words by willow defebaugh
photograph BY Ryan McGinley
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.
“Action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.”
—Robin Wall Kimmerer
If we are to believe Robin Wall Kimmerer’s statement from Braiding Sweetgrass that healing the earth heals us—and we should, because it’s common sense that we benefit from the preservation of our only suitable environment—then we must also understand the opposite to be true. That when we sicken the earth, the we are sickened.
According to a new study from Stanford University, deforestation leads to increased likelihood that pathogens will jump from animals to humans. And another study this month published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that “Infectious diseases from wildlife have emerged at an increased pace within the last century and are likely to continue to emerge, given expected increases in population growth and landscape change.”
When it comes to the coronavirus, yet another study (this one from Harvard) has found higher death rates for people who have had exposure to high levels of air pollution. Of course, this is just one example of the climate and ecological crisis directly affecting our own health; in the coming years, should we stay on our current trajectory, we will see many more.
As of today, the virus has reached over one million cases, and claimed close to 100,000 lives. It has maimed our single-minded, profit-driven economy, putting our world on pause. But you know this already. So let’s talk about what else it has done. According to a new analysis from Carbon Brief, it has also put us on track to see the largest yearly drop in carbon pollution ever. It has reminded us the power that comes with slowing down and what happens when we cooperate on a collective level (social distancing is working, so keep it up).
As Arundhati Roy points out in a brilliant piece for the Financial Times, the coronavirus is a doorway: “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
We can say that nature is punishing us, but the truth is, when it comes to tragedy, we rarely get to know the why or if there even is one. And it wouldn’t make a difference, because no amount of lives lost would be worth it. What we do get is the opportunity to heal. We get to start over and do things differently, to rebuild from the ground up. We get the chance to start acting on behalf of life again, instead of betraying it—and in doing so, we might just be transformed.