COVID-19 has taught us the folly of not being prepared for a disaster that’s coming

By Jenny Baboolal

On April 22 last, Earth Day came and went without much fanfare.

NASA images show China pollution             the top are images from 2019

This is unfortunate because, with a captive global audience, it was a unique opportunity to connect the dots between the COVID-19 pandemic, our way of life and its impact on our health and on the earth that supports us.

Fifty years ago, on the first Earth Day, millions of Americans demonstrated to bring attention to the issue of environmental degradation. Around the same time, Paul Erlich wrote the book “The Population Bomb” which in part addressed the challenges of the earth in supporting an ever-growing world population. In 1962 Rachel Carson wrote the book “The Silent Spring” which helped us understand the impact of our actions on the environment, pointing out that if humans poisoned nature, nature would poison us. After all, we are part of the environment and not separate from it.

To most people, Earth Day may not mean much especially at this time when our attention is focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. Ironically, it is this pandemic that has brought our way of life and environmental issues into focus like never before. With the population locked down, we saw the dramatic reduction in air pollution that occurred. Measurements across the globe showed similar significant reduction of other types of pollution. We saw positive climate change in a matter of weeks and now have indisputable evidence of how quickly human activity can profoundly change the environment, for better or worse.

One of the reasons why climate change issues do not command the attention or action it requires is that, in stark contrast to the current pandemic, it is not seen as a clear and present danger.

Air pollution has been shown to be harmful but the people with diseases caused by it are largely unseen. Water pollution is not apparent when the water we get from our taps is clear and we do not sense the pollution in it. We can still bathe in the ocean without seeing the pollution that is destroying the plants and animals that live in it that are a significant source of food for people all over the world. When food and water  are readily available, and the lights still come on when we flip the switch, it is difficult to see and feel the threat of climate change unless you have been directly affected by it. In contrast, those who have experienced floods, fires, rising seas, drought and a myriad of environmental disasters directly related to climate change know firsthand the damage that can be inflicted. The economic and health costs of pollution and climate change events are immeasurable.

Scientists have been warning us for years about climate change. Last year, based on their decades long research, 11,000 of them from 153 countries signed a letter to declare “clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency”. They also said that the climate crisis is closely linked to excessive consumption. Scientific proclamations are based on the results of research done according to a strict scientific method which includes repeated testing to conclude that the findings are proven.

Fortunately, the pandemic brought scientists and medical experts into the limelight as they are the most reliable sources of information about the virus and how it affects us. It has driven home how important they are to provide the best data and when our lives are in danger, we want people who bring us information that has been vetted. In the same way, we need to listen to what they’re telling us about the climate emergency.

In our media-soaked world, we constantly see the environmental disasters taking place around the world. We want it to be different but in addition to being too busy trying to make a living and keeping up with getting what we want, most people think that what they do will not make much of an impact. They tend to see the problem as too big for any one person to make a difference, too costly to afford or too detrimental to their pocketbooks and lifestyle. All of these are not true but what is true is that we cannot expect to solve this global problem unless everyone is engaged in some way.

Marshall McLuhan, the well known Canadian philosopher and media theorist coined the expression “global village” and said “there are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”

Spaceship earth is our home and we are literally spinning through dark space on a limited piece of real estate with a thin atmosphere as our only protection from the hazards of outer space. It is made up of a complex web of ecosystems that is our life support system and has limited resources to support an ever growing population (almost 8 billion people). If we do not maintain the systems on our ship and manage the resources on it sustainably, it will eventually break down, and we will be out of places to go.

Now that we’re in quarantine, we have had time for contemplation. This important activity has brought us back to our inner spirit and to spend time looking at what we need most and to imagine a better future. We have seen that we can adapt to the most extreme losses and can do without many of the things that we crave from day to day. This is powerful in the face of our limited resources.

We will always need fuel to power our lives, but we need to switch to renewable sources of fuel and that is for governments and corporations to reengineer.  As citizens, we don’t have to do big things, but we are powerful. We can make a difference in all the choices we make, from the government we choose to the food we eat to what we buy and how we take care of our environment. A healthy environment means healthy people and a healthy economy.

It’s easy to come up with theoretical constructs of the way forward but the reality is that our way of life has been solidified over the course of human development. Industrialization, the technological revolution, global migration and an endless supply of cheap energy fuelling all of mankind’s needs and wants have left us with a wasteful, matted, interconnected and polluted world. Fighting any common global enemy like the climate crisis requires international cooperation and individual engagement.

The pandemic has taught us that when we pull together we can move mountains. It has also taught us the folly of not being prepared for a disaster that we know is coming. We have everything it takes to have a better future and now have a golden opportunity to set off in a different direction. Our most valuable currency is each other and the environment that sustains us. We need to take care of everyone and see everyday as Earth Day.

(Trinidad-born Jenny Baboolal is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, producer, photographer, film maker and social commentator.)