Seven Environmental Learning Opportunities Emerging from the COVID-19 Pandemic

 
I’m writing this from rural New Hampshire. Although I’m 70 years old and in the more vulnerable category, it is easy (even wonderful) to stay at home when you no longer have to work, when you have an ample supply of food, and you can plant a big garden in the weeks to come. Yet my daughter (a schoolteacher) and granddaughters live in Seattle, a dangerous epicenter, and my son lives in Hobart, Tasmania, which is thankfully geographically isolated. I worry about their wellbeing. I wonder how long it will be before l see them again. I worry, too, about friends who have major health issues and whose treatments will be delayed. And I worry about the extraordinary healthcare workers in my community (and around the world), the stretched social services, the school kids who lack adequate home supervision, the families who live paycheck to paycheck, and the long list of concerns that trouble us all.

I desperately miss the face-to-face contact of daily routines, the warm embrace of friends, seeing familiar faces at the Keene Family YMCA, running into friends at the Monadnock Coop, listening to a ballgame on the radio, the countless and wonderful exchanges that I had so much taken for granted. You can rationalize solitude all you want, and you can make the best of it, but in the absence of direct social contact my moods swing from moments of reflective awareness to waves of sadness. I’m in my head too much, and the only respite is long walks in the woods. As University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins points out in his exemplary video, we are all deeply stressed. It’s okay to admit it.

I would like to do something. But it is unsafe to volunteer. Sitting at home, taking walks, playing my musical instruments, playing board games, reading, speaking with friends and family via FaceTime—yes, my wife and I are reasonably self-sufficient. It’s one thing when you choose to live that way, it’s another when you are forced to do so. In these circumstances, feelings of existential dread creep through the day. Watching the news is a mixed bag. You learn about the extraordinary activities of people on the frontlines, but you also have to endure the outrageous lies, utter stupidity, and lack of compassion coming from some of the nation’s leaders. I take solace in the amazing leadership and courage of our healthcare workers, our mayors and governors, first responders, teachers, and the many examples of community solidarity.

I’m writing this essay because I want to contribute to how we think about the inevitable revitalization, regeneration, and reconstruction of our lives and communities. I hope this leads to further conversations about how we can use the creative intellectual, scientific, artistic, and service-oriented resources of our human environmental community. Such conversations are a source of hope, vitality, and resilience in these challenging times.

Here’s a list of seven environmental learning opportunities emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s much to be written about each point, and they aren’t just relevant to environmental learning. My aim is to generate a list, provide some explanation and resources for each, and then invite Terrain.org readers to continue the conversation.
 

1. Habitat fragmentation and biodiversity loss contribute to pathogen spread.

Ecological disruption, especially habitat degradation and biodiversity loss, results in unprecedented impacts, both locally and globally. A huge challenge for environmental advocates is to explain the depth and extent of those impacts, especially when they aren’t immediately perceived. Over the last several decades, viral pathogens were a manifestation of such disruption, undoubtedly caused by unprecedented human proximity to previously inaccessible habitats. The last few (SARS, Ebola, MERS) were seemingly contained, but COVID-19 is not yet. Now, this dangerous and highly infectious pathogen is causing a global health and economic emergency.  Whether it’s the wildlife trade, our unprecedented proximity to places where humans never previously lived, open-air meat markets, or the globalization of pathogen transfer, these are ecological challenges—requiring a deeper understanding of ecosystem health and human impact.

See this report by John Vidal writing for Ensia, the recent comments from the UN Environment Chief, and this report on the immune system of bats.

Would enhanced global ecological awareness help us avoid further pandemics?
 

2. We need ecological as well as economic safety nets.

In the midst of this global health emergency, and the parallel global economic crisis, governments are (mainly) striving to provide economic relief for the hundreds of thousands of dispossessed. Of course, this is a necessity. Many folks point out that these parallel emergencies reflect the egregious lack of social, economic, and health safety nets. For many Americans, the loss of a few paychecks is an overwhelming challenge.

Shouldn’t we also call attention to the lack of an ecological safety net? I use that expression broadly to suggest that ecosystem health and biodiverse habitats are crucial for thriving human communities. This is true at the biosphere and biome scale, but also at the level of cities and communities. When the supply chain is challenged, doesn’t it make sense to have robust home gardens, whether in a backyard or on a rooftop? What are the other ways that the concept of an ecological safety net can provide relative security and resilience in challenging times?

See, for example, the scholarly article “Plant Ecological Solutions to Global Food Security” for an approach that suggests local and global sustainable solutions. And for a home-grown, local orientation, check out the work of Seeds of Solidarity, one of many such local food organizations. Or review the extraordinary work of Paul Stamets on the potential of tapping mychorizal networks.

