Well, hell. This is not the Earth Day I was expecting.
Not that I’ve ever been exactly sure how I was supposed to celebrate Earth Day… but surely this can’t be it.
Last week they brought BACK the plastic bags at my supermarket whose ban I was so delighted to witness only a few short weeks ago. There’s talk there of prohibiting reusable bags altogether. And bottle and can or plastic film recycling are out of the question: the doors are locked. No more bringing my own containers anywhere. No more buying anything in bulk.
Suddenly I find myself much more worried about getting in and out of the store with the efficiency of a Navy Seal than about whether a product has a non-recyclable plastic ring around the lid. (Get in! Get out! Go home! Stay there!)
Although these changes are deeply dismaying, they’re for the most part hard to argue with. Do we need to be as careful as we can possibly manage to avoid the spread of disease? Of course. Saving lives trumps bringing my plastic bags back to the supermarket.
However, while we’re busy being distracted or panicked, sometimes it’s hard to know when the measures stop making sense anymore. Unfortunately the pandemic presents a golden opportunity to justify anti-environmental behavior under the guise of necessity. Exhibit A: The Environmental Protection Agency has suspended enforcement of environmental laws. That’s right! No more pesky monitoring, lab analysis or reporting. In the United States there are now effectively no penalties for breaking pollution rules. And Coronavirus necessitates this because… if we can’t pollute our own country the germs win?
But don’t worry. “The EPA expects all regulated entities to continue to manage and operate their facilities in a manner that is safe and that protects the public and the environment.” Translation: big corporations are now operating under the honor system. I’m sure everything will be fine.
It’s complicated on the local level too. Sure, everyone agrees waste removal is an essential service, but whether or not recycling is also essential has been left up to the local governments to decide. Cue the chaos. Here in Vermont— Vermont mind you— there’s a proposal to landfill recycling and postpone a ban on landfilling food scraps. Even if these steps are truly necessary, once the crisis has passed, how long will it be before those hard-won environmental gains are re-established? There’s just no telling.
Saving the earth seems to be discontinued until further notice.
It’s a weird time. There’s so much depression, boredom, isolation and fear but at the same time there are moments of unexpected beauty. Polluted skylines the world over are clearing because the world is standing still. The polluted canals of Venice are crystal clear. Wild boar are wandering the streets of Barcelona and a herd of wild deer cavort on Indian streets. We watch from our windows, take videos with our phones. We are a captive audience, literally and figuratively. In our absence, what will nature do to surprise us next?
What can we find to celebrate in such a Through-the-Looking-Glass Earth Day, the 50th anniversary of the first Earth day, no less? I read an article on the World Economic Forum that had a good answer. It argued that what the pandemic offers us is the chance to see the huge difference humans can make when they make individual change.
“Our collective ability to address the damage we’ve done to nature has seemed impossible. Until now… The virus is raging, but we all can help stop it. When’s the last time you felt you could freeze a glacier, or actually help extinguish a forest fire? What we do here – and what we learn – could save lives and help us all endure and thrive as individuals, as communities, as a species.”
Meanwhile, our family is limping our way along in our Year of No Garbage turned Year of Keeping All Our Nice, Clean, Washed Garbage In A Pile In The Kitchen. Today, while cooking, I held up a piece of plastic food packaging and shook my head, and sighed. Was I disappointed at it, or me?
Today, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, I’m asking myself a simple but deeply important question: on the other side of The Great Pause, what will we do with what we’ve learned?