Yesterday – May 8, 2020 – we celebrated the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day. It was a very timely reminder of how one generation sacrificed everything – even their lives – to save the world from tyranny. It was also a reminder of how ordinary people can do extraordinary things, especially when given the gift of exceptional leadership, in the face of an existential crisis.
Today we face not one but two existential crises. The first poses an enormous threat to our health and our economies. It is called Covid-19. The second poses the risk of planetary extinction. It is called global warming.
Covid-19 has, in many places, brought out exactly the same response in ordinary people that WWII did. We see health workers put themselves in mortal danger day in and day out, front line workers in meat packing plants and grocery stores continue to work even when they know they are at risk, and first responders such as ambulance crews rise to the occasion even when every sufferer they take to hospital could transmit the disease to them. They do this even in the face of catastrophically bad leadership both here and in the UK.
On the flip side of the coin, we have people who refuse to believe that the virus is a real crisis, who assert their ‘right’ to conduct their lives as they see fit whatever the consequences for others around them, and who believe it will all blow over soon. They are led by a White House that just wishes it could ‘magic’ the whole thing away.
Part of the reason for this is that, aside from statistics about infections and deaths, this is an invisible enemy. You can look out of your property, see the sun shining, kids playing and people jogging, and convince yourself that nothing is wrong.
The same is true where global warming is concerned. Aside from experiencing warmer summers, it is easy to convince yourself that nothing untoward is happening and, if it is, it’s all natural and there’s nothing we can do about it anyway. The enemy, if there is one, is invisible.
The fact of the matter, however, is that global warming and planetary destruction is happening before our very eyes, even if we choose not to see it. Ice caps and glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate. So what? Well, consider this: part of America’s early warning defense system against Russian incursion is a string of radar stations ranging from Alaska to Iceland, all of which are sited on rocky outposts north of the Arctic Circle and all of which are in danger of being submerged. The country’s primary naval base in Norfolk, Va. is sinking into the sea as levels rise and, according to Navy assessments, will be under water by 2050. These two things alone threaten the physical security of the United States – a prime part of the social contract (you pay your taxes, government will keep you safe).
At the same time, global fish stocks are half of what they were in 1970 and could be extinguished by 2050. Pollutants such as methane, the biggest contributor to which is mass agriculture, continue to warm the planet. Scientists now warn of the advent of the Sixth Mass Extinction, involving millions of species on which Earth’s fragile eco-balance depends. And, by the end of the century, the likelihood of a major war over water is put at between 75% and 95%.
This is an existential crisis every bit as bad as WWII and yet, because we don’t see it with our own eyes, we either deny it or ignore it. Worse still, our government not only ignores and denies it, but acts deliberately to weaken our response to it.
All is not lost, however – at least, not yet. Ironically, Covid-19 is showing us how decreased use of fossil fuels (cars, planes, ships) can clean the air dramatically. We see pictures of Hong Kong, Delhi, Beijing and LA with clean air and clear blue skies. Indians in Kashmir can see the Himalayas again, something they haven’t done in fifteen years. Scientists have the tools to alter or eradicate many contributors to warming – lab-grown beef, stacked farming and sustainable power generation, for example. We have the knowledge. What we need now is the political willpower to use it.
In 1961, JFK offered the country a seemingly impossible goal – to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. We did it. A leader with the vision and guts to do the same for solving our environmental crisis could spark the same will, the same bloody-mindedness and the same genius to be just as successful in this existential endeavor.