What are some other examples of how to construct ecological safety nets in our communities and around the world? And how do we demonstrate the connection between ecological, economic, and health safety nets?
 

3. We must promote and support ecological expertise (the virus is not an enemy).

There is much discussion about trusting the scientific expertise of health experts, and recommitting our national (and global) agenda to scientific research. Hopefully, there is a growing awareness that disinvestment, debunking, and deemphasizing science is very foolish indeed. We must understand, too, that our best ecological minds are needed to help us understand the causes of viral outbreaks, and then to mitigate them when they reoccur. As David Quammen points out in his excellent interview in Emergence, outbreaks like this will reoccur and we must prepare for the next one.

Viruses serve ecosystem functions. In “The Ecological Virus,” microbiologist Maureen O’Malley notes that “viruses have been identified as regulators of planetary biogeochemistry, in which they control cycles such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus—cycles on which all life depends.”

It is not helpful, and ultimately counterproductive and anti-scientific, to use war metaphors and to describe our response as “fighting” the virus. Human flourishing in the biosphere depends on both viruses as well as intricate microbial and metabolic exchanges that we are just beginning to understand. As Ed Yong explains in his fine book, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, our bodies are microbial laboratories, and our ability to recognize that is also an environmental learning challenge.

Yes, we must do everything in our power to check the spread of COVID-19, to learn how to treat it, and to successfully immunize ourselves. But we must also recognize that we share the planet with viruses and bacteria, and it’s essential to understand the codependence of these relationships. Viral pathogens must be perceived as ecosystem challenges, too. We will never fully understand the outbreak without this awareness. Now is a time for all environmental studies advocates to reiterate the importance of teaching about the relationship between microbial ecology, planetary metabolism, and flourishing ecosystems.
 

4. We must support and invest in globally networked environmental change science.

Nationalist and/or corporate competition to find a cure and/or vaccine is the worst form of tribal capitalism, reflecting the limited capacity of narrow-minded and selfish oligarchs. Using the best networking skills, global scientists have an unprecedented ability to share data, coordinate research, and promote solutions to the COVID-19 epidemic. The free, accessible, and transparent exchange of information and research reflects the extraordinary globalization of science. Equally important is the need for teachers, interpreters, scholars, and journalists who can explain how this research occurs, why it is necessary, and what it can accomplish.

This same process is necessary to catalyze environmental change science. What can we learn from the mobilization of medical and health science approaches that will help us better understand how to mobilize research about climate change, biodiversity, biogeochemical cycles, the migration of peoples and species, and the dynamic, ubiquitous challenges of global environmental change? Conversely, how can the already networked communities of global environmental change scientists contribute to how we think about pandemics? How can we prepare students in every age group to participate in these exchanges, to feel that they have a stake in the outcome, to engage in local science experiments that contribute to global solutions?

Network science promotes a deeper understanding of the infrastructure of these networks and the skills necessary to take full advantage of them.

The paper “Twenty Years of Network Science” in Nature describes the emergent field of network science, what it has learned, and how it coordinates knowledge. Many environmental organizations have been experimenting with “barefoot science” approaches, ways to engage amateurs and experts alike in local observations that contribute to deepening environmental awareness. See this article from the Union of Concerned Scientists blog and check out the work from the Center for Open Science. Another fine example is the citizen science work supported by the Cornell Ornithology Lab.
 

5. We must engage in and support intercultural, interdisciplinary, and international cooperation.

Although one tool for the global mitigation of the pandemic is the closing of national borders, dramatic restrictions on travel, and geographical isolation, it would be foolish to think that such mitigation can be applied to trade and migration more generally. Undoubtedly, knee-jerk nationalists and demagogues will use the pandemic as an excuse to demonize difference, support anti-immigration policies, and blame the pandemic on other countries. We’ve already seen this in some of the Twitter propaganda coming from American leadership. Also, the dark, mysterious bots residing in the crevices of the internet will use this opportunity to summon conspiracies and sow discord.

Rather, the environmental message should emphasize that the pandemic requires global cooperation. We must emphasize the contributions of the global, cosmopolitan research community. Innovation, constructive solutions, and the creative imagination require multiple cultural and intellectual perspectives.

