Updated: May 27
In a strange way, the corona virus feels like end times. It is silent proof of our globalized, shrinking world. Originating in China, it has taken just a few short months to spread across the globe. What happens on one side of the world impacts the functioning on the other, we see this now clearly in the face of the Corona virus pandemic. But the same principle has actually been playing out everyday in global climate change. The northern hemisphere, especially the United States, has spent the past 200 years spewing fossil fuel emissions into the atmosphere, this is causing melting glacial ice in the north and south poles, this is raising sea levels and causing the disappearance of small island nations in the Pacific. China is industrializing, their smog flies on global atmospheric currents and settles on the California coastline. What I do has an impact on others. We are not isolated beings, and people are intuitively understanding this as they choose to stay at home in case they might be carrying the virus unknowingly, and in case they come into contact with someone who is of higher risk. This to me seems like an act of care for our neighbors.
Those who are young and healthy, which is the vast majority of San Franciscans, are not facing extreme risk. By and large, we are not the ones who would die, and yet people understand that they could be carriers, even if they don’t have symptoms and even if they are not afraid of being laid up in bed with the flu for a few days. This is because we understand what the implications could be if we are not careful and we understand that we can all do our part. What we are being told to do is relatively simple, wash your hands, don’t touch your face, try not to touch others. Staying away from groups has much larger implications for how we work, how we play and how we educate ourselves and each other, things are slowing down, things are stopping, things are moving online, and largely, this has happened before authorities have mandated it. We are doing it not just for our own good but for the good of the whole. This is beautiful, this is not selfish, this is the opposite of the cynical, common, assertion that humans are purely motivated by our own self interest, and I see it as proof that when given the information, people really can drastically change their lifestyles, and quickly, for the good of all of us.
In San Francisco the cases of infection appear to be higher than other parts of the country. There could be many reasons for this. A couple I have heard is that San Francisco is an international hub with conferences and convergences happening daily, increasing the likelihood that someone would inadvertently bring the virus with them from another country, we are densely populated, and we also have a high homeless population. Our homeless neighbors are at especially high risk because they do not have access to sanitation, which has the duo effect of weakening the immune system and preventing them from washing themselves clean of potential germs on their bodies and clothes. The City is taking measures to set up temporary housing for infected people who do not have access to housing. The Presidio has a partnership agreement with the city in the face of emergency and is offering space for mobile homes for this purpose. We are coming together. We are not demonizing or marginalizing or pushing away. We are helping each other.
The corona virus is an invisible threat, though we are shown footage of its impacts in other parts of the world and similar to climate change, excess carbon in the atmosphere is an invisible threat whose impacts we see at home and abroad. Again I see parallels with this other global crisis. The fact that from the outset of the corona virus, an invisible menace, people began taking voluntary precautions, tells me that we can make changes for other reasons too. In the case of climate change, we are being told in increasing alarming language by scientists, that we absolutely must drastically overhaul our economic system in order to decrease carbon emissions and keep the globe from warming more than 1.5 degrees celsius. We must take measures that will affect everyone and we have about ten years to do it. This timeline and the scale of the change needed does not invoke confidence. Routinely, I hear furry, despair and fear. Mostly, I feel a collective apathy and cognitive dissonance, as though the future were already written. Well it isn’t, and what watching the corona virus and people’s voluntary response to it is showing me, is that the average person really is willing to make big changes if they understand why they have to make changes, and they understand what it is that they have to do. Local government, institutions and neighbors can make it easier for us to make these changes.
This is what I have imagined when I think of end times. I’ve imagined that because of necessity, we would actually talk to our neighbor, we would understand that more sick people around us, whether they are housed or not, means that even more people can get sick. This means we need safe space for them. This virus is both showing our capacity for adaptation, for coming together and for taking life changing selfless acts for the benefit of the whole, as it exposes gross moral weaknesses in our society, from normalizing people sleeping on streets, to unequal access to adequate health care, to a nationalistifc, white supremacist cultural underbelly, led by a President who prefers calling the corona virus the “Chinese Virus” and refuses to accept the World Health Organizations testing kits.
We actually are all one and we have to act like it. This means taking care not to infect others, it also means taking the drastic steps necessary to turn this economic machine fueled by extraction of resources and desecration of the earth and her peoples, around and refocusing it on the benefit of the planet, her life forms and all of her peoples. What the past two weeks of this spreading pandemic is showing me, is that we can and do change when we understand why we must and we understand how to do it. Those who say it is just human nature and blames our daily habits for the ever warming planet, are simply buttressing the system that is set up on overconsumption and extraction. It is allowing ourselves to believe this dark view of humanity that is partly to blame. What the collective response, made up of everyday people is showing me, is that human nature also has the capacity to drastically shift our daily habits, quickly, largely voluntarily and in the interest of others and of the whole. It is the powerful minority whose personal identity, sense of self worth and whose tangible personal wealth is tied up in keeping things the way they are that need to be discredited. As we discredit them, we also offer the alternative. In the case of this pandemic, alternatives are being offered. Instead of a hug, we have the elbow bump. The alternative to large indoor gatherings, is a walk outdoors and time for self reflection.
As we move through this new virus and its global spread, we can take time to be in nature and connect with our humanity that is connected to those in China and Iran, in Italy and Spain, as we connect to the vast living being that is this earth. It is acting from this sense of connection that will change the tide of our economy away from destruction for the profit of a few and towards restoration and plenty for all.
On Mount Sutro you can find the quiet crevices to ponder and you can discover the ways that you cherish this earth. Then you can act on that by helping to create connectivity, through uncovering lost trails, by pulling weeds, planting native plants and increasing habitat for wildlife. This act of restoration is an act of love for our earth and for yourself, as a part of this earth. The act of restoration also heals the local carbon cycle by restoring functioning ecological systems. Functioning ecosystems sequester and store carbon at higher rates than degraded ones. I love to imagine the day, in the not too distant future, when the City of San Francisco, the state of California, the American government and the globe invest in these literally, life giving activities. Ecosystem restoration creates more life immediately and it also, on a grand scale can help to restore the carbon cycle globally. This is one of the many alternatives to provide.
The unprecedented lifestyle changes in response to the corona virus I am seeing are showing a formula, which is: let people know WHAT the problem is, let them know WHY they need to make changes, show them HOW to do it. In the context of climate change, the WHAT is that global that emissions from an extractive economy is causing the earth to warm. The WHY we have to make deep changes is that society as we know it or will collapse in our lifetimes if we don’t. Boiled down to its essence, here is the WHAT to do: invest in the activities that create life, from health care to education, healthy human transport like biking and walking, to ecosystem restoration. Continue doing the things that don’t hurt, like renewable energies and public transportation, smart city planning and much of our service industry. Stop doing the things that destroy, like overconsumption beyond the capacity of the resource to regenerate, war and social stratification that excuses human to human exploitation. In your day to day life this might mean buying less, and it might mean spending more time outdoors healing the damage we have done.
I am seeing that we can change the way we do things, and we can do this voluntarily. What is needed is already happening, we need to dream together and make that dream real. We are more powerful, adaptive and resilient then we give ourselves credit for. The corona virus is showing us this.