The first crisis point of the COVID-19 disaster was figuring out how to respond, after being caught flat-footed, to the immediate health threat. Now that the death curve in many places has begun to flatten and the scope of economic disaster is hitting home, we are approaching crisis point two, which is all about how we move toward “reopening” the economy.
In the next weeks, as the economic pain and fear increases, the clamor to “get back to normal” is going to ramp up. Some politicians, sensing political opportunity, are already stoking that foment. The outcry for normalcy will certainly gain momentum.
The point that must be recognized and discussed, that begs our attention, is the fact that “normal” was killing us.
Most of our politicians and the for-profit media portray the economic disaster we are currently facing as strictly Covid-caused. It’s not. For many, many Americans the “normal” economy was already broken long before the first patients fell ill. C-19 is merely revealing fundamental flaws in societal and economic norms that have been eroding upward mobility, impoverishing entire communities and devastating the environment.
Before the onset of the pandemic more than fifty percent of all Americans were living paycheck to paycheck with little or no savings. In other words more than half of us were already living below or near the poverty line – half! Most at that marginal level were working long hours and multiple jobs just to pay monthly expenses, stay slightly above water and do their part to keep the economy growing. You could certainly make the argument the economy wasn’t really working for them; rather they were working their hearts out to feed the status quo economy.
At the same time, Income inequality in the U.S. was off the charts. Over the past fifty years, the highest earning twenty percent of households have steadily brought in a greater portion of overall income in the country. In 2018, the top twenty percent captured more than half of all income in the country. Income inequality in the U.S. is higher than any other G-7 country including the UK, Japan, Italy, Canada, Germany and France. Now more than ever before achieving the American Dream depends upon your zip code. Due to imbedded biases toward the wealthy and privileged, “upward mobility” in this country is constrained, as never before, by income, race, and where we currently live. We have accepted as normal a Robin Hood society, in which wealth is systematically distributed upward from the poor to the rich.
Meanwhile, this same economic system that was failing millions of Americans, relied upon chewing up natural resources and ecosystems at a relentless, rapacious pace. The large-scale sacrifice of environmental health for economic growth was also accepted as normal. It should serve as a stunning existential wake-up call that the only real winner in the COVID-19 crisis at this point is the planet. Air pollution is down; climate change emissions have dropped precipitously; water pollution is down. Even wildlife trafficking and consumption is down. All of this is happening because we’ve been forced to push pause on an economic system that is fundamentally unsustainable in that it grows by destroying natural systems and our planetary life support structures.
Here’s yet another aspect of normal that should give us serious pause. COVID-19 shows that our status quo economic system is devastatingly fragile. For the massive numbers of people at or near the poverty line loss of a job means immediate crisis. The public support programs being pushed out now, while essential, are adding to a level of national debt already unprecedented and which we have no real idea how to deal with. In fact, the bulk of economic growth over the past couple of decades has largely been debt driven, and that was viewed as normal. Add to this, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry stopped manufacturing antibiotics because they don’t turn as much profit as other, less universally necessary drugs; we now get 97 of our antibiotics from China. Meanwhile Big Pharma, artificially hikes rates of certain life-saving drugs and, like big Oil, gobbles up millions in federal subsidies each year. Our seemingly robust U.S. economy was a house made of cards and COVID-19 blew in a mighty wind. It was a stress test for our current economic system and the system failed; this economy of, by and for the ultra-wealthy was eviscerated by a virus.
In a powerful cautionary tale, remember that after the great recession of 2008, for the most part, we did just go back to normal; we got the economic engine churning again and through hard labor, escalating environmental destruction, propping up Wall Street and the finance industry, blowing open oil and gas drilling, and mushrooming the chasm between the ultra-wealthy and all the rest of us. And, well, that led us to where we are today.
Just because a thing is normal doesn’t mean it’s good.
We have before us a decision of epic magnitude. We can let the discomfort and fear overwhelm us and put all of our energy into getting things back to the way they were, or, we can take a stand for creating a new normal. This is the biggest challenge and opportunity of our era.
Right now, as we are still, mostly, in this abnormal space of relative stillness, with life-as-we-have-known-it on pause, is the perfect time to ask what would we like “normal” to look like?
What kind of work would we like to do?
How much would we like to work?
Do we really need to drive to work everyday?
What kind of businesses would we like to see in our community?
How and how much would we like to travel?
Are we really OK with so much wealth in the hands of so few?
Are we really OK with the ecological destruction that has been normalized?
What actually makes us happy?
It is so critically important to remember the economy is not an act of God or a force of Nature. It is a human-made construct. We invented it and groom and redirect it all the time. That means we can reinvent it, now.
Let’s not waste this crisis. Let’s not let all the lives and livelihoods lost just be collateral damage of a broken system but rather the impetus to create anew a world that works better for all of us.
We need a new normal and there has never been a better chance to create one.
So this is the week of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and it is historic in many ways. I’ll be posting about various aspects all week, but today the focus is on the historic eighth anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf Coast, the biggest single event environmental disaster in U.S. history. The ecosystem and the region still have not recovered.
Today, also, for the first time in history, oil futures went negative, meaning traders who buy and sell oil were paying others to take the stuff off their hands. The knee-jerk reaction is to blame this on COVID-19 and the resulting reduction in driving, air travel, etc. as most of us are adhering to the stay at home recommendations. But this problem was set up long before C-19. Due to fracking, massive subsidization of the oil industry and geopolitics there was a world glut of oil long before the pandemic. In fact, well before the onset of the pandemic, the oil industry in the U.S. was running into challenges finding storage space. And yet, as the pandemic spread, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada and Brazil continued to drill and pump.
And now, the oil industry and those who invest in it are panicked and clamoring for governmental bail-outs. Many of these folks are likely those who worship at the altar of neoclassical economics which espouses the absolute wisdom of the free market. Well, if free market is what they want, here they go. The market is flooded, demand is down and prices are below zero. Suck it up snowflakes, suffer your losses, rest on your wealth rather than government bailouts and stop drilling. The real economic losers here will be the thousands of on-the-ground oil industry workers who will now be laid off due to mismanagement by their industry decision-makers.
Back in 2010, I traveled to the Gulf Coast to witness and report on the devastating oil spill and, as possible, to help out where I could. I held a woman who collapsed in my arms outside a food bank. I spoke with fishermen who were unsure when or if they would ever be able to restart their businesses and din’t know how they were going to feed their families. I listened as a smiling clean up consultant for BP spun a tale about how the beaches would be much better than before the spill due to all the chemical and mechanical sand washing.
I also worked to help with environmental protection. One of the most profound experiences was relocating a nest of sea turtle eggs from an oil-covered beach.
Forty-two nights earlier, a three foot wide loggerhead turtle had dragged herself up onto the sand, labored to dig a flat, deep, round hole and deposited into it 122 ping-pong ball sized eggs. She then covered the nest and returned to the oiled water.
Over time the eggs had hardened and due to the oil spill they had to be moved from the perfectly prepared nest. Kneeling beside the nest, wearing surgical gloves to protect himself from oil and dispersants, the lead wildlife rehab worker began using his large hands, like turtle flippers, to excavate the nest. After ten minutes of gentle digging and clearing, the first eggs were unearthed, bright white orbs against the dark sand. Over the next hour and a half each egg was carefully lifted and placed into one of three small Styrofoam coolers.
One of the big unknowns in the unprecedented egg relocation effort was how it would effect the homing instinct. At about 15 years of age, the female sea turtles reach sexual maturity, mate and head toward the very beach upon which they had been hatched years before. The exact method of their extraordinary homing beacon is not thoroughly understood. There was no way to know if the hatchlings that survived the relocation project would know how to return to the Gulf Shores region. As the volunteers placed them into the nest boxes the locals softly chanted, “Gulf Shores. Gulf Shores. Come back little ones.” They had tears in their eyes, so did I.
Filled with eggs, the boxes were strapped to frames by shock-absorbing rubber bungee cords. Two people carried each box toward an awaiting vehicle. Tourists walked along with us watching the process. A powerful sense of responsibility and awe washed over me. I held in my hands 42 members of a species that was disappearing from the Earth. I walked very carefully and held very tightly to my precious cargo.
To this day I have no idea if any of those turtles survived or made it back to their birth beach.
The COVID-19 crisis is a reminder that humanity is inextricably connected to one another and the other species that share this planet with us. As the virus tears across the globe, nations are helping other nations and states helping other states. This is both an act of compassion and wise self-interest since the virus is no respecter of race, walls or national borders. Conflicts between nations have fallen into the background as we gather around a common enemy. It’s a bit as if space aliens have shown up and all the sudden we have a bigger problem than fighting with one another.
At the local level, there is an incredible outpouring of compassion and huge uptick in reaching out to and helping our neighbors. Being suddenly shut off from one another we realize how much we actually value other members of our community. I even heard a BBC report that in some places in Africa gangsters have switched from distributing drugs to distributing food in neighborhoods they normally terrorize.
If we’re lucky, and smart, some of these new ways of being with and toward one another will stick once we’ve made it to the other side of this particular global crisis.
There’s another layer of connectedness this pandemic reveals and that is the direct connection between humans, other species and the planet that sustains us all. Scientists now believe COVID-19 originated in Wuhan China from bats that transferred the virus to another species that then transferred it to humans. The place this likely happened is a place of commerce called a “wet market” because live animals are held there, often stacked on top of each other, to be purchased for human consumption. The most probable intermediary host was a pangolin, otherwise known as a scaly anteater. The pangolin is consumed in many Asian countries for its meat and the scales are consumed for their “medicinal value” believed to cure such maladies as excessive nervousness, excessive crying in children, cancer and sluggish breast milk production in women. The scales are also used to make everything from jewelry to high-end cowboy boots. Pangolins are now the most trafficked wild animal in the world and are critically endangered.
Wet markets are places of torture and terror. Wild and domesticated animals are kept in horrific conditions until selected for slaughter. The cat-sized pangolins are often force fed gravel to increase their weight and then kept balled up hanging or piled in nets. It might not be politically correct to say so, but the practice of consuming wild species due to some myth that it will cure your ills or make you more sexually potent is immoral. Period.
But let’s not fool ourselves that these horrendous and dangerous practices only occur in some far off place. As horrific as wet markets are, they really are no worse than commercial factory farms in the West. Those places are equal in terms of terrible conditions, suffering and terror (and by the way, I’m an old farm girl – I’ve seen it first hand). They are also equally dangerous to human health. The deadly flu pandemic of 1918 is believed to have originated in a massive chicken farm in Kansas. The swine flu pandemic originated in a crowded factory pig farm in Veracruz Mexico.
Forcing animals to live their lives in the torturous conditions inherent to factory farms is immoral. Period. It’s also dangerous to human health.
Not only are these animal factories the original source of pandemic diseases, but they also greatly imperil the people who work in them and the surrounding communities. Right now COVID-19 infections are exploding in these plants and they are finally being forced to shut down. The Smithfield Foods Meatpacking Plant in Sioux Falls Idaho alone is now one of the leading hotspots for infection in the United States. Half of Idaho’s total infections are in workers from that one plant.
To get a peak at the magnitude of this issue, consider this truly staggering current condition. According to a landmark 2018 study by the National Academy of Sciences, by weight humans and our livestock species now make up 96 percent of all mammal life on the planet. Humans ourselves account for about 36 percent of the biomass of all mammals and our domesticated livestock, mostly cows and pigs, account for the other 60 percent. This means that human expansion and our mass cultivation of livestock has reduced wild mammals to only 4 percent of all mammalian life on Earth. Similarly, the biomass of poultry is about three times higher than that of wild birds. This is a profound reshaping of the composition of living creatures on our planet. We tell children’s stories filled with lions and deer and frogs and hedgehogs but a more accurate depiction would be stories populated with caged cows, pigs and chickens. Is this really how we want our world to look and function?
One of the many profound learning opportunities the coronavirus is presenting is rethinking our relationship to animals, particularly those we “harvest” for food, materials and so-called medicines — the billions of creatures every year that suffer to meet the demand of human consumption at massive scale.
Perhaps there is an opportunity here to repair the bond we share with so many of the creatures that co-inhabit our world. Perhaps these pandemics are the pigs and the pangolins fighting back, Nature saying no more. If we’re lucky, and smart, we’ll listen.
We are after all inextricably connected to one another whether we realize it or not. The root of the word crisis traces back to the Greek word meaning “to decide,” many monumental decision points are before us at this historic time.