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.
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.
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.
Read more on environmental learning by Mitchell Thomashow, and read his Letter to America.
Header image by ImageFlow, courtesy Shutterstock.