This same attitude should be extended to how we think about migration, borders, and trade. Knowledge transfer is crucial to a thriving culture, economy, and ecosystem, and we must not allow the pandemic to fuel the propaganda of nationalism. Environmental learning promotes a deeper understanding of the arrival and departure of species, that migration and movement are the inevitable processes of evolutionary ecology and crucial to the history of life on earth. Knowing this allows us to make judicious decisions about how to trace species migrations (including pathogens and so-called invasive species), knowing which migration corridors must remain open, and knowing how the flow of both peoples and species impacts local communities. Surely this data will also help with how we mitigate the unfolding dilemma of climate change. 

In the past few weeks, many city dwellers have fled to rural communities. Those rural communities are fearful of this pandemic-related migration. Both the urge to flee and the urge to restrict are understandable. However, this is a circumstance that could also encourage empathy for migrants that are forced to leave desperate situations. How might this experience help us have more compassion for the inevitable human migrations that accompany environmental catastrophes? And how can it help us build better relationships between urban and rural communities?

See this essay from the Development and Cooperation website on the necessity of global partnership, this article from the Brookings Institute, and a piece from Verge on how migrants are too easily demonized.
 

6. Let’s revitalize bioregionalism for the 21st century.

In the early 1970s, in conjunction with the Whole Earth Catalog, Mother Earth News, and the “countercultural” wave, there was a vital and important back-to-the-land movement. Many of the thriving organic farms had their origins in that era. Many environmental thinkers contributed to the idea of bioregionalism, the notion that ecological and geographic considerations should determine political jurisdictions, including an economics and politics of scale, and an emphasis on what is now called place-based thinking.

For the 21st century, we need a cosmopolitan bioregionalism, an emphasis on place that is inclusive of multicultural communities, connected to global information and transportation networks, but regionally self-reliant for food, shelter, and health services. Given that 55 percent of the world’s population is urban, a bioregional approach must emphasize how this can happen in cities, or what is now called ecological urbanism. How can cities be organized so that energy, food, shelter, and health resources reflect local ecological and geographical considerations? How can these resources be accessed equitably? Are there ecological ways to think about the   exchange of resources (both cultural and natural) between bioregions?

I have no doubt that the pandemic, as well as the additional dislocations from climate change, will allow for a reconsideration of these possibilities. We don’t need lifeboats. We need resilient communities that can work together to provide essential needs as environmental contingencies impact our communities.

A recent Washington Post article summarizes some of the challenges of the pandemic related to migration, although it unfortunately mostly reports on the well-to-do. Check out this article from the Cascadia Illahee Department of Bioregional Affairs about a bioregional response to COVID-19. And have a look at this excellent article on ecological urbanism in Harvard Design Magazine.
 

7. Emphasize the virtues of ecological mindfulness.

In this time of uncertainty, dislocation, discomfort, and sacrifice, it is a great solace to experience time in the safest place you can be—the great outdoors. It’s encouraging to note that outdoor reserves of all kinds are now a destination of choice for people who can’t participate in indoor gatherings. Yet many of those outdoor reserves are closed for fear of community spread—beaches, city parks and playgrounds, state and national parks, popular trailheads, wilderness reserves, and campgrounds. Now when there is great demand for these places, many are restricted. What lesson is to be learned from this? We must treasure these places, create more of them, support their functions, while expanding the local, national, and community ecological safety nets of wild places, especially in cities where most people live.

These times also teach us the virtues of a simple life, taking pleasure in the places we live, enjoying the presence of our loved ones, counting on the security of community health and safety, and as Gary Snyder writes in The Practice of the Wild, “taking great delight in the ordinary.” What makes you happier—the freedom to consume more stuff, or the freedom to walk unencumbered, to travel without restrictions, to gather with your friends, to dance and play, to embrace and hug your circle of intimates?

These times teach us the necessity of slowing down, staying put, being patient, observing the natural world, looking at the sky, growing food, celebrating local natural history, and the miracle of life. What a contrast that the pandemic is peaking (in the Northern hemisphere) with the arrival of spring, a time of hope and potential, a time of biomass proliferation, the greening of the landscape, the arrival of migratory birds, the blossoming of trees and flowers. We must never forget the great pleasure of observing the natural world, and the extraordinary environmental learning embedded by spring.

These are the foundations of ecological mindfulness—the deliberate gaze of the observer, a recognition of the interconnectedness of planetary life, the participation in cycles of renewal and return, the awareness that humans are dependent on healthy and thriving ecosystems.
 

Continuing Thoughts

I woke up on this cold, wet, and misty March day, spent an hour reading the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Guardian, and listened to New Hampshire Public Radio. It’s horrifying to read eyewitness reports of what’s happening in overrun hospitals. I am deeply saddened by the premature deaths of so many extraordinary people. I am enraged at the foolishness of political figures who care more about the business of reelection than the safety of their constituents. And then I feel waves of gratitude for New York City healthcare workers, sanitation workers, first responders, and all of the people who understand that we will get through this with solidarity, resilience, and compassion.

