The COVID-19 pandemic is a test. Are we learning anything? For some (and I am sorry to say that it is especially noticeable in the U.S.), denial is not just a river in Egypt. For the deniers, by pretending it is just not happening and it is not deadly, they can continue with their anti-science agenda, and not be troubled by having to think deeply about their choices, lifestyles, and the state of the planet. Their top priority is avoiding cognitive dissonance, and any lives lost, or species, or ecosystems, are just signals to dig a deeper hole in the sand to hide their head.
For the rest of us, the pandemic is a call for reflection, and stay-at-home orders provide the official sanction to take a break from our usual routine, and pause a moment to think about what this all means.
Many of these problems don’t care who you are.
The virus doesn’t check voter registration. But people may put themselves at greater risk if they get their information from nonscientific sources.
The wildfires in California and elsewhere don’t check voter registration before they consume a family’s home or neighborhood. But you may be at greater risk if you live in the urban-wildland interface, and you don’t prepare. Scientists have been saying that the Western U.S. will be drying out due to climate change, and this is what it looks like.
The hurricanes and extreme weather events don’t check voter registration. Again, if you are in a flood zone, it is time to consider climate adaptation, and sometimes that means retreat (moving inland).
The police sometimes do check skin color, and act differently depending on what they see. The affected communities have known this for a long time, but it is finally sinking in to people in other neighborhoods, and the marches and rallies (notice I did not say “looting and riots”) need support from more than just those in the line of fire.
The impact of the virus does vary across communities due to factors such as disparities in access to health care and the ability to work from home and socially distance, which can be correlated with family wealth and income.
This leads us to solutions, about which the pandemic is also providing revealing information.
Medicare for All (universal health care) doesn’t care who your employer is, or where you work. It is based on the simple premise that health care is a human right, and precedes employment or affluence.
Universal basic income doesn’t care how much money you make. You get it whether you are rich or poor, white or black. But it will provide the greatest help to the poorest people and those most impacted. And, unlike overly proscribed technocratic solutions, basic income allows for people to direct these funds where they most need help, in a way that top-down bureaucracies cannot possibly match.
“We can’t afford it” is an outdated notion in an era of pandemics and crises. Many politicians think (or say) we can’t afford the two previous solutions based on the incorrect metaphor of “the household budget is the same as the Federal budget.” It should also be noted that these same “fiscally conservative” moderates who oppose the two solutions above do not raise such concerns as they vote to increase military budgets. Monetary reforms such as those put forward by groups like Positive Money and others can lead debt-averse politicians out of this self-imposed (mental) debtors prison.
A “climate dividends for all” program won’t care what your carbon footprint is or whether you are the CEO of Chevron or a minimum wage worker who takes transit every day. Perhaps the CEO of Chevron (and his peers in the fossil fuel disinformation industry) should be prosecuted for causing a slow-motion global catastrophe in the name of greed. But until he is convicted, he can still receive climate dividends under a Cap Global Carbon/Dividends for All policy. And who knows, maybe in a few years the fossil fuel lobby will ask Congress to allow felons to receive climate dividends too.
The pandemic has also called some even more fundamental assumptions into question:
What is the economy for?
What is life about? Caring for each other? Or just making money? Or “winning” (aka tweeting insults at people who didn’t inherit millions of dollars from their father or cheat on their taxes)?
Let’s go ahead and answer that last question. It may not be as rhetorical as we once thought. We need to explain our values; they cannot be taken for granted.
Life is about making meaningful connections with each other, caring for each other and the planet, and leaving a legacy for future generations that we can be proud of. Making money may be a means to that end, but if it is destroying the planet, and causing increasing misery for billions of people, then the economy needs to be refashioned so that it works for us, we the people. The economy needs to be for the 99%, not the 1%.
The pandemic has shown us a lot about ourselves, and what we care about. Will we learn these and other lessons from 2020?
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Mike Sandler is the current Chair of FEASTA’s Board of Directors and is a climate change and sustainability professional with experience working for nonprofits and government. In 2001 Mike co-founded the Center for Climate Protection based in Sonoma County, California. Inspired by Peter Barnes and Richard Douthwaite, he has advocated for revenues from a price on carbon to be returned back to the public as a per capita dividend or share. He actively promotes CapGlobalCarbon and he has written on green monetary reform and basic income, some of which is archived on his author page on HuffPost.