Too often we give our power away by assuming political leaders or corporations have all the power to save the environment, and individuals don’t. Part of that is our own advocacy strategy as environmentalists. It’s easier to mobilize people against Donald Trump or oil companies than it is to mobilize people against our own bad habits or those of neighbors. Blame it on human nature and our own resistance to sacrifice; it’s easy to say: “My impact is too small, so I don’t need to change my habits.”
The coronavirus crisis lays bare this copout as the lie it is.
For years, reactionary politicians and oil executives have predicted Americans won’t change their driving or flying habits. Some environmental groups have said the environment can only be saved if governments and corporations make a change. Then wham! We experience a pandemic and amazingly, people are able to make massive changes to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality in a matter of weeks. Car traffic is down more than 36 percent according to Caltrans. Stanford researcher Rob Jackson estimates global carbon output will fall by more than 5 percent this year, the first dip since 2008 and the largest reduction on emissions in the last 40 years.
Anyone who believes this happened because of the government order massively overestimates the government’s power to control behavior. We don’t have enough cops to enforce it! It didn’t happen as a direct result of the government order, it happened because most people decided to comply with it.
This illustrates the overwhelming power of collective decision-making. The curve of infections dramatically flattened, in California in particular, because of your decisions to physically distance. A supervirus that could have taken millions of lives in the U.S. has instead been held to under 50,000 thus far. My question and challenge to you this Earth Day, is if avoiding hundreds of thousands of deaths can motivate you to reduce your emissions rapidly, why can’t the goal of avoiding ecological collapse and a refugee crisis at least four times worse than anything we have ever seen?
Despite tragic losses, we are defeating COVID in Santa Barbara County with approximately 50 percent effective social distancing. Reducing climate change does not require 100 percent compliance, but it does take significant changes. This crisis has shown employers and managers that working from home is often productive. Perhaps we can all commit to telecommuting once or twice a week even when the “shelter in place” order is lifted? Less commuting means handing oil companies less of our paychecks to destroy our children’s future — money we desperately need for other things.
Look at the news. You are successfully demolishing a significant part of the fossil fuel industry as global demand for oil tanks. Keep it up! Take fewer but longer vacations (or ones closer to home). Buy a used electric car. Run appliances only between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. when most energy resources are low-carbon. Eat less meat. We know we can change the world because we already are.
Das Williams is 1st District Supervisor for Santa Barbara County.