Clear blue skies above. Quiet enough for city dwellers to hear birdsong in New York, Singapore, Paris. In India people see the distant snow-covered Himalayas for the first time in their lives. Off Molokai, without the interference of cruise ships, whales hear each other sing.

The novel coronavirus, tragically killing hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, has sent all of us “to our rooms,” and perhaps in our solitude and inactivity we can reflect upon the devastation we humans wreak upon the life systems of our planet each and every day.

After five weeks “sheltering in place” we see more clearly the place we live (in my case, Molokai) and the workers that sustain us daily — our nurses, teachers, grocers, farm hands. Perhaps we also discover that many of our own habitual activities are nonessential — racing around the planet to extract its riches, spewing pollution, fostering competition and greed.

“Using” others and the Earth, characterizing ourselves not as people, but as “consumers.” Frustrated by constraints on our normal freedoms to work, to gather, even to move, shaken by extraordinary vulnerability, human society is at a pivot. Upended, we can take the opportunity to change the very structure of the way we live on the earth. Because if we slip back into business as usual, the result will be terminal.

We may win this battle against COVID-19, but we will not win the war against viruses. They surround us, 100 million times more numerous than the stars in our sky. We can only protect ourselves by fostering health of all people and all life systems on Earth.

East Molokai clouds Hawaii2. 14 july 2016
East Molokai is so quiet now you can hear whales sing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The instinct to rush back to our “normal” lives is understandable, especially for those who are suffering the loss of their livelihoods, but do we really want to go back to the frenzied state of dis-ease we have been conditioned to feel is necessary for survival by our economy of extraction?

Our lungs sick to death with air pollution, our water undrinkable, our farmland so toxic with chemicals that the food it grows sickens our most impoverished citizens with diabetes and obesity so that they are first to succumb in great numbers to the virus?

The pandemic will mark all people that survive it for the rest of their lives, but the question and the choice is, how.

Faith In Humanity

As the Black Death upended Catholic Europe, killing more than half of Europe’s population? Or as the brutality of World War I betrayed our faith in humanity and gave us chemical warfare which presaged thousands of carcinogenic chemicals produced in the mid-20th century, or the fear of scarcity that the Great Depression imprinted on our grandparents’ generation?

Will we retrench as we did after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and live behind more and more barriers, between nations, between each other, between humans and the natural world? Will we punish nature for the coronavirus and resume our full-scale war on her, despoiling every corner of our planet until it is unlivable for any species, leaving our own children to fend for themselves in the ruins of what was once a planet of great beauty and abundance?

The author, a resident of Molokai, reflects on 50 years of Earth Day under the cloud of COVID-19. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

What other choice do we have?

The virus sending us to our rooms has reminded us that we are all interdependent — as humans co-inhabiting Earth, from the bat and pangolin butchered in the wet market who were vectors for this coronavirus, to the corporate executive who flew across the world to a meeting where he caught the virus and sickened, to the hospital attendant who hooked him to a ventilator so that he could breathe. Once we realize our interdependence we are less arrogant, and we become, as a species, more resilient.

Our relationship to the rest of nature improves — we understand that there must be a buffer of intact natural ecosystems between human habitation and the diseases that we cannot withstand, as we learned with Ebola, AIDS, and Lyme disease, before SARS, MERS, and now COVID-19.

We understand that a million species on the brink of extinction does not indicate a secure future for our own, nor do the record high temperatures on land or in ocean, where plastics pollution and overfishing are threatening a systems-wide collapse of marine life. We understand that societal inequality and ecological collapse are born of the same selfishness and disrespect for other beings with whom we share a home, our only home, planet Earth.

There is great possibility in this moment to change course. If before we felt daunted by the challenge to reverse the pollution accumulating in our air and water, we now see how in a month natural systems begin to recover. We can renew commitments to our communities.

On Molokai the experience of the last month of food scarcity has increased determination to become self-sufficient in food and energy, therefore to also protect our watershed and coastal areas from erosion by reforesting. To stop at their source the tons of plastics fouling our shores and killing marine animals.

Fifty years ago as a seventh grader on Earth Day 1970 in New York City, I skipped school to join 20 million Americans in support of environmental protection. Hanging a sign “Save Our Wildlife” on our family dog, a paperback copy of “Limits to Growth” in my school blazer pocket, that day I was excited to think that our defense of the earth would gain momentum.

We can renew commitments to our communities.

And it has. Since that Earth Day, even as all life systems on earth are increasingly stressed and human health is undergoing a worldwide crisis, a positive alternative vision of the future is being articulated by diverse groups with greater clarity, and the call for an end to the plunder of our planet has never been so powerful as it is in the voices of the young activists on all the islands.

To me, an American of a generation whose prosperity has come at great cost to the Earth, this pause must occasion a rethinking of the way I have endeavored as a conservationist to mitigate environmental destruction.

Will I continue to recite the dire statistics of collapsing ecosystems while wringing my hands and bemoaning the fate of the earth all the while benefiting, at least temporarily, by the very things I decry, or am I willing to sacrifice for real change?

If so, then what will I make sacred?

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