When I was growing up in New York, by the end of summer, by the last week of August, we had to wear jackets in the evenings as it got colder, and a few trees began to turn to the colors of autumn. Today, we don’t need coats until October, and the trees are green until mid-November. We did this. Through overpopulation and squandering resources, through selfishness and greed, through a willingness to turn away from the truth, we are all the cause of this harm. It is bad and there is a price to be paid.
Not a day goes by without some ghastly headline regarding the environment shocking the bejeezus out of me. The “Amphibians Are All but Gone” one headline read. “Bee Populations in Massive Decline” read another, and “Bumblebees, an Extinction-level Event” were just a small sampling of those headlines.
The news is dire. A ten year study reported in Nature concludes that 90% of the worlds large fishes are gone; what remains is disappearing at alarming rates. Insect populations are disappearing at the rate of 1% per year. ONE PERCENT PER YEAR! Does losing 27% of the world’s insect populations since 1990 sound like a three-alarm fire? You bet it does. In the last fifty years, 30% of all birds have disappeared from the United States.
We’ve paved over 2.1% of the total surface area of the United States so far. We flood valleys and construct dams to change the course of rivers. We plow pesticides into farmland and spray chemicals on our food crops. We pump the atmosphere full of poisons. We fill the oceans with plastics. We decimate our wild animal habitats.
We can expect the extinction of fifty percent of all animal species by the end of the century. That translates to ninety-five species per day, every day until the year 2100. On average, NINETY-FIVE SPECIES GO EXTINCT EVERY DAY. They cease to be. They are no more. There is no museum, no zoo, no farm, no depository, no seed bank, nor library that can store for us that which we are losing forever. There have been warnings since the 1970s, but do we listen? No.
There was a shocking photograph of scores of mountaineers standing single-file waiting their turn to scale the last few meters of Mt. Everest, too many for the mountain to accommodate safely. Think about that. If at the end of the earth was this overcrowded, imagine what was happening on Main Street.
“Something must be done,” you shout. “Our entire planet is dying!”
So one day you stand up on a park bench and shout for everyone to hear, “People, would you please stop what you’re doing. Would you please stop flying your planes, driving your trucks and your cars, and filling your busses; would you please stop the trains, and dock the ships.”
Still speaking to the crowd, you continue in your loudest voice, “If you are not a firefighter, or a police officer, or a nurse or a doctor, stop what you are doing. If you are not someone who cares for the sick, or not a caregiver for our elderly; if you are not responsible for growing or preparing or delivering food, stop what you are doing now.”
Someone from the crowd shouts back, “Why? Why should we stop?”
You reply, trying to sound your most grownup, “Because we’ve screwed up everything. We’ve nearly killed the planet, and if we don’t change what we’re doing immediately, the entire planet dies. And, we die along with it.” Wow.
Now imagine the entire world, at that moment, while you’re standing on that park bench, decides YES, we do need to stop everything we’re doing, to reverse the course that things have been taking.
The plan is simple. First, stop everything. No planes, no trains, and no automobiles for any but the very most essential reason may travel. Tourists would all have to go home. Cruise ships would have to cease.
Everyone would have to take a break from their usual routine. Students all over the world would have to end their school year suddenly. All but essential workers would have to stay home. If you didn’t supply food or essential services, then your job was expendable.
We all hoped that if we worked hard and cooperated, there was still a chance we could avoid disaster. But we would have to act in a big way and, possibly, for a few years. Unless we gave it a sufficient amount of time to work, all of these plans would not make a difference.
Do you remember when the entire world decided to stop what it was doing and started to behave responsibly? No? That’s right. We never did until now.
The world never came together. We did come close once. At one point, the entire planet, except for the fossil fuel industry in the United States and the Middle East, signed the Paris Climate Agreement to fight climate change. Without the United States (which played such a significant role in world affairs then), the world would go on to make substantive changes regarding climate change. But the world never wholly came together as one to fight a united battle until now.
Coronavirus may have done something for us that we were unable to do for ourselves. Coronavirus got us to work collectively – for different reasons surely – but the entire world has stopped.
Air travel has ceased. Tourism has stopped. Restaurants, theaters, sporting events, conferences, sales, and meetings have all stopped. Driving in cars is infrequent now. Few go to work; none go to school.
If we had planned to do this in response to the emergency of this planet, it couldn’t have been more coordinated. Of course, it’s for a different reason, and hundreds of thousands of innocent people are dying, but in just a few short weeks, we see the course of events changing, dramatically and on a global scale.
We have this chance to do the right thing and create a better outcome, or not. If we squander this reprieve, there will be no one to blame but ourselves. Out of the horror of the coronavirus pandemic might be our salvation. We cannot allow selfish, myopic interests to squander this opportunity.