The rocky outcrops of the North Hills in Los Angeles County were fiery orange, drenched in the sun. Closer than I could remember, the seven-thousand-foot high ridges of the Angeles Crest, which ringed much of the urban basin, rose abruptly, shaped like saddles.
An environmentalist all of my life and director of a nonprofit group that is fighting to turn off the spigot of toxins that the chemical industry pours into our bodies, I was witnessing a return to Eden. Or, perhaps, more to the point, I felt much like a biblical figure gazing down upon the promised land but, somehow, with the feeling I would never reach it.
More locals piled out from their cars, lured by the scene unfolding before their eyes.
“LA don’t feel like LA,” I overheard a man in mirrored sunglasses say almost breathlessly.
April 23. Day 34 of the California shutdown.
A few days earlier, Millennials and Gen Zers of the heavily industrialized northern Punjab region of India, which was locked down, began sharing tweets that they could stand on their balconies and see the Himalayas, the tallest mountain range on earth, for the first time ever.
In Delhi, environmentalist and politician Dr. Shashi Tharoor was enthralled. Usually, the air-quality index (AQI) of this city of some thirty-million persons is around an “unhealthy” 200.
“Today the typical Delhi AQI hovers around 30 and one blissful afternoon, after a spurt of rain, it dropped to 7. Seven. In Delhi! Pure joy!” the activist enthused.
The skies are clearing over Manila, Milan, and Manhattan. An estimated 18 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions occurred between early February and mid-March in China, according to the climate-change website CarbonBrief. Emissions have dropped throughout the European Union and US, says the International Energy Agency.
We’ve all been touched by the tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic. It is nothing anybody could have wished for. This is not the way environmentalists wanted to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.
Yet, here is this strange enigma that was handed to us, melting from our yearning fingertips.
Here is what the earth could be like if we solved our largest environmental issues. We’ve glimpsed how quickly the planet begins healing. Was it only a dream?
Like the melting polar ice caps, this dream won’t last. As I write, nearly all states have begun to open back up. China is stoking its industrial ovens. Axios reports global greenhouse-gas emissions are bound to “bounce back.” The bodies have hardly been buried and mourning barely begun. The world is moving on.
But to where and what future? It’s ours to choose. Here’s what we need to have learned from COVID-19 to prevent our own eco-suicide:
1. ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH IS EVERYTHING
What has the coronavirus pandemic been if not a textbook example of the world breaking every rule and principle of environmental health? We have done too little to stop the global trafficking in the illegal wildlife trade. China failed to implement fundamental disease-prevention oversight and workplace hygiene.
At the same time, in the months leading up to the pandemic, the US slashed the number of public-health experts working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention within China.
2. NATURE ABUSE IS A BOOMERANG
A full year before the pandemic, scientists in the February 2019 issue of the journal Viruses, a peer-reviewed publication, noted, “Horseshoe bats are the reservoir of SARS-CoV… In addition to the interactions among various bat species themselves, bat-animal and bat-human interactions, such as the presence of live bats in wildlife wet markets and restaurants in Southern China, are important for interspecies transmission of CoVs and may lead to devastating global outbreaks.”
International agencies and wildlife groups have pressured China for decades to adopt legislation forbidding the hunting of bats and sale of their meat following the early 2000s SARS outbreak. Finally, belatedly, in January 2020, China announced a ban on all wildlife trade including bat meat. Yet, the Washington Post notes the ban is only “until [the] coronavirus epidemic is eliminated.”
Another theory of how the coronavirus was transmitted to humans is that it came to us via pangolins (long-nosed anteaters) whose keratin-rich scales are prized in traditional Chinese medicine and their flesh considered a culinary delicacy in both China and Vietnam. All eight pangolin species are protected under national and international laws, and two are listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.
Yet, the pangolin is also the most trafficked non-human mammal in the world. Two record-breaking seizures in the space of a week occurred in April 2019 when Singapore authorities seized 28.2 tons of scales from an estimated 72,000 poached pangolins killed in Nigeria.
As we continue to ravage habitats of exotic species and the global community relaxes or fails to enact regulations meant to protect wildlife, the risk for new biological pandemics will continue to escalate.
3. SCIENTIFIC LITERACY MATTERS
It is untrue, as the president claims, that the coronavirus pandemic was an unpredictable event. Top experts like Dr. Luciana Borio, President Donald J. Trump’s medical and biodefense preparedness adviser at the NSC, warned the nation in a May 2018 forum at Emory University that a flu pandemic was our number-one health-security threat.
Yet, Dr. Borio left the White House in 2019, following the exits of other White House bio-preparedness experts after the office of pandemic preparedness, within the National Security Council, was dismantled. We were caught flat-footed.
If the motto in the AIDS crisis was silence equals death then the new motto today is scientific literacy means life.
4. ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE SAVES COMMUNITIES
So many of us have refused during the pandemic to accept laissez-faire Darwinism as if we were in a Jack London survival story where the old and weak, the poor, and people of color can be cast aside into the wilderness.
The culture of our society has to shift to continue to care for the other. We have to if we intend to prevent COVID-19’s re-emergence or another future pandemic. I hope we come to see our exposure to other environmental toxins that cause cancer and other health effects also unites us.
5. POLLUTION BOOSTS SPREAD
Viruses hitch rides on air pollutants. A study from the Società Italiana di Medicina Ambientale (SIMA) says spread of the coronavirus particles in Northern Italy is linked to air pollution. Particulate matter (PM) exercises a carrier (or boost) action along with the virus, say the study authors.
In the US, small increases in exposure to PM led to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate too. “Our results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis,” say the Harvard researchers who conducted the US study.
6. ‘REVENGE’ POLLUTION IS COMING
So you ask: what is “revenge pollution”? I’ve read articles using this phrase yet without defining it; what it means is that the pandemic was provoked by our abusive behavior in our relationship to the planet.
Now that humans have gained a more equal footing with the virus during its momentary lull and we are losing our restraints, instead of respecting nature, we are going to drill the land with even more vengeance to make-up for lost time. That is not love. It is exploitation.
China, which produces 30 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas pollution, is going to ramp up fossil-fuel production. President Xi Jinping will subsidize failing fossil-fuel industries, especially the most highly polluting ones such as cement, steel, and coal. Factories will run at maximum profit with little regard for the environment.
Powerful forces in the US will be shifting our attention away from environmental concerns to make up for lost dollars. It will take a strong environmental-health president in the US and cooperation with global allies to put the restraints back on ourselves and China without harming the economy.
7. PROGRESS DEPENDS ON VIRTUE
Environmental “virtues,” like protecting wildlife and enforcing public hygiene, transcend religions, cultures, territories, and nations. These standards need to be reinforced by a virtuous government with global influence and reach.
Our individual efforts count too, but many of us have become discouraged. We think we’re too small to make a difference or see ourselves as hypocrites, far from perfect. The environmental movement has largely eschewed individual responsibility and shifted the burden to government.
Michael Grunwald, writing in Politico, reminds us,“Tiny individual drops… can buy humanity time before the bucket overflows.”
We can turn off the spigot of toxic pollution and be more careful about the products we buy, finding we can get by with less needless consumerism. We can adapt our behaviors, such as teleconferencing, virtual conferences and working at home, to reduce fuel consumption.
8. THE EARTH SPEAKS
The earth speaks. That is what happened with COVID-19. But why did so many of us miss the warning signs until almost five-million persons were infected?
Are we going to wait until southern Florida is underwater until we hear the earth speak again?
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Photo Credit: fotoVoyager on iStock.