All Hands on Deck for Nature vs. Technology

As our world has grown smaller, humanity has become vulnerable in ways that remind us nature’s been disrupting history far longer than technology has.

Elizabeth May

April 9, 2020


We live in a new place — the world of COVID-19. No one — whether in Wuhan or Madrid, Manhattan or Ottawa — lives anywhere else. Like a patient subjected to a medically induced coma, so that we might survive, almost all our normal systems are shut down.

Planes do not take off to resorts that now sit empty. Rows upon rows of desks sit in the dark, their usual occupants working from home. Playgrounds lack for squeals of joy and classrooms gather dust.

Elsewhere, work is at a fever pitch. Front-line health care workers struggle in overcrowded hospitals. Behind the scenes, civil servants work round the clock.

As a member of Parliament, I have never worked so hard. On what? Dozens of constituents stranded in the far-flung corners of the world, helped by a truly heroic effort from Global Affairs Canada, led by Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne and his Parliamentary Secretary Rob Oliphant and legions of civil servants. Getting people out has felt like a matter of life and death. So, I have not worried about putting tickets for flights on my credit card. We’ll sort it out later.

Indigenous people and the most vulnerable in our society all need help. Constituent crises are mostly financial, whether for an individual with no income and bills falling due or for the owner of a closed restaurant who has absolutely no idea how the rent can be paid. Wage subsidies help some, but are cold comfort for others. But we call and email the ministers in charge and keep raising the issues for the people who need help. I am inspired by a spirit of non-partisanship. I love that Chrystia Freeland and Doug Ford are now best buds. All hands on deck.

We, parliamentarians, MPs and senators, are on the phone with each other in daily briefings, every day. I just got the notice for Saturday’s daily call, on Easter weekend. But then again, I will be on a plane Good Friday to be in the chamber on Saturday to make sure the legislation for enhanced wage subsidies — and, I hope, some other help, will be passed.

As the pandemic reality settles upon us, some have begun, inevitably, to start drawing larger lessons from this catastrophic event. It is too soon to know what legacy will be left from COVID-19, but it seems certain that when things “get back to normal,” it will not be the old normal.

The early links between COVID-19 and impacts on pollution risked a cringe-worthy celebratory tone. The images of wildlife outside their normal bounds caused some to conclude that nature was rebounding. And the “dolphins in the canals of Venice” photo turned out not to be Venice at all. But there is no denying that the skies are clearer, the air less polluted and that the Himalayas are visible from the Punjab in northern India for the first time in decades.

The Pope’s Palm Sunday interview likely startled many when he mused about the pandemic as nature’s response to human greed, a consumer culture and abuse of Creation itself: “There is an expression in Spanish: ‘God always forgives, we forgive sometimes, but nature never forgives.’ We did not respond to the partial catastrophes. Who now speaks of the fires in Australia, or remembers that 18 months ago a boat could cross the North Pole because the glaciers had all melted? Who speaks now of the floods? I don’t know if these are the revenge of nature, but they are certainly nature’s responses.”

His spiritual reflection is echoed by scientists, like Peter Daszak, disease ecologist. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, he wrote, “Pandemics are on the rise, and we need to contain the process that drives them, not just the individual diseases. Plagues are not only part of our culture; they are caused by it.”

We have been used to a culture of technological triumphalism. The limits experienced by earlier generations — the reality of plagues and locusts — were behind us. So often I have heard intelligent and thoughtful people brush off the reality of climate science, the unbreakable limits imposed by our carbon budgets, with “I have faith in technology. We will find a solution.”

COVID19 reminds us that we are not in a safe, human constructed bubble where nothing can harm us. Our great economies have been brought to their knees.

And these same globalized economies helped create the conditions that allowed this to happen. As Thomas Homer Dixon wrote in the Globe and Mail (so long ago it seems like months, but it was only March 7th), “When we look at this larger picture, we see a striking reality: The SARS CoV-2 virus seems well-tuned to exploit the specific characteristics of the world we’ve created for ourselves — with our massive population tightly linked together by air travel, exotic tourist excursions and just-in-time supply chains, and marked by brutal inequalities in health care and physical well-being.

“Taken together, humanity is now among the largest bodies of genetically identical, multicellular biomass on Earth; all told, we weigh nearly a third of a billion tonnes. Combined with our proximity in huge cities and our constant travel back and forth around the globe, we’re now an enormous petri dish brimming with nutrients for cultivating new diseases.”

So, taken together, here is how I hope our next normal will be different. We will accept the threat to our survival due to the climate crisis, as we have done in response to COVID-19. Public science matters and scientists’ advice will be followed. We will be forever changed by seeing what happens when governments step up to a challenge. I kept trying to say in the election that we needed the equivalent of a wartime footing to take the climate threat seriously. But no one could imagine governments acting the way they used to in wartime. Well, now we can imagine it. We are living it. All hands on deck.

And so, the resilient recovery to get people back to work and businesses back in the black must be built with a firm and clear-eyed commitment to a carbon neutral world. We have to flatten the curve of climate emergency and avoid the risk of runaway global warming. We know we can. We are doing it now.

Policy magazine Contributing Writer Elizabeth May, MP, is leader of the Green Parliamentary Caucus.