I deeply hope that when we get through this (and we will), there is a reawakening, a common recognition that we must prioritize our lives, our politics, our community life, and that we must confront global environmental challenges because they influence our ability to flourish and thrive. Let us celebrate the environmental community of scientists, intellectuals, policymakers, practitioners, artists, and poets, and rededicate ourselves to the necessity of promoting environmental learning. The morning may be raw, but there are crocuses and daffodils inching their way through the soil. Phoebes, mourning doves, and robins are back. And as I took a short walk, my neighbor rolled down his truck window, and told me that his kids and family are doing just fine.

 

 

Mitchell ThomashowMitchell Thomashow is the author of Ecological Identity, Bringing the Biosphere Home, and The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus. His new book, To Know the World: A New Vision for Environmental Learning, will be published in fall 2020 by the MIT Press.
 
Read more on environmental learning by Mitchell Thomashow, and read his Letter to America.

Header image by ImageFlow, courtesy Shutterstock.

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14 Responses

  1. Fiona North

    Mitchell, thank you for writing this insightful and thought provoking piece. It is so important to use this difficult time as a learning opportunity for a brighter future and your asking of these questions can help make that happen.

    Scientific knowledge holds true power and especially in the United States, where we seem to promote superficiality and ignorance, I fear that this has been forgotten. Perhaps the response to this pandemic will teach us the importance of global networking, communication, knowledge sharing and working together with regard to lessening our impacts on the environment. Through our isolation, this time has shown us how truly connected we are to each other and to the natural world. Hopefully this will be a clear example of promoting global communication and learning, that can be used to enhance our ability to come together in adjusting our lifestyles for a common good.

    While reflecting on your question – How might this experience help us have more compassion for the inevitable human migrations that accompany environmental catastrophes? – I see new hope in that I believe there is no better way to find compassion than through lived experience. For many of us, a crisis like this one used to feel far from home and consequently easy to ignore, but when the true fear of this pandemic came home to everyone, people across all economic and cultural barriers have felt the fear that many have to face every day.

    Like you, my hope for the future is that the positive virtues of ecological mindfulness are buoyed up and we continue to remember the importance of our intricate relationships with the natural world. At least we will all have this as a common experience, one that will be valuable to draw from as educators moving forward.

    Reply
  2. Emma S.

    I think that the irony of this situation is quite profound – in the time of social distancing we need to learn to be more connected. As is discussed here, we must learn to connect to the environment again, and also learn to connect more mindfully to others as well. This pandemic is certainly a reminder that we are not as divided as we think. Everyone shares the same planet, and this means we share the benefits and burdens together. It is indeed a time to start sharing information and begin to help each other.

    Reply
  3. Ouling Xiao

    I totally agree with you. Indeed, rising temperatures and disappearing habitats force animals to migrate, thus increasing the chances of spreading virus or diseases to other species and human population. Besides fearing for the coronavirus outbreak, people should really care about why it occurs at first, and hopefully they will realize that human intervention is the original cause to the pandemic virus.

    However, after realizing that the severe relationship between US and China, I do think that coronavirus could be prevented if US does not regard China as a potential threat. President Xi has informed US and WHO about the outbreak in China, but President Trump did not react to the severe situation, and right now all he cares about is still economy rather than saving thousands of lives. China has been through this dark time for three months, but the epidemic is still getting worse across the world. I was irritated by the corruption of politicians who only care more about their power than the safety of citizens, but I appreciated thousands of healthcare workers who contributed their lives to this coronavirus outbreak.

    I do believe that more people will start to realize the significance of protecting the environment as an approach to protect ourselves. Under the circumstances that the world is suffering from coronavirus diseases, bush fires, and locust disaster, it is too optimistic to insist that human beings could manipulate nature. It is, undoubtedly, everyone’s responsibility to face the reality and start acting, because unlike before, every single person is at risk. As Dr. Lovelock proposed in Gaia theory, the environment is likely to adjust to all disruptions caused by human beings, but such adjustment is more disastrous for humans than for nature itself.

    I hope such ecological mindfulness could be implanted in every single person, particularly decision makers, so that we could create healthy and thriving ecosystems for the sake of all human beings.
    I totally agree with you. Indeed, rising temperatures and disappearing habitats force animals to migrate, thus increasing the chances of spreading virus or diseases to other species and human population. Besides fearing for the coronavirus outbreak, people should really care about why it occurs at first, and hopefully they will realize that human intervention is the original cause to the pandemic virus.

