Opening Our Eyes to What We Can Achieve

Apr 16th, 2020 | By | Category: Environment/Sustainability

By Suzanne York.

[photo: Flickr Creative Commons]

[photo: Flickr Creative Commons]

If it wasn’t clear before this year, it should be crystal clear now:  we need to change our unsustainable ways of living. For our own sake, business as usual cannot continue.  We’re not talking about 9-5 jobs, shaking hands and public gatherings, though who knows what will happen with all that.

No, it’s how the bits of business as usual helped get us into this situation – the consuming, polluting, and hedonistic behaviors.  What can we do, when COVID-19 restrictions are lowered, that will help make the most of our social distancing pain and improve our lives and environment?

There are many lessons the world can take from our current pandemic state of life.  Below are just a few of the most important ones that, if we are willing to address them, can have positive impacts on people and nature.  Consider this a very brief overview, as each topic could be a book or full-length documentary.


It’s not yet clear how this novel coronavirus came into being.  The main theory is that it originated via bats, a common host, and was first transmitted to a pangolin at a Wuhan wildlife market.  This particular market is notorious for keeping animals, especially exotic ones, in cages piled one on top of the other, and slaughtering them on the spot, so it’s not a stretch of the imagination to see how it could spread to humans.

However it came about, the resulting COVID-19 virus can be seen as a reflection of how we structure our food systems and what we eat.  It is also shows the impact of human population growth on species.  There are nearly 8 billion people on the planet, many living in densely populated areas, and many living close to nature.

It’s easy to point fingers at a Chinese ‘wet market,’ but industrial agriculture isn’t much better.  Most animals are treated awfully, just existing for human consumption. In a growing world, where an increasing number of people are starting to eat more meat-based diets, our consumption of animals needs a major rethink, certainly from a human health standpoint as well as for how we treat other sentient beings. See more below.


Credit: Florida chicken house by Larry Rana, USDA from Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Credit: Florida chicken house by Larry Rana, USDA from Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)


In another aspect related to consumption, we are finding out in our stay-at-home phase that we don’t have to consume so much stuff.  Economic implications aside, it turns out buying the latest tech gadget or cool jacket isn’t that necessary after all. We can live without a lot of consumer goods, most of which don’t buy happiness.  And an economic system based on perpetual growth – part of business as usual – cannot go on forever.

Rights of nature/connection to nature

Returning to the issue of how we treat animals, it’s obvious that a major shift is warranted.  The poaching and trafficking of endangered species has to end.  There are some people who, due to poverty and other unfortunate circumstances, have no alternative but to poach animals in order to survive.  But eating pangolins, shark fins, foie gras or pigs confined into tiny, filthy cages?  As a society we have to do better than allow this abuse to continue.

One way is to build on our connection and relationship to nature.  Perhaps in our current lockdown phase where we have to get outside, for our mental and physical well-being, many people are learning how important the natural world is.  And how enjoyable spending time outside is for us.

Which is why we need trees. We know trees are necessary for coping with climate change by acting as carbon sinks. Spending time amongst trees is good for our well-being and of course they provide homes to birds and insects. Despite this, deforestation is rampant, with lands cleared for agriculture, palm oil, mining, cattle, and human habitation.  Experts believe there is a link between deforestation, habitat change and pandemics such as COVID-19.

Last month, the chief of wildlife at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned that”Diseases passed from animals to humans are on the rise, as the world continues to see unprecedented destruction of wild habitats by human activity.”

Another path for a better relationship with the environment upon which all human depend is supporting rights for nature.  It is often defined as recognizing that ecosystems and natural communities are not merely property that can be owned, but are entities that have an independent right to exist and flourish. This is a critical shift that might offer the most hope for ending our past human-centric and unsustainable course.

There are numerous examples from around the world on including rights of nature in law and governing instruments.  Here are two examples:

Two years ago, the Supreme Court of Colombia directed the national government to take urgent action to protect its Amazon rainforest to halt rising deforestation. In its ruling, the court recognized Colombia’s Amazon as an “entity subject of rights”, which means that the rainforest has been granted the same legal rights as a human being.  This built upon an earlier ruling by Colombia’s Constitutional Court that recognized the Atrato River basin as having rights to “protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration.”

In the U.S., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was the first major city to recognize Rights of Nature, passing a Community Bill of Rights in an effort to protect itself and environment from fracking.  The bill included enforceable rights to clean water and air, recognized legal rights of the natural environment to exist and flourish, reaffirmed the right of local community self-government, and banned the extraction of natural gas using fracking and related activities.


brene brown


Inequality/human rights

Lastly, COVID-19 has exposed to a greater extent the inequality that exists all around us.  It’s easy to say that we are all in this together, but we all don’t have access to the same resources to cope, much less receive the best healthcare out there.

Indigenous people, people of color, low-income communities, and the homeless are almost all at greater risk to this coronavirus.  The reasons are many and too deep to get into here, but suffice it to say that social, racial and economic injustice over decades and even centuries are behind much of this.

Some of the poorest communities in Louisiana have been hit hard by the virus.  Many of these people suffer from polluted air and water from oil refineries that have been damaging human and environmental health for years.

There is even inequitable access to soap and water.   It’s easy to say wash your hands, but when three billion people – 40% of the world’s population – don’t have access to basic sanitation facilities, it becomes a big problem.

Getting it together

All of this is food for thought and a brief guide on what we could and should do differently.  Change is not insurmountable. After all, we’ve altered our society drastically the past month in an all out effort to beat back COVID-19.

From virus pandemics to climate change, we humans need to get our act together fast, or Mother Nature will take charge. We know what needs to be done.  So many of us have come together to support one another and our communities during this pandemic.  Let’s take it a little bit further and transform the planet for the better.

Suzanne York is Director of Transition Earth.

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