How to protect nature during uncertain times

Opportunity, not opportunism.

 

Clearcutting is the dominant form of logging on private industrial timber lands and state forest land in Oregon.

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Peering over the ramparts of our quarantined homes — at the disembodied faces of online happy hours, through the parade of masks in grocery stores, beyond the surge tents and makeshift morgues — we easily miss the frenzy of activity transforming our society.

This past month has seen state and local governments loosen controls on coal plants, relax enforcement of environmental regulations, and initiate projects from Alaska to South Dakota that have mostly escaped public scrutiny. The climate discussion has virtually disappeared from the airwaves. Environmental issues may feel less important with nearly 1.5 million COVID-19 cases in the country and an unemployment rate heading towards 20%, but let’s not forget our planet in this time of crisis. If we filter out the non-pandemic world, we become more vulnerable to environmental opportunism.

There is a rising danger that hawkish opportunists will swoop in and co-opt environmental policy to promote their own interests. During a recent emergency meeting ostensibly about the pandemic, for example, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority circumvented normal procedure and appropriated $35 million to build a road to the Ambler Mine. Critics allege that the pandemic was used to rubber-stamp the project. 

At the same time, lockdowns and restrictions have stifled consumption, reduced oil extraction, and dropped global pollution. While oil markets collapse, the solar industry appears to be flourishing. Even nature is taking advantage of the new normal, resuming its place in public spaces.

Now, more than ever, we should pivot towards a sustainable, resilient future.

On the other hand, opportunism cuts both ways. More than a few environmentalists have taken solace in the recent return of nature. Yet these developments cannot be understood as a blanket good. No one in the environmental community should be cheering this kind of change. If we’re not careful, environmental opportunism could rapidly overwhelm the many advances we’ve made over a century of progress. Now, more than ever, we should pivot towards a sustainable, resilient future.

Four self-reinforcing problems allow opportunism to crowd out environmental considerations:

When states fail, natural resources are often sold off to the highest bidder. 

Resource exploitation is at least one consequence of failing states and beleaguered economies. The moment that material shortfalls enter the picture — whether of toilet paper, oil or food —the environment ceases to be merely the place in which we live and rapidly becomes a repository of resources. In response, we seek to address our material shortfalls by dredging out new resources — logging, mining and planting our way to prosperity. 

This is a common response in the wake of wars and droughts. Examples of resource exploitation exacerbated by unrest, distraction and power vacuums are legion: Blood diamonds and oil fields from Africa to South America tell the tale. But this pandemic is different. We already have material resources. What we lack are well-established social distancing and shifting consumption practices.

When natural resources go, environmental problems are made worse. 

As forests are cleared to sell cheap lumber, as oil is pumped and sold to boost the economy, as dirt is plowed and water is rerouted to plant more crops, the natural world endures greater stresses. Climate change threatens to amplify environmental damage from hurricanes, heat waves, floods and fires.

Our response to COVID-19 will amplify both environmental and human tragedy.  In a world with shifting supply chains and untested social practices, many are likely to become made more vulnerable to environmental stressors. The cascading environmental impacts of natural resource depletion leave both ecosystems and human systems in a fragile state. 

When environmental problems are worsened, social problems are worsened.

As ecosystems become more fragile, environmental damage occurs with increasing frequency, and disasters strike with renewed force. Everything will have to be addressed within the new bounds of artificially induced scarcity. Last month, several states had to deal with a string of tornadoes that further stressed emergency response and the supply chain. 

Existing health-care systems will continue to be pushed well beyond their limits by social distancing protocols. As in the past, the social burdens will be disproportionately borne by the less well-off. COVID-19 distancing protocols amplify harm across socioeconomic lines, raising the prospect of civil unrest and political upheaval. While the wealthy can hunker in their suburban homes, the poor are stacked on top of one another in favelas and slums, forced to endure periods of lockdown with no guarantee of safety or means of promoting their own well-being.  

When social problems are made worse, opportunism becomes more viable.

As pollution, degradation and unencumbered development impact human well-being, driving a wedge between rich and poor, between communities and between humans and nature, people start looking for individual solutions to their problems. In effect, they are driven toward opportunism — toward self-preservation in the face of uncertainty. This response then becomes both the symptom of a failing democracy and the mechanism by which we push our society closer to failure. Wash, rinse, repeat.

A family enjoys a forest walk near Lake Oswego, Oregon.
IT IS STILL POSSIBLE to transform opportunism into opportunity. Not only is it OK to keep talking about the environment, it’s important. We should. The way out of this self-reinforcing cycle is to understand that environmental problems and social disruption are intricately linked. COVID-19 is a rapidly spreading viral infection that will alter how we interact with our fellow humans and the natural world. Yet it is not a threat to the material state of affairs in which these relationships take place. If we fail to worry about and protect the environment now, our health, economic and social woes will only grow. 

We can take our sweatpants-bedecked bodies to our backyards to once again breathe clean air.

We have an opportunity to reconnect with our communities in new and healthier ways. We can learn to live in and with nature and take up game-playing and exercise and gardening and community-building. We can revel in the deer roaming New York City, the mountain lions returning to Boulder, Colorado. We can take our sweatpants-bedecked bodies to our backyards to once again breathe clean air. In times of crisis, it is easy to neglect other, less-pressing issues. It feels callous to think of anything else. But old problems don’t go away during a crisis. 

We have an opportunity to create a more resilient world. Choosing this path — the path of opportunity over opportunism — can prevent this crisis from being any worse than it is, and can help buffer us against the next us. Crisis blinds us to less-immediate problems, but we still need a positive vision for the future. Clean air, clean water, and care for our environment and for each other, are signposts on the road to sustainability. 

 Alex Lee is assistant professor in the Institute for Culture and Environment at Alaska Pacific University. 

Ben Hale is associate professor in the Environmental Studies Program and Philosophy Department at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the author of The Wild and the Wicked: On Nature and Human Nature (MIT Press, 2016).

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