Environmental perspectives in quarantine

In which Andrea diverts from her usual nature writing to drag you into the rabbit hole of neoliberalism and out the other side. Proceed at your own risk.

There have been a lot of stories bouncing around the internet about how the COVID-19 pandemic has actually been good for the environment. Claims of dolphins returning to the canals of Venice, Italy and elephants wandering through Yunnan, China, as nature reclaims its territory. Unfortunately, most of these claims have been proven false, which is unfortunate, because there is some truth to the positive environmental impacts of the industrialized world coming to a near-screeching halt.

According to the UN, “Greenhouse gas emissions are down and air quality has gone up, as governments react to the COVID-19 pandemic,” but that by itself is not enough to correct for the environmental damage our species has done over the last several hundred years. The pandemic is actually resulting in an increase in medical and hazardous waste, and according to the  Scripps Institute of Oceanography, “…fossil fuel use would have to decline by about 10 percent around the world, and would need to be sustained for a year to show up clearly in carbon dioxide levels.”

It’s understandable that we want to see something positive come out of this sudden global chaos that we’re all witnessing, but I think it’s important to keep it in perspective.

It’s outright dangerous to fool ourselves into believing that this is some kind of quick fix for our climate.

Sadly, it’s going to take more than this. Much more. Having studied environmental issues for over a decade now, I can tell you that it’s going to require a shift in our global economics. A few months or even a year of this level of economic slow-down is not enough to “fix” the environmental damage we’ve done, even if we are seeing some clearer waterways and cleaner air at the moment. As long as the economy continues to favor unsustainable production practices, businesses, and resource extraction, we will continue to face environmental decline.

Okay, I have one more bit of depressing news for you before we take a more positive look at things.

One of the biggest revelations I had in my academic career was this: individual actions are not the way to solve the climate crisis. It’s kind of counter-intuitive, right? Since the 1970s, we’ve been told to “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” to buy green, to shop local and organic, change your light bulbs, drive less, fly less, waste less. The onus is on us.

I’m here to tell you that’s… well, grossly inaccurate, to put it lightly. It’s a neoliberal corporate lie. You see, despite the fact that there are over 7.5 billion people on the planet as of this writing, over 70% of our carbon emissions are coming from just 100 corporations. Another study shows that half of all carbon emissions are produced by the richest 10% of the world’s population. We can change out our light bulbs and recycle to our heart’s content, but at best, that’s only impacting an infinitesimal fraction of a percentage of the whole picture.

This article lays it out well. Basically, 20th century neoliberalism enabled increased privatization, deregulation, tax cuts and free trade deals for large corporations, allowing them to accumulate enormous profits with almost no limitations. Any challenge to these corporations’ power is shot down by the elites, resulting in the undercutting of unions and the obstruction of green policies. Generations of people have now been brought up believing that this is the way it is–or worse, this is the best way to do things–but in reality, this mindset is a more recent phenomenon in the scheme of human history, born in the early stages of capitalism and strengthened in the era of neoliberalism.

As the article puts it well, “Steeped in a culture telling us to think of ourselves as consumers instead of citizens, as self-reliant instead of interdependent, is it any wonder we deal with a systemic issue by turning in droves to ineffectual, individual efforts?”

So, long story short: what we should really be doing is holding these large corporations accountable. Boycotts, joining environmental justice and civil rights movements, supporting unions, blocking pipelines, voting in the elections, voting with our dollars in terms of what we buy and what companies we support, educating ourselves and others about which companies are ethical and responsible and which aren’t–these are just a few of the ways we can actually affect the larger system, individually and collectively.

Sooooooo, here’s the kicker.

Remember how I said individual actions aren’t the way to solve the climate crisis, and recycling and changing light bulbs will only make an infinitesimal difference?

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take individual actions. That is a reductionist misinterpretation.

It is still vitally important that we do these things, and here’s why: The choices we make on a daily basis, the products we buy, the waste we produce, the ways we move through the world all collectively have an impact. It may amount to a tiny fraction of emissions or waste reduction altogether, but it’s still something. It’s part of living ethically, mindfully, and deliberately.

As soon as you choose to stop supporting single-use plastics, for example, you are one less customer for those large corporations producing them, and you are one less contributor to the plastics waste stream. As soon as your inspire your friends and family to do the same, the movement grows. Less customers for those companies, less demand for that plastic, less plastic floating around in the Pacific. Yes, you are a tiny percentage, but you are also a part of a community–in fact, many communities–and your choices still matter.

This goes beyond plastic. The point here is to be informed about the impact you have on the world (how much you drive, what you buy, what you discard), and adjust your lifestyle accordingly. Not because you, individually, can solve the climate crisis, but because you, individually, DO have an impact on your own community, economy, and politics. Your trash still ends up in the waste stream. Your car emissions still go into the air. Your money still goes to some corporate CEO. So make a choice about how much you want to contribute to that, who you’re supporting, and what kind of movement you want to be a part of.

So, funny story: this was originally going to be a post about how quarantine life is making me a better environmentalist. I had the title picked out and everything. I was going to tell you all about how I’m using my Kula Cloth now when I pee to save toilet paper (speaking of responsible small businesses to support instead of large corporations!), and how I’m driving less and planting a garden.

But then I went down the neoliberalism rabbit hole and remembered that a lot of people still don’t realize the nuances of environmentalism and that I should probably talk a little about that. So here we are. Sorry, not sorry? 🙂

I’ll try to share something more light-hearted next time. 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *