It Is a Time to Restore the Ethos of the Common Good of All
By Jim Olson
Like all of you, in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, the common ground we share—the ground we stand on—is shaking, sinking, shifting beneath our feet.
A Sorrow of Loss and Humanity
We experience or share others’ pain, suffering and loss; some close, others far, those thousands we don’t know—nurses, doctors, emergency medical technicians who have risked or even given their lives to help save another. Even with the open spaces of time mixed with work and things at home put off far too long, I can’t shake the sadness that has taken hold of me, a deep sorrow for our common humanity.
A Solace of Hope
Before firing up the laptop this morning, my wife Judy and I watched a great blue heron engulf the top of a tall spruce with its six-foot wingspan. Last evening, we picked a few twigs of pussy willow, tip-toed the riverbank to follow the spring steelhead run up the Platte River in northwest Michigan, and watched a brown trout torment the spawning pair for their eggs. The cycles of seasons, water, plants, animals stirring in the cedar swamp follow their preordained course to seek the common good. Maybe in this dark shadow of COVID-19 we, too, in our shared humanity will return to and follow the common ground that has been shaken.
But I’m also angry.
It took months—absolutely critical months—after the exponential explosion of the coronavirus for the CEO and his confidants on Pennsylvania Avenue to admit the seriousness of the coming crisis. Why are our federal and state governments, and why are we, ourselves so-ill prepared, without foresight and coordination for supplies that are needed to face the COVID-19 crisis? They’ve had fair warning from the SARS, MIRS, and Ebola emergencies. We witnessed the same lax approach when hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, and Maria hit us. This is not just in the United States. Last year, cyclones and heavy rains hit southeast Africa and Bangladesh when those in harm’s way could have been helped by a proactive priority to address climate change and their safety.
It took a year for Michigan and federal officials to respond when the residents of Flint were exposed to lead by a governor-appointed, politically directed emergency manager’s rush to shift the city’s water supply to the polluted Flint River. Since 2014, the City of Detroit has refused to stop water shutoffs of poor residents who have no ability to pay—the number approaching as many as 140,000 in 2020. The same is true in the City of Benton Harbor. There is no recognition of the rights of citizens to water and health.
It took a month for Detroit and Michigan to declare an emergency and halt water shutoffs and order the restoration of water service to the thousands of homes still shut off from water when they need it most—to wash hands and surfaces to avoid or mitigate exposure to the virus. And, it’s still not clear these residents can turn on their taps to wash their hands, drink water, and cook.
So, this has been endemic to government for years—free markets, deregulation, slashed taxes, downsized government, increased subsidies, strip-mined laws and lack of enforcement, and indifference to the rights and needs of citizens and the good of others:
- The Trump administration has repealed Clean Air Act carbon limits to fuel coal power plants, waived environmental impact and alternative analysis in energy, pipeline, and infrastructure projects, and gutted the Clean Water Act by dropping the “waters of the U.S.” rule with the loss of small cold-water feeder streams and wetlands—regulations that are more necessary than ever because of flooding caused by climate change and unprecedented rainfall.
- The Trump administration has also directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to stop recognizing solid scientific research and ignore scientists who would undermine the agency’s dismantling of environmental health and pollution laws.
- The EPA, Ohio, and even the State of Michigan refuse to lay down the law and force cleanup by agricultural and concentrated farm operations that are flushing wastes and nutrients into rivers and Lake Erie. These pollutants have converted one-third of the lake into a toxic green cesspool that has closed beaches, destroyed lakeshore tourism, killed fish, shut down fishing and Toledo’s public water supply for 400,000 people.
- States like Michigan have suspended enforcement of environmental standards that exceed the protection of federal standards. These state standards are adopted to address pollution and destruction of our public waters and to protect paramount public rights in our public water for drinking, health, sanitation, sustenance, fishing, navigation, bathing, and swimming. Strangely, if the federal government weakens and suspends federal laws and standards, will our own ability to protect health, water, and people correspondingly be weakened?
Wait, I’m furious.
Last week, the Trump administration leveraged the COVID-19 crisis to suspend federal enforcement of violations of environmental laws under the guise that industry needed help to keep their employees working. The oil and gas industry would put people back to work if they can pollute without fear of enforcement? This is absurd. The administration claimed the suspension was temporary, but the time frame is indefinite. If industry employees can suddenly be put back to work because of COVID-19, why were they were working before COVID-19 to enforce federal health and environmental laws?
The devil’s in the details, the saying goes. In this case, the devil is the infuriating motivation behind the suspension: the EPA cited the release of the suspension of environmental laws was urgent and that the polluting industries couldn’t meet the deadlines for comments in time for the needed action; at the same time, the EPA refused to let public interest groups extend deadlines, saying comments could be timely met despite the coronavirus! Then a federal district court in Washington, D.C., ruled that the federal permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline (the “Standing Rock” case ) through South Dakota was invalid because the company and federal agencies violated the impact statement requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act—the agencies had ignored serious concerns related to risks and worst-case scenarios from a failure and oil spills. Now the pipeline and others can move forward without having to comply with federal laws and regulations—like those that require them to monitor, investigate, and prevent spills from oil and gas pipeline operations (Line 5, in Michigan, anyone?). So, now it’s up to the states and their water, environmental, and health laws. Oh, but what if those laws in Michigan can’t be more stringent than these weaker federal standards?
Hope for Subduing COVID-19 and Return to the Common Good
Let’s get angry and positive at the same time. It’s not enough to blame and become outraged, or furious. How do we turn this loss and mourning into the days of healing, and then bring about constructive change in the hope there is a light overcoming the darkness?
We’ve known for decades that greenhouse gases have warmed the atmosphere, perhaps better described as hydrosphere, and that this has warmed the earth, whipsawed weather and water, and destabilized our earth’s inextricably related support systems. In turn, this has heaped stress and increased the vulnerability of plants, animals, and the water cycle that supports them. COVID-19 is the next notch in a noose that has a stranglehold on our lives, communities, air, water, habitat, plants and animals—an awareness and hope that we might all put humanity and the common good of health, education, environment, and basic services such as drinking water, first, and collectively do something about it. We can no longer sit by and do nothing, while the global corporate dominance of economics, a culture of weak government, and the “great god” of free markets enslave us and our planet. My hope is that we don’t chalk up COVID-19 as an isolated tragedy waiting to happen.
But we can’t stop there and blame it all on climate change either. Before the recent devastation from droughts, fires, massive storms and precipitation, and flooding, we’ve had years of deregulation and increasing toxic pollution, plastic islands and invisible fibers in our oceans and water, loss of forests, erosion, sedimentation, and deaths caused by a society that has turned its back on the ethos and laws once passed for the common good. While the nation suffers through this time of COVID-19, we must not let leaders and their slash-and-burn politics gut the very laws that protect water, air, health, and environment and expose us to even greater risks of harm on top of what we are all facing.
The time has come to recognize we all live in an interdependent, interconnected world. We are on the same island coursing around the sun, we are a humanity that will survive only if we put the common good of all for generations to come, first, and utilitarian and material endeavors and wants, second.