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Finding Hope in Dark Times While Avoiding Environmentalists' Mistakes of the Past

Post pandemic we will need to fight for a green and just recovery that brings together addressing climate change and caring for those hurt by the crisis.

planet Earth

At first it was an email pointing out that the pandemic would mean that global carbon emissions would be down... But then it got worse with people I respect circulating writings that embraced the pandemic as ultimately good for the environment by warning humanity to respect Mother Earth." (Image: NASA)

We are all struggling to find hope in the midst of the incredibly dark times of the coronavirus pandemic. Environmentalists have a leg up in that challenge, as our movement has struggled for more than half a century to find hope facing the biodiversity and climate crises and more. In the search for hope, I hope we don't repeat the mistakes of our movement's past by embracing misanthropic versions of hope in which we applaud the pandemics as somehow good for the planet. Unfortunately, this is already happening even though we can find hope without turning our back on human suffering.

There is a long and ugly history of the environmental movement ignoring, applauding, and even promoting human suffering in the name of protecting the Earth.

At first it was an email pointing out that the pandemic would mean that global carbon emissions would be down. True enough. Then another with the powerful image of children in some parts of China seeing blue sky for the first time in their lives as the pandemic shut down polluting factories. OK, fair enough. But then it got worse with people I respect circulating writings that embraced the pandemic as ultimately good for the environment by warning humanity to respect Mother Earth.

There is a long and ugly history of the environmental movement ignoring, applauding, and even promoting human suffering in the name of protecting the Earth. Some members of the activist group Earth First! openly cheered the AIDS epidemic as good for the environment. In 1973 Garrett Hardin published Exploring New Ethics for Survival, a fable in which he favorably describes a plan to poison the majority of humanity to stop environmental destruction.

While there will be short term reductions in carbon emissions and other environmental harms due to the pandemic, without systematic structural changes, these likely will be quickly erased when the pandemic ends and the economy rebounds. Sadly, much of the activist work needed to bring about structural change will be greatly slowed down by the pandemic. And the massive resources needed to fight the virus may make it harder to marshal resources to address climate change.

So where might we find hope in all this? I hope we learn that habitat destruction makes us more vulnerable to pandemic. I hope the crisis weakens the power of free market ideology and powerful economic interests which have convinced people that government is inept and to be feared, and therefore to be severely limited. I hope people come to see the value of strong, well-staffed, full funded, public institutions, whether that be a public health system or the environmental programs needed to fight climate change. I hope that people see that it does not serve us well to systematically dismiss science and expertise, and as a result lose the ability to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

Whether these hopes are realized depends on the work we do going forward and that we keep in mind the key changes in the environmental movement of last decade: today we recognize that protecting the environment is intimately tied to social well-being and social justice. Post pandemic we will need to fight for a green and just recovery that brings together addressing climate change and caring for those hurt by the crisis.

Carlos Davidson

Carlos Davidson

Carlos Davidson is a professor of Environmental Studies at San Francisco State University

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