On March 20, 2020 I climbed to the roof of my apartment building in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It was a clear night and on the horizon I saw the jagged silhouettes of lower Manhattan, the crystalline frames of the Hudson Yards complex, and the Empire State Building, whose decorative lighting system pulsated an eerily pragmatic red, like a giant emergency beacon.
I want to try out an idea on you, perhaps worth a letter to the Times. And if you’re interested we might co-author it, which would be fun.I think it’s useful to compare the near-panic with which the world has reacted to the coronavirus, with the slothful way it has reacted to the far slower-acting but ultimately more deadly “virus” of the climate disaster. Both phenomena are based on sound scientific evidence, Both have their deniers and “hoaxers.” The big difference, of course, is that the climate crisis has been downplayed to the tune of billions of dollars by the fossil fuel industry.My argument is that the coronavirus crisis has shown us that we can survive the wholesale disruption of our social fabric and economy to counter an attack by an agent for which we have no known cure.The death and destruction due to the climate crisis are already with us and for this we know the cure: stop burning fossil fuels.A viral pandemic, even if left uncontrolled, will come and go with its toll on human life and property, within months or a few years. But the climate disaster even with prompt action now, will disrupt human life for many years. We should look on the coronavirus pandemic as a model for the climate disaster compressed from many decades into, at most, a few years.
Granddaddy,I think that is a wonderful idea. I have been having the similar thoughts, though I never thought of submitting a piece to the Times.One positive outcome of the pandemic might be this: it will place in recent human memory the disastrous consequences of not taking warning signs seriously, and hitting the brakes too late to stop a total wreck.On an individual level, the COVID-19 outbreak gives us an opportunity to internalize how our actions affect others. I was talking to a young woman on the phone last night about how the pandemic highlights this principle of Buddhist thinking. Buddhist monks are known to walk with a broom, sweeping the path in front of them to make sure they aren't crushing any insects as they proceed.While most U.S.Americans would consider this level of care crazy, we’re now confronted with a situation where an action as seemingly benign as leaving the house without a mask could be endangering the life of a passersby.
The pandemic teaches us two things. One is that rapid societal behavior change is possible when people and government align on what constitutes "common good." The other are the disastrous consequences of waiting too long to make those changes.We are willing to shut businesses, stay home, and bear significant economic hardship when we see those around us sick and dying. Yet we aren't willing to make such sacrifices in the name of Earth’s wildlife and ecosystems, or even the lives and livelihoods of future human generations.It doesn’t matter what experts tell us. Our collective definition of "common good" doesn't change when we are told something, it changes when we feel something. If we could feel even a sliver of the immense suffering caused by climate change, flights would be grounded and metropolises shuttered until humans found a way to run their economy sustainably.Eventually the climate disaster will be actively destroying human lives with a ferocity and persistence that will make the pandemic of 2020 look like a picnic. If we wait until then to change, our legacy as a species will already be doomed. It would be better if we could update our conception of “common good” today.