On December 9, 2020, Shaver’s Creek hosted environmental activist and writer Nathaniel Popkin to discuss his book, To Reach the Spring: From Complicity to Consciousness in the Age of Eco-Crisis, newly released on December 1, 2020. Throughout the book, Popkin explores possible explanations for our collective inaction in regards to the climate emergency. To familiarize yourself with Nathaniel and his work, you can read the preface of To Reach the Spring below!
The pronouncements, all from Republican officials, came in the fourth week of March 2020. On television, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick declared that elderly people, most vulnerable to disease caused by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, would be willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to allow businesses, closed under stay-at-home orders, to reopen. Patrick was echoing the desire of the president of the United States, whose chief economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, had said, also on television, “The cure can’t be worse than the disease, and we’re gonna have to make some difficult tradeoffs.” The tradeoffs he had in mind were the deaths of many thousands of people in exchange for a return to normal economic activity.
Many close observers of American politics saw these statements as evidence of panic on the part of the Republican party, worried over the reelection prospects of the president, Donald J. Trump. Mounting evidence revealed that Trump had badly bungled the response to the virus. His unwillingness to act despite knowledge of the severity of the disease and his mendacity, incompetence, and divisive rhetoric had turned the pandemic into an American tragedy: lives wrecked by death, illness, unemployment, and poverty, with no end in sight. Kudlow, Patrick, and other Republican officials floating the idea of “tradeoff” were admitting that the president could not be reelected with a totally shattered economy; since he had failed to stop the spread of the disease, reopening business at any cost was the only chance.
But most Americans simply reacted in horror. There is no tradeoff when it comes to human life and no value to be put on it. No American — no human being — should be sacrificed so that businesses can go back to making profit.
The righteous position, however, exposes an underlying truth about human life on planet Earth at the start of the third decade of the twenty-first century: the global capitalist economic system operates by virtue of this very tradeoff, of lives for profit. The only difference is that for a wealthy nation like the United States a high proportion of those lives are sacrificed at a far distance — in sweatshops, factories, rigs, mines, hothouses, and trawlers — and out of sight. As global capitalism demands cheap and disposable labor, it also consumes living plants and animals — and the forests, oceans, and river systems where they live — not to mention the ore, minerals, crude oil, and metals dug out from below. All this we sacrifice without second thought. So tangled as we are in the intricacies of this system of sacrifice and profit — as workers, investors, consumers, victims — we can’t seem to envision another way. The immense scale, and far reach, of the global economy overwhelms even the basic moral question: What is life worth?
At its most distilled, this is the question we must ask during a time of extreme environmental crisis, as man-made global warming, intensive pesticide and herbicide use, damming of rivers, incineration of forests, burning of fossil fuels, and the expansion of grazing land for meat production knocks ecological systems out of balance, with spiraling repercussions for species diversity and human health. What is life worth?
And how can the value we assign to it — assuming a stable and reliable “we” might emerge from the present state of competition and conflict — come to shape the human response to the ecological crisis — or for that matter, an immediate humanitarian crisis like COVID-19?
The coronavirus pandemic indeed has exposed, with the precision of an X-ray, the inadequacies, injustices, and vulnerabilities of American society. Extending the metaphor, the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd has, like an MRI , exposed the danger of the criminal justice system, which brutalizes African American men especially, exposing them to violence, over-crowded holding cells, and police without the training or the judgment to guard against the spread of the disease. This is on top of over-incarceration, at rates that far surpass other nations, which has created lethal hotspots inside our jails. For many years now, racial segregation and systemic racism have condemned millions of Americans to living in communities that lack adequate health care. Thirty million Americans have no health insurance, and without a national health care system the government response to the pandemic has been disjointed, inequitable, and fragmented. Reliance on contract workers leaves millions without employment stability. And COVID-19 seems to most easily kill the most unhealthy, those who are condemned by poverty and racism to live nearest to sources of lethal chemicals, such as refineries, farms using herbicides and pesticides, and factories. Many are also victims of the poor American diet based itself on the environmental catastrophe of cheap sugar cane, palm oil, corn, and beef, as well as polluted air and contaminated water.
