Look, I get it, especially as we mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this week — these images offer much-needed moments of consolatio...
Look, I get it, especially as we mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this week — these images offer much-needed moments of consolation amid a flood of bad news. I’ve enjoyed them, too.
The grim reality, though, is that these feel-good moments mean little in the larger scheme of things. Our environment is changing, all right, but mostly for the worse.
In the Amazon rainforest, illegal deforestation is increasing, probably because the local authorities are unable to adequately patrol the hinterlands. A major coral bleaching event is now taking place on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, caused by overheating local seas. A recent U.N. study of Earth’s biodiversity portends dark outcomes with regard to species extinction.
And speaking of biodiversity, many epidemics have their roots in the unseemly wild animal trade, in which rich people purchase wild game from poor country folk just to enjoy an exotic evening meal. Many wild species of mammals and turtles are endangered with extinction because of this unsavory habit.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has interrupted urgently needed long-term environmental studies around the world. Loss of data means loss of insight into the workings of our living earth.
And yes, it’s true that air pollution, carbon dioxide emissions, and water and noise pollution have all declined because of the pandemic. So beaten down are we by the litany of terrible news on the environmental front (much of it promulgated by our feckless administration) that we hunger for these scraps of good news.
Yet the positive effects of the shutdown are just minor countervailing events amid the disasters overwhelming our global environment. The bottom line: Bad things are happening to nature while we shelter at home. This is not the time to go all gooey at the sight of a deer grazing in the front yard. This is the time to get angry.
That picture of the mountain lion in a tree in Colorado should remind us of what we have lost, not what little we have gained. Recall that mountain lions used to range across North America, but because of human depredation are now confined to protected enclaves in the West. (These magnificent predators are hunted legally in 14 states.) This should kindle our anger, fomenting the urge to revolt against the status quo. Sheltering in our homes, each of us should recall with shame the sharp rebuke of Greta Thunberg, and rise from our couches, and pace the room, casting about for workable solutions to the mess we have made of our world.
Don’t get me wrong. Here in the D.C. area where I live, it’s thrilling to see so many people communing with a beautiful, unfolding Mid-Atlantic spring. Many are seizing the opportunity to follow the wondrous annual awakening of our tree-filled woodlands and wetlands, narrated by the rising crescendo of birdsong. Close encounters with nature remind us all of the inadequacy of our human-managed environs. Such experiences remind us that it’s the natural world that provides the fresh air, clean water, abundant fisheries and rich soils that support humankind on Earth.
The danger is that we’ll treat this virus-driven hiatus like another extended vacation — one from which we’ll emerge refreshed to go on with business as usual. That would be exactly the wrong reaction. This may be the only time in our busy lives when we can stop, think, plan, organize and act on behalf of our precious biosphere. My hope is that we come out of this experience with new energy for change.
If we care for the long-term well-being of our children, then it is time to take action. We must embrace E.O. Wilson’s dictum to set aside half the Earth for nature. When Congress spouts its shopworn refrain that we have to choose between nature and the economy, determined citizens must respond that a healthy green environment underpins a prosperous human society.
Once we end our enforced home sojourn, we should come out swinging. It is urgent that we muster the resolve to demand a greener present — with a strengthened Paris accord, a reinvigorated EPA and a newly elected administration that leads by embracing the admonitions of the scientists who have studied the data and the voices of the concerned citizen groups who have reaffirmed our need to protect nature’s bounty. If that happens, then the payoff from this terrible shutdown will be a proud rebirth of the American environmentalism of the 1970s that we commemorate on this day each year.