What can nature teach us about responding to two massive crises?
The mycelium is a type of fungi that thrives on decomposition.
Spores germinate and multiply, forming mushrooms that absorb nutrients and swallowing dead plants, devouring toxins and fostering the growth of new life. It's essentially the earth's life support system, the embodiment of regeneration.
What we need now is life support, and a mycelium of relief—a multifaceted plan that understands and utilizes our interconnectedness, which could save us or that could drive us to extinction. But one thing's for certain: Our divisions are killing us. We need to let the systems that no longer serve us decompose so that new realities can come to light.
Today, though, many of us are facing a peculiar polarity. We're isolated because of a pandemic that threatens all of humanity. Yet we have failed to rally together to fight it, and if anything, political divisions have deepened in recent weeks.
We've also failed to rally around another existential threat, a parallel—and far more severe—crisis that's been bubbling under the surface of our reality for decades. The climate crisis will wreak far more havoc than the virus has, costing many more lives and changing our world on a much vaster scale. It's already contributing to rising sea levels that are flooding cities. You can see it manifesting in the wildfires that smeared California and Australia these past few years, in the tsunami that eviscerated Japan in 2011, in the bad air quality that's decimating the lungs of people living in crowded cities, and in the waves of refugees fleeing conflicts sparked by droughts and other disasters. If a climate-related disaster were to hit an area affected by COVID-19 or another pandemic, the results would be apocalyptic beyond measure.
Neither COVID or climate have easy, immediate solutions, which is part of what makes them such vast, slippery issues. Both could, of course, be solved by scientific miracles—a vaccine or a superbly effective fossil-fuel devourer—but since we can't count on those inventions, then we have to rely instead on solutions that are much more difficult to define.
We have to rely on each other, and on policies that support our most vulnerable populations as well as our most powerful. Be it a virus or a wildfire, climate change and coronavirus do far more harm to frontline communities than they affect people who can work from home or who can live off their savings. While half of the population rests on their couches, another half scrounges to eat or pulls themselves off to another brutal shift at a grocery store or in a hospital. The coronavirus crisis has exposed the brutal divisions of American society, which allow some people to safely isolate while others face extreme poverty and instability.
These divisions are largely consequences of neoliberal capitalism, a driving force behind climate change. "Let's not lose sight of the root cause of this crisis: rampant capitalism. Capitalism has steamrolled this planet and its organisms, gouging out mountains, overexploiting fish stocks, and burning fossil fuels to power the maniacal pursuit of growth and enrich a fraction of humanity," writes Matt Simon. "Since 1988, 100 corporations have been responsible for 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions."
No wonder the Earth is collapsing under our weight. But the solutions to coronavirus and climate change may just be intertwined, part of the same web of regeneration and redistribution that could lift us up and off of the edge of this cliff.
One such solution is outlined in the People's Bailout, a relief and recovery package designed by over 800 activist groups. The People's Bailout demands that Congress commit to five steps during their efforts to provide COVID-19 relief:
1. Health is the top priority, for all people, with no exceptions
2. Economic relief must be provided directly to the people
3. Rescue workers and communities, not corporate executives
4. Make a downpayment on a regenerative economy while preventing future crises
5. Protect our democratic process while protecting each other
In a world where the actual stimulus package that Congress passed provided $3 trillion of relief to major corporations (a check three times the size of Joe Biden's climate plan), all this seems far away.
But this is America, and this is humanity, and this is life, which should be an impossibility in itself. Despite our many mistakes, we have always built impossible things. We have created glorious temples and magnificent skyscrapers; we criss-crossed the world with roads; we sent men to the moon. We may not always act ethically or responsibly, but we have the power to build and we have the power to grow.
Now we are being forced to change. We have the choice to build a world that can sustain itself—for the good of not only the planet, but for the good of our own world, our own economies, our own selves.
We need plans that erode poverty and pollution and disease and convert them into new, creative solutions. Plans that start from below, from inside, from underground, from the communities that need them most, and that grow up and out towards the light. An alchemy of release and rebirth, starting from the soil and the sadness of isolation, upwards and outwards and eventually back outside, towards a future truly worth fighting for.
We need to have faith, even though it all seems impossible—because what's the alternative?
We can create a future of open fields and breathable air, of wind turbines and monthly checks that land like clockwork in our bank accounts, of fewer private jets and more bullet trains. That future seems further and further away with each devastating headline and each rising degree.
That the Earth exists at all—that we broke through the darkness, that some spore broke into the shape of life—is an impossibility in itself. Within each of us there is a longing to survive, to connect, and to heal.