Magnify these vulnerabilities to a global scale and, like the question of sacrifice and tradeoff, a terrifying picture is revealed, of billions of impoverished people, citizens of nations without even basic health care resources or environmental safeguards, left more or less helpless, in harm’s way.
Pandemic, then, is a kind of dry run for eco-crisis, in its capacity to force us to compose questions, but also in teaching us where to seek answers. Whom do we trust enough to put aside questions of private interest in favor of the greater good? The overwhelming answer to this question is not elected officials, but rather medical professionals, public health experts, and scientists — those on the ground and in labs, those modeling and interpreting data, those able to observe how even disparate inputs interact in dynamic entanglements.
But after a half-century or more of intensifying scientific research on climate change and the vivid interpretation of mounting data that prove the extent and the danger of damaged ecological systems, we have mostly ignored the warnings of scientists. Casting aside their elaborate models, we have instead allowed the market, and political figures dedicated to protecting it, to determine the future of life on the planet. The global experience with COVID-19 begs for a reconsideration. The market can no more solve the environmental crisis than it can end the novel coronavirus pandemic.
As humans who make up so many disparate societies, perhaps we are only still learning to face an existential threat together. We ought to learn fast. Pandemics are likely to increase in number and breadth as the planet warms and humans spread further; both the warming and the scale of today’s pandemics are products of the rapid urbanization and globalization of human beings, and in both cases, collectively, we are murderer and victim both. This is a terrifying moral position for individual people who want to do good but who wreak havoc just by going about the day. This is as much the case for asymptomatic individuals infecting others unknowingly with COVID-19 as for people who, without much choice because of where they live, have to drive a great distance just to go to work (the American driver is a leading worldwide source of the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming). Most Americans are indeed trapped spatially into de facto causing harm to the planet.
In any case, among nearly eight billion people the very thought of effective collaboration sounds silly and absurdly naive. And the mortal danger of COVID-19 hasn’t disproven this theory. The Chinese premier failed to adequately contain the virus or properly inform the leaders of other nations. The American president willfully ignored the intelligence presented to him by members of his own administration on the extent and immediacy of the threat and then, later, blamed officials of the World Health Organization for the spread of the disease in the U.S. The Italian president feuded with the head of the Lombardy region even as cases were increasing exponentially — merely because the two men represented different political parties. Just after Brexit, the prime minister of Great Britain found no avenue for collaboration with the European Union. But the E.U. also failed to produce a unifying strategy for its members to cope with the pandemic, while the leaders of Turkey, Russia, Brazil, and Japan calculated that it would be more expedient to downplay the threat. When heads of state finally decided to show support for a unified response behind the U.N.-supported World Health Organization, the United States was not only absent, but the U.S. secretary of state threatened to withhold funding for the W.H.O. permanently.
The failure of cooperation at the political level, however, masks the extraordinary response by individual citizens of every nation, many of whom have endured weeks of grueling quarantine, without personal freedom or pay. At varying points of the pandemic one-third of the human population was forced to stay at home and 90 percent of children away from school. Each person who stays inside, wears a mask outside, and avoids unnecessary social interactions during the pandemic is aligning personal moral responsibility with the broader public good. And, notably for the subject of this work, they are practicing communally for the distinctly dire peril ahead. The neurosurgeon and health reporter Sanjay Gupta said on CNN, “How I behave … affects your health. How you behave affects my health. Never … have we been so dependent on each other, at least not in my lifetime, and we should rise to that occasion.”
The very breakdown of moral choice and action to each individual, aligning the personal with the societal as Dr. Gupta envisions, suggests that we are capable of acting on the climate and ecological crises as well. At the start of 2020, such thinking would have been fanciful given the political barriers to enacting sweeping and systemic changes to human society. As the consequences of human activity on other creatures and Earth systems became increasingly clear these past few years, the distance between individual intent — or even hope for our children and grandchildren’s future — and collective reality had become unbridgeable. It was the source of growing existential dread. But the individual response to the novel coronavirus pandemic invites us to believe this distance can be closed. Perhaps, as with the contagion, it is a matter of believing we have no other choice.