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Commentary – ‘Let’s not waste this moment’.

I recently read an essay in the National Geographic by environment editor Robert Kunzig that really struck a chord with me. Not only is it one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read in a long time, but some of the ideas he discusses have instilled a sense of optimism that I didn’t know I needed.

For this blog post I am going to write a commentary and discussion on some of the ideas Robert presented in the essay.

The essay starts with a description of the industrial revolution in Alabama, declaring this as the moment when vast inequalities and vast amounts of pollution became entrenched in American society – “It was a city that generated great wealth for a few and a decent living for many more. It was a city that churned out rails and girders to build a booming nation. But it was destined to become the most segregated city in the United States, and one of the most polluted.”

The author then goes on to describe his current life, where he has spent the last few months living through the pandemic in this region. Like a lot of people, lockdown has allowed Robert to spend more time in nature, using his daily permission to exercise to go for a walk with his wife. Not only did this enable Robert to “hear the sound of the birds” – but it also caused him to ask the question that I think a lot of us have been asking too: “Will the experience of Covid-19 change in some lasting way how we treat this planet?”

The pandemic has caused a lot of us to face up to some hard truths –  from the outpouring of protests against rife systemic racism all across the world highlighting the grave social inequalities that still exist; to the questioning of our relationship with nature, where we have all learnt to appreciate its importance in our daily lives while also learning to be more wary of its power, with a single virus able to bring vast economies to a standstill.

The pandemic has also led us to question the future, we have had time to reflect and envision what this “new normal” might look like, and indeed what we want it to look like.

“However the future unfolds, it is not something to be predicted, like the passage of a comet. It’s something we build” – writes Robert.

Not only is this a beautiful piece of writing, but this single line is filled with a level of optimism that has altered my whole perspective on my own future.

The pandemic has felt dark and lonely, and for me the fear for the future of the planet has left me feeling at times both hopeless and scared – but as Robert writes, the future isn’t certain, we cannot predict it, and it doesn’t have to be a certain way just because it seems it has to be – the future is something we build.

We can start from the bottom and build something different, we just need the will to do so, something which I believe the pandemic has provided us with, a visualisation that things can be different.

“If Covid makes a lasting difference, it won’t be because it briefly stopped traffic it will be because the whole experience – including noticing birds and breathing cleaner air – changed our culture.”

We all accept that there is going to be a “new normal” and that going back to the way life was before is not only not an option, but also no longer necessary.

Our culture has changed, some people have been working tirelessly, and we have learned that that should be rewarded. Others of us have experienced time off work, perhaps allowing us to slow down and dare I say it, appreciate the finer things in life.

Although the detrimental health and economic impact that this virus has had on families and individuals across the globe should not be glossed over – I don’t think I’m the first to say that there are a few silver linings.

For me, the pandemic has certainly taught me that slowing down is a good thing, it has led me to question how I measure and assess my own worth and success, and caused me to question what we as communities should be prioritising as we move forward from the virus.

As a species, we are obsessed with growth, as individuals, as societies and as countries – the pandemic has put a much-needed halt on this and caused us to reassess. As the author references from the book Doughnut Economics by Kate Rawarth: “The point isn’t that all growth is bad. Some countries clearly still need much more of it, while others don’t. The point is that growth shouldn’t be the point.”

That hits the nail on the head really – should we be focusing on growth and the need for more and more, or should we start to measure success in different ways, the wellbeing of employees, the happiness of communities?, the health of an ecosystem?

“There are social tipping points as well as climate ones. Change can start in a boardroom, or in a government or in the streets. Wherever the change starts, it can sometimes for reasons scientists can’t readily predict, spread contagiously, as people are inspired by the example of others.”

Again this single passage inspires a huge sense of hope, it allows me to remember that despite all the darkness, we do have a choice.

Given the chance to pause and reflect we have seen first hand how broken the system was in the first place. We must use this – which is indeed what led us to create EarthRights – to inspire optimism with the view that just because things have always been a certain way that does not mean they should remain so.

*If you enjoyed reading this then click here to read the article in full.
Pippa Neill

Co-founder and Co-producer