In her book Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler writes, "God is change." This pandemic has shown us that everything can change on a dime. Now the question is: What kind of change do we want? What are we choosing to worship during this time? And what role can each of us play in creating it?
The world is both hotter and more overcrowded than ever before. Naturally, these things are intertwined.
World Population Day was established in 1989 by the United Nations Council in order to draw attention to population issues. Back then, the world's population stood at 5.198 billion. Thirty years later, there are 7.7 billion people in the world, with an estimated 360,000 more being born each day.
It's hard to think about overpopulation without thinking about climate change, which threatens the livelihoods of every single one of these new children.
Climate change's consequences have already begun to emerge, and needless to say, they will worsen exponentially if climate change continues at its current rate. Effects include rising sea levels, tens of thousands of heat-related deaths, polluted air, a spike in chronic illnesses, severe droughts, mass extinctions that ruin ecological systems and destroy agriculture, and many natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires that will devastate infrastructure and generate massive flows of refugees. We've already seen these things, in the devastating 2018 California wildfires, in hurricanes like Sandy and Maria, in the drought that was a root cause of the Syrian refugee crisis, and in so many other instances.
Image via Undark
These events are only the tip of the iceberg. A 2018 UN report announced that we have twelve years to reverse the worst effects of climate change; if we fail to essentially keep temperatures from rising above 1.5C, hundreds of millions of people will suffer the consequences.
Certainly, the vastness of our world's population is a root cause of this deadly warming. According to Business Today, "One of the greatest consequences of growing population, which is perhaps a great threat to our livelihood as well, is the quick depletion of natural resources." More people means more carbon burned, more resources consumed, more people falling through the cracks.
In a merely theoretical sense, it seems logical that humanity's population explosion would happen concurrently with exponential climate change and ecological disaster, because the way our population has grown is anything but natural.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, human society followed a particular law: As populations grow, food supplies decrease, and so the population decreases, and the food supply increases. This is the same rule that keeps animal populations in check. However, since the dawn of industry, human beings have been producing more and more food and resources to support our burgeoning population, effectively placing ourselves at the top of the food chain, subsequently displacing animal populations, and decimating our natural resources.
Now, we are reaching a breaking point.
Image via MarketWatch
However, it's too simplistic to say that the amount of people in the world is directly proportional to the rate of climate change. It's true that the locations where the largest percentages of children are being born are the places that will be most severely damaged by the rising tides and hurricanes that are stemming from warming. According to Time Magazine, rapid population growth will only lock these nations into cycles of poverty, making it extremely difficult for these places to rebound from climate change's effects. However, these places are not the ones producing the majority of carbon emissions: That honor is reserved for developed countries, like the US.
The real cause of climate change is not overpopulation alone. It's the mentality that has allowed oil companies to grow into the massive corporations they are; and that has allowed Americans, who comprise 5% of the global population, to consume 25% of the world's resources, and that has allowed many childless couples in the US to consume far more resources than couples with children. That mentality has led us to accumulate endlessly without paying any heed to natural balances or equity.
Therefore, reducing the population is actually not the most important step that needs to be taken in order to combat climate change. This is because, according to Vox, it's not that the resources we have can't support a larger population: the US could successfully feed 400 million people simply by consuming locally what we are currently exporting. The problem is that we can't maintain the kinds of resource-guzzling, carbon-based lifestyles that we—and particularly, the extremely wealthy—have become accustomed to living. Simply reducing the number of people but not addressing our society's problem with carbon and consumption will have a negligible effect on the climate. In actuality, lower fertility rates can lead to higher GDP, as childless folks can accumulate more resources that they in turn spend on flights and other energy-guzzling activities.
Image via RT.com
Though population control would help, it's far more important that we figure out how to re-distribute resources in a sustainable way, rather than wasting such a vast amount of resources like we do in America. In the end, slashing carbon emissions—and, concurrently, shifting our cultural obsession with accumulation and individualism to an emphasis on egalitarianism—is still by far the most important thing we can do for the climate.
Even so, having fewer children and making education and birth control more widely accessible would be hugely significant overall. Furthermore, deciding not to have a child is totally a viable, impactful way to combat climate change (and it's possibly even the ethical choice, given the ecological mess that new generations will find themselves involuntarily subjected to).
Because if we remain on the path we're on? The population will just continue to expand, hitting a projected 8 billion by 2050. Soon enough, natural disasters will result in the deaths of millions; more people will starve or die in refugee camps; and then, as water becomes undrinkable and the planet becomes too hot for any growing thing, that will be the end of this whole experiment called life.