Early this year, as vast segments of the global economy shut down but before the death toll climbed, many of those privileged enough to feel relatively secure indulged a fantasy that the pandemic would paradoxically make the world more beautiful. Smog cleared from the skies, unveiling the snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas; an octopus was spotted in one of Venice’s formerly murky canals; and the undersea cacophony of transoceanic shipping quieted, allowing whales to revel in one another’s songs more than they had in half a century. Daily global carbon emissions fell by more than 20 percent, providing hope of real progress on climate change. It almost seemed that Earth had unleashed a virus on industrial civilization, bringing it to a grinding halt and protecting itself.
Months later, as Supercyclone Amphan devastated the northern coast of the Bay of Bengal and wildfires ravaged California, it was hard to remember that brief moment of environmental optimism. The coronavirus shock to the global economy will make barely a dent in climate change. The suffering brought by COVID-19 is catastrophic. Worldwide more than 30 million people have been infected, and one million have died. In the U.S., upward of 60 million people have become unemployed, and many are at risk of being evicted from their homes. The situation in developing countries is almost unimaginably horrific, with 265 million people teetering on the edge of starvation.
But by lifting some of the smog that had obscured the structure of modern society, the pandemic may also have shown a way forward. It is not only the exploitation of nature that undergirds modern civilization but also the exploitation of humans. Systemic inequality, injustice and racism resulting from centuries of colonialism and slavery provide the scaffolding of the global economy, which was built not only by the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of a few but also by the abuse of the many.
That idea, once bitterly contested, has now become plausible and even self-evident. Some of the least prestigious and worst-paid jobs—picking fruit, delivering parcels, bathing patients—have turned out to be the most crucial. They are also the riskiest because they involve commuting and working in conditions that increase exposure to COVID-19. In consequence, the pandemic reminds us of who performs these services. In the U.S., someone who is Native American, Hispanic or Black—whose families may have been ripped apart in the distant or recent past by global and domestic processes of wealth extraction—is roughly five times as likely to be hospitalized for the coronavirus as someone who is white.
Marginalized groups also suffer disproportionately from environmental devastation—although they do the least harm to the planet. The world’s top 10 percent of income earners are responsible for up to 43 percent of the environmental impact of human society, whereas the world’s bottom 10 percent contribute no more than 5 percent. Across nations, inequality correlates with worse environmental indicators—probably because the marginalized often lack the clout to fend off polluting facilities, from which the wealthy are more likely to profit. In the U.S., regions with poor air quality, where Black people disproportionately reside, also appear to have worse outcomes from COVID-19.
The pandemic has not only aggravated these stark inequities and injustices, the mass unemployment it has generated has also given millions of Americans the motivation and opportunity to express their outrage. Their impassioned protests against systemic racism may be essential to moving the U.S. to a more equitable and sustainable future. Change is in the air. City dwellers are lending a hand to neighbors who, months earlier, were strangers. And local food movements are providing hope of reducing dependence on highly polluting and often exploitative global supply chains.
Climate activists have long argued that saving Earth and fighting for justice and equality are one and the same. That conviction undergirds the Green New Deal, a package of social, environmental and economic reforms advocated by progressive U.S. politicians. Ensuring that this vision and its international counterpart, the Global Green New Deal, are transformed into reality will require sustained pressure from social movements. Even before the pandemic, the struggles of Indigenous peoples, such as that of the Standing Rock Sioux to defend their right to clean water, and schoolchildren’s strikes to force action on climate change were inspiring millions around the globe. “Another world is not only possible, she’s on her way,” prophesized novelist Arundhati Roy. “On a quiet day, if I listen very carefully, I can hear her breathing.”