    However, after realizing that the severe relationship between US and China, I do think that coronavirus could be prevented if US does not regard China as a potential threat. President Xi has informed US and WHO about the outbreak in China, but President Trump did not react to the severe situation, and right now all he cares about is still economy rather than saving thousands of lives. China has been through this dark time for three months, but the epidemic is still getting worse across the world. I was irritated by the corruption of politicians who only care more about their power than the safety of citizens, but I appreciated thousands of healthcare workers who contributed their lives to this coronavirus outbreak.

    I do believe that more people will start to realize the significance of protecting the environment as an approach to protect ourselves. Under the circumstances that the world is suffering from coronavirus diseases, bush fires, and locust disaster, it is too optimistic to insist that human beings could manipulate nature. It is, undoubtedly, everyone’s responsibility to face the reality and start acting, because unlike before, every single person is at risk. As Dr. Lovelock proposed in Gaia theory, the environment is likely to adjust to all disruptions caused by human beings, but such adjustment is more disastrous for humans than for nature itself.

    I totally agree with you. Indeed, rising temperatures and disappearing habitats force animals to migrate, thus increasing the chances of spreading virus or diseases to other species and human population. Besides fearing for the coronavirus outbreak, people should really care about why it occurs at first, and hopefully they will realize that human intervention is the original cause to the pandemic virus.

    However, after realizing that the severe relationship between US and China, I do think that coronavirus could be prevented if US does not regard China as a potential threat. President Xi has informed US and WHO about the outbreak in China, but President Trump did not react to the severe situation, and right now all he cares about is still economy rather than saving thousands of lives. China has been through this dark time for three months, but the epidemic is still getting worse across the world. I was irritated by the corruption of politicians who only care more about their power than the safety of citizens, but I appreciated thousands of healthcare workers who contributed their lives to this coronavirus outbreak.

    I hope such ecological mindfulness could be implanted in every single person, particularly decision makers, so that we could create a sustainable and thriving ecosystem for the sake of all human beings. In terms of ecological urbanism, decision makers should take sustainable resource allocation into consideration, especially in developing countries in which population is still on the rise. Cosmopolitan bioregionalism is a great idea to create inclusive and resilient communities and networks.

    I have believed that environmental learning would be emphasized by all nations for the next decades since I was in high school. I hope more experts would help promote environmental literacy, and I do believe that more people will start to realize the significance of protecting the environment as an approach to protect ourselves. Under the circumstances that the world is suffering from coronavirus diseases, bush fires, and locust disaster, it is too optimistic to insist that human beings could manipulate nature. It is, undoubtedly, everyone’s responsibility to face the reality and start acting, because unlike before, every single person is at risk. As Dr. Lovelock proposed in Gaia theory, the environment is likely to adjust to all disruptions caused by human beings, but such adjustment is more disastrous for humans than for nature itself.

    Reply
  4. Jeff G

    Mitchell, thank you for this insightful read! This is a difficult time for all of us. You bring up a lot of great points. Your argument about an ecological safety net almost seems like common sense, although it is not. I wish I had a yard or some outdoor space where I could grow some vegetables to have a somewhat steady supply of fresh produce. I especially like your third point. The virus is currently being made out to be the enemy, but it is simply an organism that negatively effects humans. It is not dissimilar from other disliked and harmful species like venomous snakes and spiders. I think the most harmful thing during this pandemic is misinformation. Science illiteracy, conspiracies, and pure mistrust of government officials is leading some to make drastic claims and increase the preexisting panic. Although this is a hard time for all, the emergence of spring is a daily bright spot, and seeing more flowers, leaves, and bird species leaves a glimmer of hope.

    Reply
  5. Tina Cuevas

    Thank you so much for your insight and this wonderful read, reminding us to look towards the future and see beyond what we might currently be experiencing. As most of the commenters have mentioned, it really is important to use this time as a learning opportunity and a chance to reflect and see what we can change to ensure our planetary community is improved as a whole.

    I hope that our communication across national boundaries significantly improves after this, and we all see the power in working together. As you have stated, hopefully this encourages scientists and governments to work together to mitigate climate change’s effects and protect the global population. I’ve found myself checking in with friends who live in different countries, or even different parts of the US to see what their governor or government is communicating to them and telling them and comparing it to what I’ve been told. While the differences have started to be minimal, at the beginning of March the differences in measures taken by other countries when compared to the US were staggering. While I may echo most of my generation in saying this, it only deepened my lack of trust in our current government and pushed me to hope for future leaders that care more about their citizens than the dollar.

