The Other Pandemics
Earth Day Remarks
By Brent Mitchell
The Other Pandemics
I did not want to give this talk. When first approached about an Earth Day service, I proposed a comparison of the early resistance to Darwin’s theories of evolution with climate change denial today. Both pitted powerful, entrenched interests against indisputable science. But the good folks of the Climate Action Project thought you would rather hear about my work, about what I do, about me. I don’t like to talk about myself and, believe me, Darwin is much more interesting! So, I said thanks, but no thanks.
Later, I had a change of heart. Or, rather, a transcendental inspiration. And it came right here in this sanctuary. It was back in the good old days when we could come together here in the church, physically; before some of us started getting haircuts from family members; before we all became amateur epidemiologists. In other words, January.
It was a Wednesday night, and John Buehrens, former President of the UUA, was here talking about his new book, Conflagration: How the Transcendentalists Sparked the American Struggle for Racial, Gender, and Social Justice. During the question period, Jessica asked John how the Transcendentalists would have responded to climate change and our other environmental issues. Being a good historian, he would not go too far in projecting historical figures onto modern times, but I will not soon forget his answer. He said, “They would not have despaired, they would have acted.”
Almost immediately I felt ashamed of myself. How could I pass up the opportunity to talk about issues I care passionately about? …and on the 50th Earth Day to boot?!
And so, on this Earth Day (which has long been more of a week), I will use bits of my resume to talk about the health of the planet. However, I am, of course, very aware that presently we are all consumed by issues of public health, the COVID-19 pandemic. As the title of this sermon suggests, in my view the great environmental crises of our day are also pandemics. There is nothing in the etymology of the word to limit its use to human health. It comes from the Greek pan, or “all,” plus dēmos, “the people.” All of these diseases of the Earth affect all of us people; we are just feeling the virus more acutely right now.
But I promised to talk about what I do.
I work mostly on protected areas, of many kinds, national parks perhaps being the most familiar to you. But especially I focus on the people who do the protecting in protected areas, supporting stewards caring for the land and sea.
For example, when I first moved to the Northeast, having worked overseas for five years, there was only one conservation land trust in all of eastern Canada. I had been engaged briefly as a field biologist for The Trustees of Reservations, so we started bringing people across the border from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec to encourage new trusts. There is now at least one trust in each province. I can’t claim direct causality, but I think we helped.
Jessica and I would do similar work in parts of the Caribbean, Latin America, and then Central and Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. In the Czech Republic, for example, where for a generation private land was anathema, there are now 61 private stewardship organizations caring for the land.
While much of my work is international, I feel called to help at home as well. When Laurence Rockefeller donated a historically significant forest to create the first (and still only) national park in Vermont, we were asked to help set it up, especially a unique Institute based there and tasked to extend conservation stewardship, quote, “beyond the hills of Vermont.”
If you were to ask people what is the greatest environmental challenge today, most would say climate change, and rightly so. But there is a second, equal in threat, related but distinct: that of the rapid loss of biodiversity, a dramatic decline in both the number and differing kinds of animals and plants.
Since the first Earth Day, bird populations in the US and Canada have dropped by 29%. Worldwide, fully a third of amphibian species are now threatened with extinction. Three-quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost. I could go on and on.
Protected areas of course provide habitat, or homes, for animals and plants. They also present natural solutions to climate mitigation and habitat displacement. Climate change and biodiversity loss are connected. About two years ago I was on a UNESCO mission to a World Heritage site in the Solomon Islands, on a tiny island described as a natural laboratory of biodiversity. Just 1,000 people live there, Polynesians, in four villages around the largest lake in the Pacific, fending off exploitation from powerful mining and logging companies from larger countries. But all their efforts are now imperiled by rising sea levels quite beyond their control.
Governments are struggling to respond to both climate and biodiversity crises. New targets under the global Convention on Biological Diversity are to be set this year, and we are involved in some of the preparatory work for negotiations. (By the way, there are only four nations that are not parties to the CBD: Andorra, South Sudan, the Vatican, and the United States of America.) It is likely that we will see a target of “30 x 30,” protecting 30% of land for nature worldwide by 2030. Ambitious (we’re only about half-way there) but possible, as it does not all have to do with wilderness, as we learned in the reading by Bill Cronon. And this is how we are translating our experience at site, local, and national levels into global policy.
I’d like to share some big picture thoughts that derive from this work.
Evidence-based decision-making should be how the world works, but, alas, it is not always. Thousands of scientists working through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have amassed more science on that problem than perhaps any in history. I don’t need to recite statistics about how the earth is warming and ice is melting and what that means for us. You’ve heard that by now. The scariest thing is that warming is happening even faster than models predicted just a few years ago.
And so science alone is not enough. I served for five years in the Peace Corps, in three countries. I learned the hard way that developing the best knowledge and tools to improve peoples’ lives does not mean they will use them, or that they will follow advice, no matter how sound. You need lots of education to influence human behavior, and smart policies and programs to make change happen. It seems to be as true at the global level as it is at the local level.
One thing I did in the Peace Corps was to help set up a system of parks and protected areas, mostly marine, in the Turks and Caicos Islands just before big tourism hit. It was real lesson in seizing a moment of opportunity.
One point that the Climate Action Project folks got me thinking about is food sovereignty and security. I suspect that many of you have, like my family, developed a new appreciation for local providers of food in this time of disruption in national distribution and international supply chains. There is a conservation dimension to food sovereignty. Perhaps instructive to our so-called “war” on coronavirus, most of the land use and conservation policies in the United Kingdom are based on a post-WWII realization that the country needed to sustain local agriculture and not be overly dependent on the European continent. (Brexit goes too far, but that is another story.)
Today, we burn a lot of fuel shipping food and goods back and forth across the globe. In fact, international shipping represents roughly a third more greenhouse gas emissions than air travel. Before the trade skirmish with China, we were shipping them 30 million tons of soybeans a year, and a lot of other commodities. All so that they could ship stuff back to us, stuff like surgical masks and other medical gear that we weren’t making here anymore. Why? Because it is “cheaper.” We’re now seeing the true costs.
History shows us that there is always opportunity in crisis. In my field, I have long been impressed by that fact that the first steps towards creating our national parks were taken at the height of the civil war. (And, by the way, a Unitarian minister, Thomas Starr King, was at the center of it all.)
The Energy Department estimates that, because of reduced activity and stay-at-home requirements, greenhouse gas emissions in the US will decline by 7.5% this year. That’s great! But consider that the Paris climate agreement calls for us to reduce emissions by 26 to 28% from a 2005 baseline by 2025. We need to sustain these reductions in emissions, after the COVID-19 emergency has passed, if we are to have any hope of keeping the planet from overheating.
Will we invest in a new energy economy, or return to the old? And never mind Washington. Twenty-four governors, representing over half our population, have committed to meeting the Paris targets. As with COVID-19, it is the governors showing leadership, and I am grateful for our federal system.
While it is not too late to avert our environmental pandemics, it is too late to just tinker around the edges. My work in privately protected areas is all about harnessing individual initiative and commitment. We should each be doing all that we can, but individuals cannot do it alone; asking everyone to change their light bulbs isn’t going to get the job done. We need structural change alongside personal commitment.
Let me give you a personal example. Our house in Newbury has a lot of deferred maintenance (remember I work for a small non-profit organization). Rather than fix everything Jessica and I recently invested in solar panels. Our carriage barn may be falling down but most of the year we are providing all of our own electricity. I’m glad we did, and Jessica gets all the credit, but my point is it should not have been left to us. It is flatten-the-curve time on global warming! Our governments should be requiring such systems, at least in new construction, just as they require building standards and smoke detectors and Title IX sewage systems.
Signs of Hope
After describing all these challenges, I may have you wishing I had stuck with the Darwin theme! So, let me share some more hopeful thoughts.
We cannot destroy the Earth. Yes, we can screw up the planet’s thin surface and make life pretty miserable, but our big, beautiful, blue marble called Earth will continue to spin through the cosmos no matter what we do. That gives me comfort.
We know how to change energy systems. I’m not one to put too much faith in technology. In my field, there is great excitement that synthetic biology could bring species back from extinction. But it could also be the plot to a science fiction horror movie. But technology is a big part of the solution in climate change. We are learning how to meet energy needs without fossil fuels. We just have to commit to it.
We can summon political will to change complex systems driving the climate crisis. Remember acid rain? Sulphur and nitrogen oxides from Midwest smokestacks acidifying our lakes and streams, killing loons, frogs, and fish. It was a big concern when we moved to New England in the mid-80s. I remember researching an article on acid rain and sugar maple. But thanks to RGGI, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, you don’t hear much about acid rain anymore. And RGGI is a market-based system, so it should be widely replicable. We just need a RGGI on steroids for climate change.
As I mentioned earlier, protected areas provide natural solutions. They protect and create carbon sinks, not only in forests, but in healthy soils, other kinds of vegetation, and in the ocean and coastal areas—so-called “Blue Carbon.” Protected areas maintain ecosystem integrity, buffer local climate, and reduce risks and impacts from extreme events such as storms, droughts, and sea-level rise.
Climate depression is a thing. A friend and colleague from the Saint Lucia National Trust likes to say that “We suffer from excess powerlessness.” He may be right, but I remind you what John Buehrens said about the Transcendentalists: “They would not have despaired, they would have acted.”
Remember that our new mission statement calls us to “act with courage” and “transform our world.” Channel fear and concern into action, in whatever way works best for you—activism, personal commitment, local solutions, philanthropy—and especially voting.
And just now, we must defend science from the “alternative facts” people. Without science we are lost. That’s a big lesson from COVID-19.
Meanwhile, you must also take care of yourself and your spirit. When I begin to lose faith, I get out into the nature that sustains me.
One of the last points I want to make to you may be difficult to accept just now. COVID-19 has hit us with blinding speed. The other pandemics of climate and biodiversity aren’t at the same pace, but they are coming on fast, and are in it for the long run. All the evidence we have indicates that, brutal as it is now, the COVID-19 pandemic will end. We don’t yet know exactly how, or exactly when, but it will end. Whatever the exact timeframe, when the virus is contained the other pandemics I’ve been talking about will still be with us.
Indeed, we will not fully solve the climate crisis in my lifetime. That’s a terrible thing to contemplate, but it is the reality. Same with biodiversity; the problems are just too pervasive, systemic, and global.
But we have a moral obligation to do all we can, while we can.
Earth Day 50 years ago was a pivotal moment in environmental awareness and action. We are suddenly thrust into another moment of opportunity. What will we do with it?
Will the economy come back, or will we push it forward?
What if courage and action were to become pan – demic too?
What if courage and action were pandemic too?
Finally, I am personally inspired by land stewards that planted trees that they knew they would never see grow to maturity. And I have to have faith that all of us, doing all that we can, will be enough.
First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist, Newburyport, MA 28 April 2020