A close friend was recently in a Zoom discussion with a group of “movers and shakers” in northern Vermont discussing creative ways to envision and build a brighter post-pandemic future. The only problem was that she was the only person who identified as a woman and as a person of color in the group. She almost suppressed her feelings and experiences, but the situation was too urgent to stay silent. She broke past her discomfort to ask how a group that lacks racial, gender, and generational diversity could possibly come up with meaningful solutions for everyone. The rest of the group agreed to increase the diversity of future conversations.
The 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day in the United States is happening during a paradigm-shifting pandemic, and that may spur conversations about how to solve the climate crisis. But a healthy amount of caution is needed. Our worlds are smaller right now in isolation. Most people are unable to have new and diverse conversations as we shelter in place and rely on personal social media networks and digital meeting platforms as a main source of connection. What is often ignored, however, are the huge numbers of people who face technological, financial, and lingual barriers to online communication, not to mention are facing too much emotional and financial stress to see beyond this crisis.
How can groups of people familiar with each other living in relatively comfortable circumstances envision a different future without building new understanding and empathy? This current pandemic has been so devastating for people of color, it has even been referred to as the “Black Plague” by The New Yorker. Native American reservations, incarcerated individuals, and farmworker communities are facing deeply disproportionate impacts in infection and loss of life. One of the major factors contributing to high morbidity and mortality is pre-existing health inequities like asthma or cancer, many of which result from disproportionate environmental harms. I have seen many people shrugging off these stark disparities as personal shortcomings in these communities or giving in to helplessness about their role in addressing them.
The Covid-19 pandemic shares a painful commonality with the climate crisis. If we cannot empathize with and advocate for those being affected on the frontlines, we will only act when it is too late. If it is too complex now to understand why certain communities are suffering and dying disproportionately, then we ignore the indicators that there is a larger crisis looming. This works just like early indicator species that provide warnings before the whole ecosystem is in irreparable decline. If we cannot acknowledge the systemic racism exacerbating this current crisis, we will deepen health and economic inequalities that leave us unable to rebuild together to solve the climate crisis. Instead of trying to focus on each crisis in isolation, we must address the disparities that perpetually underlie all of them and keep us from seeing each other’s humanity.
This Earth Day, start by having inclusive, honest conversations. It should not always take people like my friend to speak up for representation in our visioning processes. If you want to build a better world coming out of this crisis, make that world bigger. Ask yourself if you are willing to listen to new voices, reach out to new communities, and try on new ideas. Only when our world is bigger will we truly understand how to honor and save it.
Access the Article in VTDigger Here