Crucible or Nightmare

Albert Borgmann returns for another guest post on The Plastocene. He investigates whether the temporary reductions in carbon emissions due to coronavirus lockdowns can be made to last.

Covid-19 could be a crucible for American culture, and it could be a nightmare. If a crucible, it will refine the gold of our lives from the dross of indifference and consumerism; if a nightmare, the epidemic is an event we want to awake from and forget as quickly as possible.

A test whether the epidemic is one or the other is the way we are dealing with climate change. Both the spreading of the coronavirus and climate change are global dangers. Neither leaves an escape or safe haven anywhere on Earth. But they’re also quite different. Global warming was predicted more than a hundred years ago. Beginning in the 1950’s, Charles Keeling, who had deep roots in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, began carbon dioxide measurements on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. The record of the measurements resulted in the steeply rising Keeling Curve, one of the irrefutable indications that terrible trouble was rising.

The scientific evidence supporting the specter of a global catastrophe has been accumulating and crushing. Now has the coronavirus awakened the American public from its political slumber of indifference and denial? The opposite seems to be the case. The nightmare of the epidemic appears to have suppressed the nightmare of ecological conflagration.

Those in the Federal Government, who never directly experienced the threat of ecological devastation and have in fact, denied any evidence of human complicity, embrace the notion of an epidemic and economic nightmare and want us to rouse ourselves from anxiety and paralysis just as quickly as possible.

Mae Mu

So has the epidemic failed to be a crucible at all? Hans Taparia has shown in the New York Times on April 18, 2020 that the quarantining due to the coronavirus has improved the American culture of the table to an extent that is beyond what the great reformers like Michael Pollan were able to achieve. “In . . . one recent survey,” Taparia says, “54 percent of respondents said they cook more than before the pandemic, 75 percent said they have become more confident in the kitchen and 51 percent said they will continue to cook more after the crisis ends.” When you cook for yourselves, “you consume fewer calories than those who cook less,” and that has obvious benefits for your health. Taparia concludes on a note of hope that, alas, carries overtones of diffidence: “Once life rebounds, we may go back to our previous ways, but our palates will have experienced a reset and our hands would have acquired an artful skill. Family ties would have strengthened for many, as cooking is a group activity and is deeply fulfilling and nurturing.”

Still, these words are more than a report on culinary changes brought about by confinement to our homes. They convey the hope for a change in American culture.

This hope is presented in a much more profound and confident tone in Tomos Roberts’s video “The Great Realisation” that has swept the Internet. It begins with an indictment of consumerism and of the Amazonian kind in particular. It calls our attention to our screened isolation and its subsequent loneliness. It accuses the governments of complicity in industrial pollution and ecological destruction.

Then comes Covid-19, and for Roberts it is the crucible. It reminds us of the joys of running and dancing and playing, of watching wildlife and of baking. When people are returning to the outside world, they find it to be clear and green, and has lost, we may add, 17% of its  daily global CO2 emissions compared with the early April level of 2019, so we are told by Corinne Le Quéré and her coauthors in Nature Climate Change (2020). The old habits became extinct, says Roberts, and more “Great Realisations” were to come.

And yet Le Quéré also tells us that the International Monetary Fund expects carbon dioxide emissions for all of 2021 to rebound worldwide by 5.8 percent over the level of all of 2020, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration is forecasting a rise in domestic emissions of 3.5 percent for 2021 compared with 2020.

No act of God has taken the burdens of environmental advocacy and reform from our shoulders. We have to gather up our fortitude and carry on.


Baking image by Mae Mu courtesy of Unsplash
Wind turbine by Jason Blackeye courtesy of Unsplash

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