    Introducing an ecological safety net is something I have recently seen as extremely vital. There are many individuals who are not comfortable with gardening or growing their own food and many who were not comfortable with cooking their own until they were forced to. I think the community garden model could be extremely helpful here, it could be a way so that those with green thumbs could help provide for their neighbors within a certain block radius. The community could provide scraps for compost, help with clean up and watering duties, help with food delivery, and even help with cooking meals once the food is grown. This could also be a way to bring a community together and strengthen its societal bond.

    I especially loved that you mentioned the need to “emphasize the virtues of ecological mindfulness.” The amount of individuals who are now seeing parks and nature preserves as places to escape to is a definite positive to what we are currently experiencing. While most of us environmentalists worry that the increase traffic to the parks could be damaging especially if people are not “packing in and packing out.” It should be seen as a positive thing because it will show many folks the restorative aspects that nature can provide. I moved to New York in August, and had previously lived in San Francisco right by the beach. It has been interesting navigating trying to safely find green space to find solace in, while in a primarily urban area since I was used to having the beach just a few blocks away. I’ve reflected on this fact a lot and wondered if I took my time there for granted.

    I talked with a friend this morning and mentioned how I hoped that we would find out how to support each other as individuals at the end of all this, and truly see how much we have taken human interaction for granted. You stating “What makes you happier – the freedom to consume more stuff, or the freedom to walk unencumbered, to travel without restrictions, to gather with your friends, to dance and play, to embrace and hug your circle of intimates?” Has echoed a lot of what I’ve been feeling in this time. I’ve missed my small interactions with the baristas at my local coffee shop, the exchange of words with the bodega guy, the community of my fellow NYU classmates, and the simple act of meeting up with a friend in person to talk about nothing in particular.

    Once we reach the other side of this I hope that we as a global community see how much value is within our natural spaces and keep holding them up, and also we realize how much we value each other as humans. Even if I don’t know the person who walks by me on the street, I hope we can all exchange a smile or look of acknowledgment that they are a member of our community. I think with both of these things it will only help to support and advance environmental education and mindfulness as a global community.

    Reply
    • Mackenna Neuroth

      Thank you for this enlightening post. I agree with all of the points you made and for me it is frustrating to see that people don’t understand that this started as an environmental issue. One of our classmates from China, Grace, pointed this out before things took off here in the states and I think it has become very apparent that this knowledge has become lost in the mass media outbreaks. It is interesting to see that as inherently social beings, we are forced to remain indoors with limited physical contact with others which makes us crave it all the more. It is also interesting to note that many folks seem to want to connect more with nature as it is one of the few opportunities they have to interact with the natural world but even that is being taken away from the population, which again, makes humans want it all even more. I think humans should use these experiences to help them begin to understand that we do take our natural world for granted, even something as simple as being able to take a stroll through their local park.

      I definitely agree with your statement on supporting international cooperation. This pandemic has affected so many different places regionally that you would think governments would do everything in their power to come together and work in conjunction with each other for the good of the planet and all who live on it. But I feel that many countries have fallen short in this aspect, including our own, and are only focusing on their population health and economy. So much of our world relies on other various nations and governments to survive, I can’t even begin to imagine those smaller countries who may not be as affected by the virus itself as they are by the lack of funding within their economies, for example countries that rely heavily on tourism which has obviously come to an obvious grinding halt.

      I also think your statements about safety nets is another critical part that has an affect on so many people worldwide. In this time of uncertainty, so many industries are simply working day by day to try and mitigate the effects and toll this pandemic has taken on our lives. After the world begins to heal, I can only hope that those that can make a difference in regards to these safety nets will feel the obligation to make those changes within their governments for the greater good, not only economically, but environmentally as well. Before this all began, it is clear that our environment was suffering and had their been measures in place, such as the safety nets you were referring too, this pandemic may not even occurred, or at least not have spread so quickly and vastly.

      Reply
  6. Eve Wetlaufer

    “These are the foundations of ecological mindfulness—the deliberate gaze of the observer, a recognition of the interconnectedness of planetary life, the participation in cycles of renewal and return, the awareness that humans are dependent on healthy and thriving ecosystems.”

    I especially resonated with this common thread throughout your article. If nothing else, this pandemic has been a blatant wake-up call to the “interconnectedness of planetary life” as you precisely phrase it. Not only are we interconnected through travel, commerce, and the economy, but down to our very fibers and genetic makeup, we are made up of the same stuff–which ultimately means health, fate, and destiny are also tied together. Environmental education must take this experience as an example to use in classrooms and conversations going forward to encourage others to see just how much we must protect each other and our planet; waking up to the danger we are in environmentally and spiritually. Interconnectedness as a concept can seem abstract, however, when examples are provided (such as the Covid-19 pandemic), people will begin to wake up to our reliance on one another and our inextricably linked nature.

