Life has changed dramatically for all of us. Even if we don’t quite believe that the virus will ever come to us, it will surely come to someone we know. It is also true that we could easily bring it to someone we love, so the benefits of the wearing of a mask, for example, are not for the one wearing it as much as they are for the ones we might meet on the street or in a store. The virus has forced us to shift gears, to find alternative options for living day to day, engaging with our family in a different way, becoming adept at Zoom, or Google Classroom, or Microsoft Teams. It has offered us an opportunity, though, to engage the world around us differently. This is a sign of hope!
As I write, I am sitting on a deck on the bay in Ocean City, MD. The sky is blue, the wind is soft, and the water laps against the boats tied up below me. The egrets, the terns, the red wing blackbirds, a river otter, baby pelicans, and a resident eagle glide over, swim around and pick through the marshland that opens up in front of me. Back at home, at my kitchen table, the blue jays, grackles, finches, cardinals, doves and wrens build their nests, dance with each other around the bird feeders, quench their thirst at the bird baths, and enjoy the never ending hijinks of the squirrels as they research how to get to the bird seed. And these are the animals in my backyard, not to mention the beautiful thrust toward the sun by all the perennials that are emerging (ferns, hydrangeas, azaleas, and more) as well as the annuals that now grace various corners of our gardens. There is so to attend to just in my backyard and here, on a deck, on the Maryland coast. The amazing capacity for the natural world to continue on is a small reminder of the passing character of even something as momentous as this pandemic.
Don’t get me wrong. The pandemic is momentous. As of last night, 300,000 people have died. In the USA the number is close to 90,000. And this number is because we did something as a nation and a world to make the virus less deadly. Imagine doing nothing or doing something less drastic than we did! Thank goodness that most US residents are heeding their public health experts. Thank goodness there are governors who think it critical to make policy decisions on the best public health benefit. It has saddened me to watch some in our nation decide that the policy discussion of the pandemic must be a zero sum game. Either we open the economy and accept that some will die, or we continue with the public health measures and we all die from poverty. As if anything in the natural world, including human beings, can ever be adequately cast as a binary reality. Yes, the economy is suffering, and people are suffering because of it. Yes, the virus kills people, not all people who get it, but a significant amount, and we still know very little about it, though that is changing by the day. What we need is thoughtful, honest, and humble deliberations that include public health officials, economists and political leaders. And we need to appreciate the expertise that people bring to the deliberations. Unfortunately, in many places, this is not happening.
In some ways these discussions are far above the “pay grade” of most of us. But we each can do our own research, being attentive to our sources, and appreciating that any source can be driven by alternative desires, alternative to an adequate representation of the real situation. We each have families that we care about, and we should act with care. We can only really control, to the best of our ability, our own situations. And this means accounting for those others who seem to not care about the others in their circles. On the roadway, we call this “defensive driving.” I suppose, as we open up, this is an apt piece of advice for all of us.
In that arena of our control, we can turn to the other living things that surround us. Even in our backyards. We can try something new, like growing some vegetables. We can order a birding book off Amazon and begin to identify the birds that visit our backyard. If you don’t have a bird feeder, get one. It is a most rewarding investment! Notice the bluer skies, the cleaner air, the quiet of our world, that is marked now more by the call of birds for the mates than by the roar of car speeding down your suburban street. If you are in any apartment, a planter on your deck, a bird feeder that you can stick to your window, a regular stroll down tree lined streets: these are all invitations to pay attention in a way that we don’t always have the time, or inclination, to do.
Yes, life has changed dramatically for all human beings on the planet, an extraordinary thing, and it happened so fast. I sometimes wonder if this is a dry run, for another global challenge, where science, economics and politics will collide as they have done with COVID-19. I wonder if climate disruption can be met more responsibly if today, each of us considers our place in the big scheme of things. Like the virus it will hit the economically disadvantaged more severely. Like the virus the wealthy will be able to shield themselves from its most damaging impacts. Like the virus, public servants will be impugned by those who don’t see the political upside of dealing with a catastrophe.
Perhaps this current virus is a dry run for an even more devastating challenge to human life. My hope rests on the changes in lifestyle that I imagine will be with us after this current challenge passes. My hope is that our attentiveness to the “small” and “insignificant” aspects of our life (the birds out our window, the emergence of spring flowers, the importance of human connection, even if only on a screen) will be re-imagined as critical components of a human life, and perhaps pave the way for a responsible way forward for the truly monumental disruptions of human life that are on their way.
I wish health for you and your family. Be full of care, not only for yourselves but for your neighbor. It is the path forward for all of us.
Mark Doorley, Ph.D.
Chair, Board of Trustees
The Center for Environmental Transformation