not act.
Twenty-five years later, more than 16,000 scientists signed a second warning, saying the planet’s state has grown worse and we must act with urgency.
Still little or no action.
In October 2018, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report warned that a rise of more than 1.5° C above preindustrial temperatures by 2100 would make it difficult or impossible to adapt to and cope with climate chaos. We’re now heading toward a 3° C to 5° C warming! You’d think that would be big news. But shortly after the report came out, Canada legalized cannabis, and that pushed aside other news, including the possible collapse of our species.
In May 2019, a UN study reported human activities threaten a million plant and animal species with imminent extinction. But Prince Harry and Megan had a baby and media stories about extinction—including our own—vanished.
A trifecta of economic crises—the COVID-19 pandemic, stock-market troubles and plummeting oil prices—is exposing systemic flaws.
Nature is already responding to the pandemic-induced slowdown: cleaner air over China, clearer waters in Venice’s canals, smog-free skies in Los Angeles, and more.
But it’s likely temporary. If we could take a different path, away from the impossible dream that unbridled consumption and endless growth are necessary for progress, we might find our way to a different future.
Can we relearn what humanity has known since our beginnings, that we live in a complex web of relationships in which our very survival and well-being depend on clean air, water, and soil and biological diversity? Or will we celebrate the passing of the pandemic with an orgy of consumption and a drive to get back to the way things were before?
In this disaster lies an opportunity to reflect and change direction in the hope that if we do, nature will be generous.