    Thank you for writing this article! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and learned a great deal, as well as feeling a sense of hope wash over me by the end.

    Reply
  7. Melissa P

    There are so many things to learn from this pandemic. I really worry about our lack of ecological safety nets, our inability thus far to support science and better protect biodiversity which in turn helps to protect us, and our global failure to act in a unified way to protect the one earth that we all share. I agree that the lack of social, economic, and health safety nets do need to be dealt with – we cannot make the kind of progress needed in protecting the environment if we do not deal directly with poverty also. I am hopeful that lessons will be learned from this pandemic. I hope that people see the results of cleaner air and cleaner water around the world and ask their governments why stricter regulations are not in place to better protect the environment all of the time. I hope that people learn that slowing down can be a good thing, less is more, looking out for neighbors, family and friends makes us all feel better, and that we all really do care about our global community and Nature so now we need to take action and act to protect these things we love.

    Reply
  8. Teka

    Many thanks for taking the time to share these observations and thoughts!

    As someone with an interest in food systems, environmental justice, and sustainability, I was particularly drawn to the idea of having an ecological safety net mentioned. I was immediately reminded of the issue of food deserts that many in America have to deal with on a daily basis, even outside of extreme situations such as the current pandemic. Food deserts are the perfect example of the need for connection between ecological, economic and health safety nets as access to food often relies on one’s economic situation and greatly influences health outcomes, along with having an ecological dimension, of course. Like Tina, I agree that community gardens are a good system to begin with when looking for ways to implement ecological safety nets with regard to food access. Additionally, community gardens are wonderful tools for teaching, especially when bringing young and old community members together for the sharing of knowledge.

    While these times teach us the necessity of slowing down, staying put, being patient, observing the natural world, looking at the sky, growing food, celebrating local natural history, and the miracle of life, these times have also made me realize how many of the above-mentioned necessities require the time to do so. The amount of time I have now that I don’t have to commute to work, now that my work hours have been cut, and for many, now that they have been laid off from work, is time that will probably be taken back when things return to “normal.” I’m curious if people will fight for their time once it’s gone again, if Americans will actually use their sick days now, if the glorification of being busy will bow to the pull of spending time outdoors, or with family and friends, or on a passion project. Remembering that growing food takes time as I weed and prune and harvest and plan to make sure food doesn’t go to waste, I wonder what else I’ll have trouble holding onto when life returns to “normal.”

    As the title suggests, these are learning opportunities, and I hope we all take the opportunity to learn from them together. There’s nothing sadder than an opportunity wasted.

    Reply
  9. Shreya Sanjeev

    Dear Mitchell,
    Thank you for such an interesting read! This particular pandemic has not only exposed the dangers of blatantly ignoring experts and data, but also exposed the bigotry in several countries across the world, including the United States. Your article clearly elucidates that it has become abundantly clear that public health and environmental protection are the of foundations upon which our social, cultural and economic lives are built and when these very foundations are threatened, we must act for the collective good of everybody. To me personally, it also illuminated the importance of addressing another soaring health emergency: climate change. The time frame for both may be different, but just as urgent. Both of these issues are of an environmental origin and point to something that is quite clear in the pubic health sector: the environment is one of the two major factors that affects our health. There truly is a dire need for governments to be transparent – even about the hardest truths – concerning health emergencies because science and data are important. When governments and industries downplay the magnitude of risk, deny scientific facts, disseminate false information and obfuscate the truth for political or financial gain, we lose precious time in mobilizing action to save lives. Our best protection against infectious disease(s) is prevention through vaccine development and administration. There may not be a quick fix for climate change right away, but slow mitigated measures need to be actively instilled into the policies and implemented. Failure to do so rapidly will lock in ever-more severe and potentially irreversible climate changes with truly catastrophic health consequences. Our response to a health emergency can help create a healthier future. Access to health care and paid sick leave will reduce the spread of infectious disease now and improve the lives of millions of low-wage workers and their families.
    Much like you, my hope for the future is that positive steps towards instilling ecological mindfulness is taken seriously among larger groups, and we continue to work towards fostering healthier relationships within communities to help stop further deterioration of our natural world.

    Reply
  10. Jessie Scofield

    The topics in this essay really spoke to me, and I thank you for putting your thoughts down for others to read. I have felt so much stress lately. My time in quarantine has pushed me to do a lot of internal exploration, and I have confronted a lot of negative feelings. I feel both sad and hopeful when I bring myself to read the news stories, but I often find I have a strong urge to ignore the outside world altogether because it is so overwhelming.
    This essay gave me hope. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope for humanity. Hope for the planet. Without hope it is easy to give up and give in to a negative spiral of emotions that locks you away from the world.

