Earth Day 2020: Amid a Pandemic a Deeper Environmental Emergency Looms
As we mark 50 years of Earth Day in 2020, the events of this year have laid bare a plain truth that is often obscured in the midst of the hustle and bustle of normal daily life. Despite our instant access to information, sprawling cities, and dynamic economies, we are still intrinsically tied to nature.
The coronavirus, a zoonotic viral disease, believed to have originated in bats, has single-handedly pulled the plug on the global economy and forced the whole world to retreat into their homes. As of this writing, the virus has claimed more than 10x more lives than the terrorists on 9-11, has led to an economic slowdown that dwarfs the Great Recession of 2008, and has required our government to dole out trillions of dollars to alleviate the economic turmoil. As much as it seems that we human beings have conquered mother nature, our feelings of complete control have proven to be an illusion.
In many ways, the disastrous effects of this pandemic are foreshadowing an uncertain and tumultuous future that will be brought on by the looming climate crisis. As devastating as the coronavirus has been, its effects are ultimately temporary, while the damage we do to the environment could last millennia. If we do nothing to address the impending climate crisis, our world will be destabilized. Major cities will be underwater, whole regions of the world that have produced our food will be desolate, and certain parts of the world will become unlivable. It may even make pandemics like COVID-19 more common. However, the worst effects of climate change won’t be higher sea levels, higher rates of asthma, or even more extreme weather.
Climate change threatens to upend our economies, our politics, our culture, and whether we can even continue with the assumption that the future will be more prosperous and more just than the past.
Specifically, that would mean…
- Twice as much war
- Half as much food
- Global GDP potentially 20 percent smaller than it would be without climate change -- a permanent reduction in economic activity that is a deeper reduction than the Great Depression.
The decisions we make today as a society will undoubtedly echo throughout the ages.
Oddly, pressing the pause button on our economy powered by fossil fuels has given us a glimpse of what our world could look like if we transitioned towards a sustainable economy…
Typical Los Angeles skyline
In order to mitigate the climate crisis, we need to make fundamental, but somewhat obvious, changes such as how we generate and consume energy, how we manufacture products, and how we ship and transport goods. In the coming decade, many of us will have to get our energy from solar and wind, wear clothes made from sustainable fabrics such as Hemp, or package our products in compostable paper instead of plastic.
Solar installers building the foundation of the new economy we need
What is less obvious is that we need to shift how we think about productive economic behavior. The cost of unsustainable economic activities such as fracking and materials such as plastic are not reflected in their price even though the impacts of these activities have a very real cost on our planet and our wellbeing. Environmental stewardship has to be accounted for in our economic systems not because it “feels good”, but because it is practical. Disregarding the care for our environment has severe economic consequences. It changes the fundamental nature of the planet we live on, which creates severe uncertainty for every organization -- no matter how big or small. It is absolutely vital we create a functioning economy that supports people without threatening life on Earth, including our own.
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith -- the book that defines our current economic paradigm. This paradigm will need updating in the climate change era
At Salvos we want to make it easy to make choices that are better for the environment, so we source everyday products for your home, closet, or bathroom that have passed a scientific sustainability certification or have a proven sustainable use case. Easy access to quality products that actually make a difference for the environment will be imperative. Shopping sustainably should not be difficult in the midst of the greatest environmental crisis in human history. Sustainability and earth-friendly claims can no longer afford to be a marketing ploy. These claims must actually mean something.
The collective action we have taken to halt the coronavirus should bring us optimism. In a matter of weeks, roughly 90 percent of Americans have complied with stay home orders to give our medical system a chance to build capacity and save lives. We have even changed what we wear on our faces in a matter of days. Millions of Americans complied with a CDC recommendation to wear a cloth facemask in public because wearing a mask protects the people around them.
On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the actions we have taken this year have made it abundantly clear that we have the will to take collective action. We just have to remember these capabilities when we emerge from this crisis and have to shift our focus towards an even deeper emergency -- the degradation of our entire planet.