As 2020 closes, I am weary from struggling against the challenges that confront us. With the approval of a vaccine, people see an end to the stress and fear of this pandemic that has taken the lives of 316,844 Americans with 1.8 million infected by the coronavirus. (1) We long for a return to “normal.” But as we wait for the pandemic to recede, it is critical to recognize the important lessons that emerge from this crisis. COVID-19 amplified difficulties that have always been present and forced a reckoning. The Presidential election in this year of pandemic restrictions gave a stress test to our institutions, and we passed, but with huge red flags waving. We have taken one step back from the edge of an abyss, but we have yet to make a turn in the direction of resilience, inclusion and prosperity for all, in America and around the world. As we execute a recovery from COVID, we must take the opportunity to address the complex problems revealed and build a New Normal.
web of life
Lessons to shape a “New Normal”
- Take responsibility to preserve the interconnected web of life. The pandemic of COVID-19 is a predicted symptom to the destruction of the ecosystems that support life on Earth. Human infrastructure, industrial agriculture and extractive resource industries have altered the Earth significantly. According to the Fifth Global Biodiversity Assessment, 75 per cent of the land surface is significantly altered, 66 per cent of the ocean area is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts, and over 85 per cent of wetlands area has been lost. While the rate of forest loss has slowed globally since 2000, this is distributed unequally. Across much of the highly biodiverse tropics, 32 million hectares of primary or recovering forest were lost between 2010 and 2015. Over one million species face extinction within a decade. (2) Transformative changes in the way we produce food, obtain and use energy, and manage materials can protect and restore biodiversity, habitats and ecosystems. Preserving biodiversity is our best defense against further pandemic outbreaks from viruses and diseases that cross from animals to humans either from contact or from food chains. Using agricultural land to capture carbon, protect watersheds and pollinators and provide food primarily for people rather than for animals can limit the wasteful depletion of soil from industrial agriculture practices.(3) We must adjust all of our policies and practices to protect our life support system, the gifts of the living earth. (4) It must be our mission to protect and restore natural ecosystems and integrate human activities into their functions without destroying them. The technology and policy pathways to do this are known and operate well. We must make the moral and ethical choice to live in harmony with Nature.
3. The mainstream economy is not working for millions of Americans. Household incomes have grown only modestly in this century. Economic inequality, whether measured through the gaps in income or wealth between richer and poorer households, continues to widen. Households near the top of the economic ladder had incomes that were 12.6 times higher than those at the bottom in 2018. (5) Income inequality has increased by about 20% from 1980 to 2016 according to Congressional Budget Office reports. (6) Moreover, one-third of US adults either can’t pay all their bills or are one small problem away from it. Forty three percent of rural households report adult household members have lost their jobs, been furloughed, or had wages or hours reduced since the start of the COVID outbreak, with two-thirds of these households (66%) reporting serious financial problems. (7) The pandemic crisis has made evident the stark reality that faces nearly half of Americans- we are one paycheck away from disaster. Savings are insufficient to the need, and loss of a job to illness or business closure leaves millions with no recourse but bankruptcy and despair. Millions see no path to upward mobility or wealth accumulation, and most believe they are powerless to change the situation. One way to address this issue is to strengthen unions and establish a higher minimum wage, with adjustments to the cost of living regularly incorporated into the minimum wage index. As union membership declines, more of the income share has gone to the top 10% of wage earners. The weakened bargaining power of workers since 1979 has continuously decreased the earning power of workers (11.1% growth) compared to productivity increases (70.3% growth) from 1979 to 2017. At the same time, a greater share of corporate earnings has gone to the capital owners, expanding the earnings gap significantly over this period. (8)
2. Acknowledge and address systemic racism. This year, America was confronted again with the painful reality that our country was founded on the genocide of Indigenous Peoples of this continent and was built on a culture of slavery and indentured servitude. The statistics on COVID impact on people of color made the inequities of systemic racist practices impossible to ignore. It is clear that without acknowledging that the Health Gap, the Wealth Gap and the Power Gap stem from long-sustained practices and deliberate policies of oppression, we will be unable to heal this nation and find our common ground. (9) We are none of us free until we take responsibility for the rights of the downtrodden. None of us are free as long as our fellow citizens are abused before the law. We are all guilty if we stand by in silence while our fellow citizens suffer injustice, abuse and despair. Public demonstrations for Black Lives Matter in the face of police killings of black people in multiple locations around the country raised this issue again. More police, training for police or defunding police were proposed in various locations to keep peace. Freedom is not free- it comes with a responsibility to fight for justice, to act for fairness, and to demand accountability from those in power. (10) Redressing the legacy of redlining districts, of limiting credit for business and personal loans, and failing to provide the social infrastructure to support people and communities of color must take a higher priority in public policy. Those of us who do not bear the daily burden of hatred must stand up and lift that yoke of racist hatred from the backs of our Brothers and Sisters.
