On Covid and the Climate, We Can Achieve Change – But Time Is Running Out | Robert reich
On Saturday morning, I met a friend for breakfast at a local restaurant. We weren’t sure whether we should sit outside because of the burgeoning Delta variant of Covid, or inside because the stinging smoke from wildfires consuming northern and western California s ‘was spread in the bay area.
Our little dilemma is a microcosm of what many Americans are going through or will soon be. The combination of the proliferation of Covid variants and the worsening of environmental damage makes the air unsafe to breathe, both indoors and out.
What to do? Clean air is the public good par excellence. It is meant to be free, plentiful, and secure. Few Americans alive today have ever worried about microscopic particles containing deadly infections or deadly carbon lumps.
And yet, in large part because we have taken it for granted, and therefore as a society has not paid enough attention to public health or the decaying environment, the air we breathe does not is more secure. We now have to rely on masks, air filters and other devices to protect our lungs. And it is far from clear how long this will last or if and how it will ever end.
It’s not like we haven’t been warned. But it has been strangely difficult for us as a society to focus our attention on this most basic need of all. I am tempted to blame the Republicans, the capitalism, the greed, the oligarchy. But these look like copouts.
Our collective tendency is to wait until big problems turn catastrophic before we fix them. Most of the time, we prefer not to pay attention. We have all we can do to make a living, raise our kids decently, save a little for retirement, hopefully have a little fun along the way. We assume others will take care of the bigger threats.
Or we say to ourselves that we can’t do anything more. We can try to live modestly, recycle and save energy, use masks, and get fully immunized. We might even write a few emails to politicians arguing for cleaner air and tougher public health measures. Beyond that, it may seem hopeless.
Hell, I was in a president’s office. I personally know dozens of members of Congress. I have a big megaphone. But faced with this simultaneous pandemic and environmental crisis, I sometimes also despair.
Americans talk a lot about “revolution”. We are a nation born of revolution. What we don’t talk about enough is a revolution in the way we think and behave – realizing that we are not above and outside the natural world but are part of it, that we cannot not continue to exploit and plunder for profit, that there is something called the common good that requires personal sacrifice, and that those of us who are better off have a moral duty to sacrifice the most.
Still, I’m old enough to remember when California had smoggy days when the air was putrid and orange, when older and sicker people dared not venture outside and children couldn’t play outside. . I’m also old enough to remember when Britain looked bad – coal fogs that covered cities, burned lungs and sometimes killed thousands of people.
I don’t remember the last pandemic, but I do remember when polio ravaged the country, sowing fear and paralysis. It put two of my six-year-old friends in lungs of steel.
In all of these cases, we have acted – as a people, as a society. We got the smog out of the air. Britain also cleaned up. And we dutifully lined up at school to receive polio shots (without the howls of governors or anti-vaccines). We have eradicated polio.
In other words, despite our tendencies to wait until the last moment, to get carried away by our own private needs and desires, and to feel overwhelmed in the face of gigantic problems, we sometimes achieve the common good. It is important to remember this.
My friend and I chose to have our breakfast outside. I am not sure this is the right choice. Although we reduced our risk of Covid, the smoke stung our eyes and probably made our lungs worse. But I’m sure that’s not the only choice to come.