Day 3 of the NYC COVID-19 State of Emergency. A Short piece today.
What the climate crisis is laying bare slowly and the current pandemic, quickly, is the profound state of decay in the United States. More than 40 years of neoliberalism and our increasingly parasitical form of capitalism have hollowed out what was once, but is no longer, the richest and most powerful country in the world. Rich, how? Powerful, in what way? Yes, we still have the largest nuclear arsenal and the world’s most-over-funded military, but to what end? To prop up the petro-capitalism that is destroying our collective hope for a future? We have become like the alcoholic and abusive old patriarch, the over-the-hill slugger who still has a mean right hook, but has grown slow and clumsy and is falling apart inside. Age claims all of us, but for those who only believe in force, what they have lived by, so, too, by they die, even if at their own hands.
I’ve written elsewhere at great length in critique of US militarism, settler-colonialism, and our country’s foundational history of slavery and genocide (although I acknowledge the hypocrisy of my own position and have no ready-made solutions to offer); there is no nostalgia in my assessment for a by-gone golden era, nor any denial of the immense social progress that has been made in the last 50 years in this country.
What do we do, though, when our social welfare programs, limited as they are, are under constant assault; our infrastructure has, in 2013 and 2017, received from the American Society of Civil Engineers, a D+ (perhaps they’re grading us harshly though to generate more work for themselves? Even the worst student needs an advocate); our hard-won victories are being steadily eroded by would-be theocrats; and it seems the very idea of the public, let alone public goods, is under assault by a nexus of interlocking interests that encompasses Silicon Valley libertarians, right-wing ideologues in Washington, and privatization-hungry New York finance and real estate tycoons? This, in my view, is why we need a Green New Deal and Medicare for All, or their equivalent; it’s why we should elect Bernie Sanders our next president, and why Joe Biden, and – of course, above all – the incumbent must be stopped.
We are coasting – at least some of us – in this country on a few centuries of (ill-gotten) gains in the form of institutions, systems, and infrastructures, but every year we wait to address global climate crisis, the situation grows more dire and our collective ability to confront it is further undermined, and every day that we delay taking sufficient measures to address the pandemic, the inevitable reckoning grows more catastrophic. Perhaps these are obvious statements, but I think the connection is a crucial one. Based on historical precedents, all pandemics eventually end (we’re still here, after all). Sometimes recovering from them takes years, sometimes, decades or centuries, but the prospects in this case – in spite of our current scenario, grim and growing grimmer – are reasonably good. We are in for hard weeks and months ahead, but will likely have moved on from this crisis almost entirely within a year or two depending on how deep the accompanying economic implosion proves to be. Most immediately, countries that handled this pandemic poorly – the US chief among them – should take away some valuable lessons about preparedness for future pandemics that are certain to come. This is the third major outbreak of a novel coronavirus in less than 20 years, and we should expect outbreaks of similar emergent (human) diseases in the coming years.
If we fail to internalize the greater lesson, though – regarding our own vulnerability and the lasting harm that has been done since we abandoned the New Deal (or, taking a broader view, in the last 500+ years of ecological rift) – we will have missed a great opportunity to recognize, in this fast crisis, patterns and strategies to be employed in averting the worst impacts of the slow one. Lost in the pandemic furor in recent weeks was a new report from the European Space Agency. Its conclusion? Ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica are melting six times faster than they were in the 1990s.
We have monumental work ahead of us. We should confront and overcome the fast crisis of the pandemic, and then, with the same remarkable sense of urgency, at last address the slow, defining, once-in-a-civilization crisis/opportunity of global climate crisis. It could mean a world less broken than the one that we currently inhabit, but – like confronting COVID-19 – it will take concerted effort from all of us.