For decades we have seen how all the attempts to curb climate change were unsuccessful. Many of us though that the reason for the lack of real action of governments was due to the fact that truly effective measures against climate change require stopping economic growth and states have no power to oppose corporation interests. But the coronavirus crisis is showing us that this is not the real reason. Most states have not hesitated to stop the economy in order to protect people’s lives these days. We may ask: why have them not acted with equal force against climate change if it is also an extremely serious problem?
Some have tried to answer this question these weeks, but I think none of them offers a really convincing answer. It is true that climate change is much slower and has complex cause-effect relationships while our policy is short-term, but I think the real reason is deeper than this and is related to what we think we are and what we love.
We can define love as the ability to feel the other as part of oneself. He or she who loves does not see a difference between his own well-being and that of the loved person or thing. The lover sacrifices himself for what is loved, but he does not perceive it as a sacrifice because he sees himself as part of something greater and feels that by taking care of him, he takes care of himself.
The coronavirus threatens something we love without a doubt: our own life. And also something that we greatly appreciate and we can consider humanity’s most important advancement: public health. That love is what mobilizes us, once fear has set off alarm bells.
In the climate crisis there is no lack of alarm, we already have enough, but it is an alarm that does not move to action because we do not love what is in danger and do not consider it part of us. The great problem of humanity is that we human beings think of ourselves as something different and separate from what we call the environment, the biosphere or nature (and we should call the rest of nature, the rest of the biosphere or the rest of life). Therefore, most people think that environmental measures are things that must be done for the good of the planet and they only, reluctantly, accept them if there is no big loss of personal comfort. We are enormously blind in seeing that everything we do to the rest of the biosphere is done to our health, our economy and our ability to maintain complex societies and technologies.
Inside our cities, we no longer conceive the land as a source of livelihood as our peasant ancestors did, but unconsciously we preserve the ancient prejudices that associate the natural with diseases, pests, dirt, harshness, natural disasters, and hard work. We are very far from internalizing what modern science is telling us with more and more insistence: we are but fragile puppets in the theatre of life and all our technology is unable to protect us from disasters caused by imbalances in the complex web of biosphere.
Buddhism insists that all human suffering is due to lack of awareness and perhaps it is right. The day we are able to conceive ourselves as part of nature as much as we feel part of society and identify with the biosphere as much as we identify with technology, we will see that we must act as forcefully and quickly to bend the curve of climate change as we are acting to bend the curve of the coronavirus. Once we do this change of awareness, we will find hundreds of ways to dramatically reduce our ecological footprint.
The coronavirus crisis is bringing us a very valuable gift: it has shown us how fragile we are and has expanded our identity from the individual to the collective. We are learning that personal health cannot exist without collective health and living a strange feeling of solidarity that makes us feel more united than ever despite the isolation. Hopefully we will be able to continue expanding our identity to everything human being and to the entire biosphere and understand that our personal health cannot exist without the health of all life on the planet. The only problem is that, as in epidemics, it is necessary to be quick and act in the early stages before the situation becomes ungovernable. The most important challenge facing the ecological crisis is, therefore, that our conscience arrives on time.