4. Govern for The People, not corporations. The pendulum of politics swings over decades from right to left and back, driven by circumstances and the struggle for power. Two forces have shaped our governance culture since the 1980’s. The Regan Administration introduced a governing principle of economic determination for all federal programs, and argued for a trickle down effect for government spending. Thus, federal programs that did not meet the economic productivity test were defunded and gradually eroded. These included education programs, grants to the arts and to basic research, social services, health care services and public parks. Even under the Democratic administrations in the period 1979 to 2020, there was little push back to these policies in principle. At the same time, the influence of corporate interests expanded considerably through Citizen United granting corporations the rights of “persons” under the law. And finally the heavily gerrymandered voting districts where districts are aligned for political advantage rather than for logical and fair distribution of representation for voters. While productivity of American businesses grew 70.3% between 1979 and 2017, hourly compensation of workers grew by only 11.1% in the same period. ( 11) These disparities are not accidental, but rather flow from specific subsidies and tax policies. The social inequities in wealth, health care, education and access to capital have grown from these practices which give advantage to the top 10% and corporations, even multinational corporations not headquartered in America, to the disadvantage of working people. (11 ) Environmental protections, climate mitigation and protection of public lands and parks have likewise fallen in priority to the advantage of specific corporate interests. It is time to return the priorities of government to protecting the interests of The People, to govern for the public interest, not private benefit. For this year and the next three decades, we must sustain a divestment from subsidies to fossil extractive industries at all levels from research, exploration, production and development of infrastructure. We must invest in communities to build the infrastructure for the green economy, creating manufacturing and restorative jobs in areas abandoned and left waste by prior decades of extraction. We must restore the environmental protections and the social safety net that sustain the well being, productivity and quality of life for all Americans, placing priority on those most affected by sacrifice zones and abandoned extractive practices such as the people of Appalachia. (12 )
Decide to preserve a living planet with a just, inclusive, caring society for our children and theirs to seven generations forward.
As we close this year of challenge and such sadness, we can look ahead to a better time. The solutions to the inter-related problems of environmental degradation, racial and social injustice and wealth disparity can be solved like a set of simultaneous equations. Only by integrating environmental health with a social safety net based on respect for the dignity of every person can we reach a sustainable prosperity. We must restore the value that to achieve prosperity that can be sustained, we must create an inclusive structure where all can thrive. The bloated enrichment of the top few has distorted our sense of what is right and just. Without justice there is no peace. Without accountability there is no freedom. Without love, there is no life.
December 24, 2020
Resources and citations
1. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID Data Tracking. December 23, 2020. https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases_casesper100klast7days
2. IPBES (2019): Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. S. Díaz, J. Settele, E. S. Brondízio E.S., H. T. Ngo, M. Guèze, J. Agard, A. Arneth, P. Balvanera, K. A. Brauman, S. H. M. Butchart, K. M. A. Chan, L. A. Garibaldi, K. Ichii, J. Liu, S. M. Subramanian, G.F.Midgley, P. Miloslavich, Z. Molnár, D. Obura, A. Pfaff, S. Polasky, A. Purvis, J. Razzaque, B. Reyers, R. Roy Chowdhury, Y. J. Shin, I. J. Visseren-Hamakers, K. J. Willis, and C. N. Zayas (eds.). IPBES secretariat, Bonn, Germany. 56 pages. (https://www.ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf )
3. Patricia DeMarco, Sara Nicholas, Stephen Herzenberg. “Heal Our Land and Our People: Create a Modern Civilian Conservation Corps and Promote Regenerative Agriculture and Agroforestry.” Reimagine Appalachia White Papers. September 2020. https://reimagineappalachia.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Reimagine-Appalachia-Regenerative-Ag-CCC-Whitepaper-10-28-2020.pdf
4. For a more detailed discussion of ecosystems and ecosystem services see: https://patriciademarco.com/2019/12/10/gifts-of-the-living-earth/
5. Jason Beery. “Pittsburgh- The Pittsburgh of Appalachia- A geography of power and extraction.” UrbanKind Institute. February 2019. https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/4691da36-2e74-4c4c-99f0-19c3eee5ac9e/downloads/1d31iaaj6_122302.pdf?ver=1558223417346
6. The Distribution of Household Income, 2016. Congressional Budget Office. Juy 9, 2019. https://www.cbo.gov/publication/55413
7. The Impact of Coronavirus on Households Across America. Report by NPR, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. September 2020. https://www.rwjf.org/en/library/research/2020/09/the-impact-of-coronavirus-on-households-across-america.html
8.Elise Gould. Decades of Rising economic inequity in the United States. (Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee. Economic Policy Institute. March 27, 2019. https://www.epi.org/publication/decades-of-rising-economic-inequality-in-the-u-s-testimony-before-the-u-s-house-of-representatives-ways-and-means-committee/
9 Robert Bullard. “The Quest for Environmental Justice and the Politics of Place and Race.” The Climate Reality Project. April 17, 2020. https://climaterealityproject.org/blog/quest-environmental-justice-and-politics-place-and-race?utm_source=EcoDistricts+List&utm_campaign=dfb72e0a33-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_06_03_09_41&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_33b8680174-dfb72e0a33-413060723&mc_cid=dfb72e0a33&mc_eid=e9cfe20491
10. Juliana Menasce, Ruth Igielnik and Rakesh Kochhar. “ Most Americans say there is too much economic inequality in the U.S., but fewer than half call it a priority.” Pew Research Center. January 9, 2020. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/01/09/most-americans-say-there-is-too-much-economic-inequality-in-the-u-s-but-fewer-than-half-call-it-a-top-priority/
11. Michael McCormack, Amanda Novello. “The True State of the U.S. Economy.” The Century Foundation. November 26,2019. https://tcf.org/content/report/true-state-u-s-economy/?session=1
12. Reimagine Appalachia Blueprint- A New Deal that Works for Us. September 2020. https://reimagineappalachia.org/