There’s something in the air… well, something other than novel coronavirus (which is not in fact airborne, but practice social distancing anyway because some people have projectile sneezing capabilities). Maybe it’s the hint of spring, arriving just in time to give us a mote of hope in a deeply anxious time.

But I think it’s something more than that. I can detect the faintest hint of hope — the idealistic premise that maybe, just maybe, a global pandemic is exactly what society needs to jump-start our long-overdue transition to a post-carbon world.

Let me back up a bit. Two weeks ago, when life (in Canada, at least) still felt normal, Extinction Rebellion members from across Nova Scotia gathered in Halifax to reflect on what we’ve accomplished so far and discuss what’s next. We were mostly upbeat, but keenly aware of how steep and long our climb would be. At times, it struck me as absurd to think that this group of 30 radicals stood even a remote chance of saving the world.

Of course, there are far more than 30 of us (Nova Scotia’s XR membership exceeds 1,000 people, and worldwide it must be in the hundreds of thousands). But there remains a sort of cognitive chasm between what we, as a movement, seem to be capable of achieving, and what actually needs to happen right fucking now if we stand any chance of keeping the planet below a catastrophic warming threshold.

Just off the top of my head, we’ve got to:

  • Shut down the commercial airline industry;
  • Encourage millions of people to work at a distance, to bring transportation emissions down;
  • Start relying primarily upon local, community-based resources instead of international trade;
  • Practice active caring for the most vulnerable members of our communities, to make sure no one gets left behind;
  • Adopt lifestyles that prioritize life (safety, security, public health) over lucre (limitless economic growth, profit for the 1%).

Does any of that sound familiar right now?

Last week, I joined an online mega-meeting of over 400 XR members from around the world to hear opinions about how our climate movement should respond to the pandemic. Do we have a greater responsibility to self-isolate at home, or to gather in order to protest the planet’s destruction? It’s the sort of ethical conundrum you expect to find on Star Trek, but not in real life.

And yet, the Gordian knot has a very simple solution, because both causes are, in many ways, the same. When XR International drew up an informal list of policies (since XR is a decentralized movement, we don’t issue orders, just recommendations), they highlighted the importance of modeling the outcome we want to see:

  • Be community-conscious. Reach out on the local level;
  • Model compassionate collaboration;
  • Rely on logic and scientific data, not hearsay;
  • Help clarify the link between pandemic responses and the needs of the planet.

It’s that last one that probably matters most in the long-run. We’ve been saying for months (or years, or decades in the case of some activists) that a low-carbon world is not only necessary, but highly achievable. When deniers or nay-sayers object to the transition, they claim it’s too expensive, or too disruptive, or it would take too long to make a difference anyway. But guess what? When millions of lives are on the line, we can make enormous, systemic changes to our lifestyles, pretty much overnight.

I’m not suggesting that a quarantined society is the ideal. I don’t even believe it’s sustainable. But it’s astonishing how swiftly governments have pivoted from “there’s simply nothing we can do” to “we’re going to do whatever it takes.” For climate activists, it would be infuriating if it weren’t so encouraging.

News sources, desperate to find a silver lining in all this stormy weather, have begun highlighting the positive effects on nature that transpire when human activity drops off sharply. Some of them are more cutesy than convincing — Hey! There are dolphins in the canals of Venice! — but satellite pictures of pollution (or lack thereof) reveal a minor miracle. One Earth system scientist in Stanford believes that coronavirus has saved thousands of lives already by reducing particulate pollution from fossil fuel emissions.

Again, I’m not trying to sell you on COVID-19 as a panacea for our troubles. It is a huge, terrifying threat and should be treated accordingly (time for your reminder: STAY AT HOME IF AT ALL POSSIBLE). What I’m saying is, a life-threatening crisis can become a world-saving opportunity if we can do two things:

  1. Make the Connection. When we are endangered, we already tend to make the sorts of choices that climate activists are calling on: scale back, slow down, look out for each other. It means a post-carbon world is possible. It even means we have the capacity to do it now.
  2. Release the Past. People are still Tweeting about everything they’re going to do when “things go back to normal.” Start telling them — and yourself — that we’re not going back. It’s quite likely that we can’t. It’s beyond debate that we can’t afford to.

One day soon — in a month, or three, or 18 — we’ll be able to go back out into the world. But it’s going to be a different world. It might be sparser. In some ways, it will be healthier. It will also be coloured by loss and trauma. We won’t be able to escape that trauma by returning to “business as usual.”

A better world is possible. We’re proving it right now, with our adaptability and our resolve. Next, we’ll need a massive outpouring of determination to keep the world from backsliding. Start psyching yourself up now. We’re going to need you.


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