Why This Year Takes on Greater Meaning
Earth Day is a rallying point for calls to live a more healthy and environmentally responsible life. For the organizers of Earth Day, Climate Change has been the big rallying-call which has made us re-examine our relationship to the earth, a trend which has been growing over the past decades.
But this year is different. Nowhere is this more blatantly seen than by the irony of the organization that coordinates Earth Day activities, which usually exhorts participants to get out in the field and work in a variety of hands-on activities, being forced to shift to an all-online format for this year’s activities.
The big picture – the cost to the environment by human activity
The present pandemic has, tangentially, shown us the direct effect of human activity upon the environment. Pollution has plummeted. Our streets are quiet, uncrowded and blessed with cleaner air. A microbe has achieved what no government regulations or private initiatives could.
The US Bureau of Transportation Statistics estimates people travel around 11 billion miles per day (around 40 miles per person) so hundreds of billions fewer miles are being driven since “shelter at home” and quarantine measures of different degrees have taken hold in the US alone.
Airplane travel, according the Transportation Security Administration, has dropped by 96 percent which brings us approximately to the level of air travel in 1954. This means that total fuel being burned by the airlines industry has fallen precipitously (let’s ignore the crazy per-person waste of fuel in flying empty planes to deliver a few passengers to their destinations).
That’s the good – if only temporary – environmental news, a bi-product of the Corona virus pandemic.
But when this goes back to normal, what will have changed?
The organizers of Earth Day headline “two crises” mentioning Climate Change and the Corona Virus pandemic. But the mention of the Corona Virus is meant only to highlight the fact that we were not prepared for it. In like fashion, we are told that we are similarly unprepared for the devastating effects of climate change.
The organizers of Earth Day have done well to raise environmental awareness in other areas of their activity and do ask important questions about the origins of the food that we consume. The meat that was consumed by humans up until the beginning of the previous century was essentially derived from free-range livestock or hunting. Local consumption was the standard. The gradual move to where almost all of our meat is produced at factory farms has been one of the major shifts in food supply.
Certainly, eating responsibly by creating a “Foodprint” as Earth Day exhorts us to do, and the critical relationship of factory farming and increased transportation (burning fossil fuels), production (methane greenhouse gases from waste) and storage of animals (effluents contaminating clean water), are all important issues. But by framing the issue in terms of Climate Change misses opening up the critical discussion of the link between our evolving relationship to animals and pandemics.
The matter of human beings deliberate genetic engineering of animals for food and the closer relationship to previously wild animals in an environment of breeding demanding better genetic outcomes brings up new challenges. Though this type of activity has taken place for thousands of years, the combination of dense populations and increased demand for production efficiencies in food distribution are changing the rules of the game.
The health crises of the past decades – SARS, MERS and the latest, Covid-19 chief among them – are the proverbial cold water splashed in our face that should serve as a frightening wake up call. We need to start to frame the question about the origins of Corona virus and humans’ relationship to other animals on the planet in these terms so that we learn not only how to contain but to prevent the next crisis.
The Earth is constantly changing and evolving. Much of this change is due to human activity. New types of relationships with nature and the fauna contained in it can lead to great calamities and loss of life on many levels. The present pandemic should make us look afresh at this relationship, and the monolithic meaning of Earth Day should evolve and broaden as part of this reexamination.