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.

As a service to readers, High Country News has removed the paywall from all COVID-19 stories. Please consider supporting our work by donatingsubscribing or sending us story ideas.

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).

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac