Drawing attention during a global pandemic to the plight of air and water quality, endangered species, rising sea levels, and ecological sustainability might appear ill-timed at best, or grossly tone deaf at worst. While doctors and nurses labor under extreme conditions and away from their families, unemployment rates are skyrocketing in a frozen economy, and underappreciated workers are recognized as “essential” to our common life — though, not always compensated as such — there is no shortage of urgent crises and human needs.
Nonetheless, precisely out of concern for human flourishing, and especially on behalf of the most vulnerable members of our society, this strange and severe season of pandemic uniquely illustrates why caring for creation is as important as ever.
Through the Looking-Glass: Connected-ness in a time of Social Distancing
Less perceptible problems, or at least ones we are habituated into overlooking, have been cast into a new light under the extreme conditions of a global pandemic and physical distancing. Under ordinary conditions, we are prone to imagine our collective lives as an amalgamation of somewhat insular, self-made, and discrete individuals. But nothing quite like a pandemic illustrates that every human being is irreducibly part of a community’s ecosystem, and that we are each porous members connected in a social organism, from the homeless person to the congressional official, infant and elderly alike.
In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. argued, in the context of white moderates resisting direct action in pursuit of racial justice, that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Along a similar vein, Pope Francis’ recent homily delivered alone in the rain in St. Peter’s Square poignantly confessed our irreducible inter-relatedness to vulnerable humans and the earth, despite our corrosive delusions:
[Lord,] in this world, that you love more than we do, we have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything. Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.
In popular imagination, action on climate change tends to be categorized and dismissed as a partisan cause supported by Democrats and opposed by Republicans, but there are many nuanced exceptions. Within the Democratic party, leftists and progressives desire something like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s revolutionary “Green New Deal,” though liberals and moderates like Nancy Pelosi want far less radical, costly, or disruptive action.
Meanwhile, there are intra-Republican debates about responses to climate change, ranging from skepticism or denial, to recognition it matters but is precarious politically as harming existing industries without instant gratification, and also a few “crunchy cons” for whom environmental care is a key value.
Alas, those of us committed to the sanctity of human life or something adjacent to Catholic Social Teaching will always feel out of place in the binaries of American partisan politics. But while many are re-thinking varying aspects of our societal status quo during this time, arguably one of the most urgent aspects of our common life is our relationship to conservation and creation care, for at least three reasons.
Why Conservation Matters Now, If Ever: Vitality and Volatility
First, the quality of our air and water affects our vulnerability and readiness for future pandemics. On Thursday, March 26th, “the Environmental Protection Agency announced a sweeping relaxation of environmental rules in response to the coronavirus pandemic, allowing power plants, factories and other facilities to determine for themselves if they are able to meet legal requirements on reporting air and water pollution,” according to a New York Times report. Under the economic strain created by the virus and social distancing, such loosening of restrictions doubtlessly profits these industries and people who directly or indirectly benefit from their goods and services. But this policy will prove catastrophically harmful to the environment; it is tantamount to waiving all federal regulation of the industries directly responsible for significant portions of America’s carbon emissions.
Many poor and especially black and other minority communities suffer with asthma as a consequence of these industries, such as children in West Texas due to methane from feedyards or the oil and gas industry, while Native Americans continue to lack access to clean drinking water. As the quality of our water and air pollution worsen for even more Americans, we will become even more susceptible to future pandemics with weakened respiratory and immune systems.
Though “nature is healing” quickly became a meme on social media, nonetheless, in many cities around the world air quality has improved dramatically as a result of physical distancing. We should ask: why and how did we become habituated into assuming toxic air and pollution should taken for granted or are a cost worth enduring? At a bare minimum, this temporary reprieve in air quality unveils – as magisterially as Mount Kenya, long hidden under smog, becoming visible again from Nairobi – that we can breathe different air and share a different ecosystem when we are collectively willing to forge a different pattern of common life and forego unsustainable comforts and poisonous conveniences.
But beyond the quality of our air and water, as David Wallace-Wells writes, though COVID-19 was not itself directly caused by climate change, “the virus is a terrifying harbinger of future pandemics that will be brought about if climate change continues to so deeply destabilize the natural world: scrambling ecosystems, collapsing habitats, rewiring wildlife, and rewriting the rules that have governed all life on this planet for all of human history.” With the price of oil now fallen below zero for the first time ever, putting many out of work, will we make sacrifices to rehabilitate our economy’s environmentally unsustainable addiction to oil as a short-sighted remedy, or will we make sacrifices to re-imagine and create jobs and an economy that has a healthier long-term relationship with creation?
Second, this pandemic exposes the vulnerabilities of our disconnection from land and place. Our global economy affords us many luxuries in the West, even if our wealth and rampant consumerism sometimes involves unjust labor conditions in other countries or environmentally destructive production or transportation that we would not tolerate in our own land. A pandemic uniquely unveils the vulnerabilities of a nation becoming so dependent upon a global supply change as to no longer be self-supportable or sustainable.
As Gracy Olmstead notes, our disconnection from locally-sourced and sustainable food production in contemporary life is not only a national security problem, but also harms our human connections to the land we inhabit and people whom we share it with. If animals are reducible to bare resources, earth to extractable raw materials, and we are only willing or able to imagine only short-term economic growth, such habits mean we have lost our own humanity in the present; fantasies of limitless growth and ever-increasing consumption in a finite world might well cost us our literal lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren in the future. According to the official 2018 National Climate Assessment by the United States government, climate change is already causing severe droughts, floods and wildfires in our nation. This volatility and damage is already expensive, but will increasingly and disproportionately harm low-income and racial minority communities as climate change only worsens in decades to come.
In many ways, America only has one culture these days. Doubtless, if you drove across the country you would hear a variety of accents, find local eateries with hometown specials, and find ‘types’ of people who tend to gravitate towards one city more than another.
But in America we all largely use the same kinds of grocery stores, consume the same varieties of mass media, play or talk about the same sports, and have less commitments than ever to a place. Across impoverished and working classes to our modern aristocracy, long-term intentions of belonging to a local community are becoming easier to live without. It is very easy to move from one city to another, continue to shop at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s or Kroger or Wal-Mart or Dollar General, listen to all the same music, hang out with similar kinds of people – and be completely oblivious to the toll our standards of life take on humans further up the production chain, the air we breathe, and the local soil we use. while “an estimated 12.7 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans each year.”
Lately, fresh attention and scrutiny has been drawn to the plight of workers who endure dehumanizing conditions that make affluent, status quo lifestyles possible, such as immigrants and other workers at Texas Panhandle meat packing plants, among whom the virus is rapidly spreading now. Perhaps, under social distancing, we have a moment of stillness to audit not merely how we conceive of ourselves, but how we functionally relate to the place and land we share with other humans, animals, and plants during this fleeting life.
Last, nothing quite like a pandemic confronts us with our own finitude and morality. On Ash Wednesday this year, we heard the words “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” but most of us heard those words expecting that on Easter we would reflect on mortality in light of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. As the Nicene creed testifies, our ultimate hope is not that one day God will burn up this planet and take us all away to live in the clouds as disembodied spirits. Instead, “We believe in the resurrection of the dead, and look for the life of the world to come.” Jesus, risen from the dead as the firstfruits of our resurrection to come (1 Corinthians 15), is returning to make this broken creation his new creation. The present creation groans under the toxic environment of Sin and Death, yearning for cosmic redemption, for it was not subjected to futility but in hope of redemption, and so we also groan awaiting the redemption of our bodies along with the creation (Rom 8:18–25).
But beyond our personal mortality, it is not uncommon today for young people to question whether it is worth having children in view of the massive suffering and havoc climate change will wreak in the earth’s future. About such concerns, writers such as Elizabeth Bruenig and Gracy Olmstead argue that existence is good, and having children is itself an act of hope towards the future, spurring intensely personal motivation to take action in the present. This hopeful obligation extends to every member of the body of Christ, married or single, young or old, because we are not only united individually to Christ but also with one another in the communion of saints transcending time and place, charged “to do good unto all, but especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
In American religious life, environmental care is often associated almost exclusively with left politics and progressive religion. But arguably those committed to historic Christian beliefs and practices, of all people, should be leading agitators for rightly relating to God’s creation; we certainly have theological reasons for doing so. As Rowan Williams writes in his recent Christ the Heart of Creation, “classical Christology [is] the proper ground and focus of a whole theology of political and environmental engagement, since it establishes not only what we must say about the character of the triune Creator, but also what we must say (and do) about being creatures” (167).
Leave it Better than You Found It
If human life is good, what kind of world would we like to pass on to those who survive this pandemic? Having grown up under the vast skies and on the dusty flatlands of the Llano Estacado in the Texas Panhandle, a place known for its friendliness and cruelty, I never cease to be amazed by its panoramic sunsets with full horizons in every direction. Above open prairies, formerly regarded as sacred lands by the people who lived here before us, deep scarlet cut into the clouds before erupting into fiery orange and regal golds, then slowly fading to hushed purples and greys, as hawks soar above and prairie hens and turkeys danced between wildflowers below. At night, when the moon is not too bright, and you are far enough away from the radioactive orange glow of the cities, stars dance across a deep lavender and rich navy, and the champagne hue of the Milky Way winks back at you.
I want my daughter and the children of every American, connected in an ecosystem fraught with the injustices of race and class in access to food, healthcare, and education, to be able to breathe under such skies, which requires our faithfulness in present and future obligations towards animals and land and human beings around the globe who are neighbors, not our dumpster. Among millions of urgent needs, a pandemic is absolutely a time to get creative in thinking about funding our national and state parks and public lands, to demand accountability for environmental policies that reflect a Christian social imagination rather than greed and exploitation, and to contemplate what kind of world and social ecosystem is worth conserving, or what kind of ‘normal’ is worth tolerating, after the pandemic ends.