    The disruptions of our routines have led many of us to feel locked away in our homes. I have been talking with my grandparents a lot lately and they often say that they feel like prisoners. We feel as if we are drowning and need someone, anyone to come save us. “We don’t need lifeboats. We need resilient communities that can work together to provide essential needs as environmental contingencies impact our communities.” This quote got me thinking more deeply about the state of our world. Right now many feel desperate as they wait for help, especially financial help from the government. It is impossible to go backwards, but now that we see how easily things can fall apart it is imperative that we work together to create more resilient communities. If we have strong systems and networks of education in place I believe that when the next tragedy strikes, whether it be a virus or climate disaster, we will be ready.

    This essay also got me thinking about how important relationships are. The forced separation from friends and family leads us to more deeply value those connections. We need to foster that desire for connectedness, and use it as a catalyst to spread love and support in our communities. I’ve always been amazed and touched by the way that people come together during disasters, like after hurricanes when people take canoes and go on community rescue missions, or when people start community drives to gather supplies for neighbors who lost everything in a fire. The way neighbors, as well as strangers show compassion and love for others is truly remarkable. I think if we tried to support each other all the time like we do in those situations our communities would become more resilient. We have to realize that our community relationships form a web, and that web connects us to each other and the natural world.

    The interconnectedness between all people is something that should be talked about and explored. Realizing that we are all a part of the world, and that we all matter, and that each of us can make a difference is empowering. I think this is a perfect time to reflect on the questions posed in this essay, and to think about the things that truly bring meaning to our lives. For me, I have come to cherish my phone conversations with my grandparents. Before this crisis I let other things get in the way of regular phone conversations, but now I see that I was missing out on a wonderful virtual relationship. I even have them video chatting on Zoom!

    Reply
  11. Joseph Adams

    I found the section of this article about how “the virus is not the enemy” to be particularly fascinating and provocative, and I would like to share some critical thoughts. You present the claim that viruses “serve ecosystem functions,” and offer a quote from Maureen O’Malley describing how viruses act as regulators of global systems. I am worried that this account may be using excessively teleological language in the sense that it implies that these systems have purposes towards which viruses can function; it is relatively uncontroversial to talk about the microbiome of an individual organism in this way, but it is far more controversial to do so when discussing ecosystems or the biosphere (though it may turn out that these systems are genuinely teleological). Furthermore, there seems to be a problematic normative claim here, something along the lines of ‘because viruses play ecological roles, we should not view viruses as enemies.’ I would like to push back on this idea, because it is certainly the case that from the perspective of a particular population or species (I use the term ‘perspective’ metaphorically here), a particular virus can appear as an existential threat and thus as an enemy. If a deadly virus sweeps through a population fast enough, that population can die out. It seems reasonable for humanity to view the novel coronavirus as an enemy because it threatens our well-being, although it would be wrong to view viruses generally as inherently negative or harmful.

    I am curious to hear more about why you think it is “counterproductive” to describe our response as “fighting” the virus. Counterproductive towards what aim? Perhaps you want people to step outside of an anthropocentric perspective, and you see the “war” and “enemy” rhetoric as promoting and reinforcing anthropocentric thought. However, is not clear exactly what you are getting at in section 3 of your article. I would very much appreciate learning more about what you meant.

    Reply
    • Mitchell Thomashow

      Thanks for those excellent comments, Joseph. I was simply trying to point out, as you indicate, that the metaphor of war doesn’t illuminate the real challenge here, of taking a biospheric, evolutionary perspective. Yes, of course, we must mobilize all of our knowledge to eradicate the “existential threat” of this virus, but we also have to learn that waves of disease sweep through human populations. Our immunological systems are enhanced both through “defending”ourselves against specific pathogens, but also considering the broader ecological concept of what it means to be immune. Perhaps a metaphor of community (including ecological factors) immunology is more appropriate. As to the teleological inference, I surely didn’t intend that, but I can see how you might infer it.

      Reply
      • Joseph Adams

        Thank you for your response. It makes sense to approach immunology in a more holistic way, and clearly we must harmonize our systems with the larger ecological systems within which they are embedded. Still, it seems to me that we did something good by eradicating the smallpox virus, and that we did not harm the biosphere in doing so. Perhaps this would also be the case with other viruses, such as measles and polio. The question appears to mostly be an empirical one, resolved by studying the ecological impacts of particular pathogens.

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