Reflections on Civic Life and the Pandemic: Hannah Provost on Environmentalism and Covid-19

Amidst untold deaths, massive shortages of medical supplies, and inequalities in healthcare treatment, two different ways of thinking about nature have emerged in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nature has become a crucial mental, spiritual, and physical solace for many who are restricted due to Stay-At-Home orders and unable to access other mental and spiritual resources. Alternatively, nature is also being devalued and exploited by institutions who see the pandemic as an opportunity to exploit natural spaces for financial gain.

Most states have given Stay-At-Home orders, many of which, at least initially, allowed individual recreation outside for mental and physical health. With most other means of entertainment and activity restricted, there was an immediate spike in running outside, hiking, and recreating in state and national parks. Because I had to leave Lehigh University when classes moved online due to the pandemic, I saw firsthand the increase of outdoor activity in my home state. In North Carolina, as in many other places, the state park’s system had to quickly close trails and basic access because the woods were becoming too crowded. The parks were suddenly becoming public spaces that were at risk of contributing to ineffective social distancing and permitting the spread of Covid-19. These parks have always allegedly been public space, but it is notable how frequently we have not recognized or acted on this, at least until we had no alternative. The rapid spike of recreational visits to state parks, and the subsequent closures, marks a resurgence of thinking of nature as a public space, a place of meeting, a place of both individual solace and community. Shut inside with only our technology to entertain us, many U.S. citizens turned to nature for succor, activity, and peace. And we overwhelmed these spaces. In North Carolina at least, it began to seem as if there wasn’t enough natural space to sustain the people who wanted to enjoy it. As states begin to reopen now, will our newfound appreciation for natural spaces remain with us? Or will we quickly forget we had fallen back on nature in the most desperate times?

The rapid spike of recreational visits to state parks, and the subsequent closures, marks a resurgence of thinking of nature as a public space, a place of meeting, a place of both individuality and community.

In contrast, just as untold numbers of U.S. citizens were reaching for nature to combat social isolation and claustrophobia, the Trump administration began to attack environmental protections, profiting on the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic to push through unpopular policy changes that benefit industry. Among many examples, the Environmental Protection Agency has suspended enforcement of laws relegating limits on pollutants. In addition, a plan has been pushed forward to advance a mining road into Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. The States of Kentucky, West Virginia, and South Dakota likewise have passed legislation that categorizes oil pipelines as “critical infrastructure” in order to crack down on protests against oil companies. This legislation is designed to make it easier to prosecute civil disobedience and assembly that environmentalists often use.

A utility pipeline crosses a mountain stream in Sylva, North Carolina. Photo Credit: Hannah Provost.

I took these photos as I ventured outside to find solace during the early months of the pandemic. The first photo captures the potential solitary beauty and peace that outdoor spaces can offer us when the world is otherwise chaotic. In the second photo, that same creek is marred by a utility pipeline. I found the second photo to be symbolic of the subtle ways that corporate interests impact our individual and collective experiences of natural spaces. If the pandemic has affirmed the value of natural spaces for so many of us, how can we commit to that value through policy? How can we ensure that Trump and other opportunity-seeking officials do not capitalize on moments of disaster to further their own agenda?

As I look at these images, I reflect on what we fleetingly have in nature, and how rigorously those things are under attack behind the smokescreen of the trauma of the pandemic. The two different ways of engaging with nature that I’ve identified here reflect the same portal imagery that Arundhati Roy so beautiful and starkly articulates in her recent essay “The Pandemic is a Portal.” She writes,

And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

The pandemic can overwhelm our connection with nature, or it can help us confirm it. Those same policies that pollute our rivers pollute the bodies and health of every person who lives by those rivers. The portal at our fingertips is one that could change the course of climate legislation in this country. If the Covid-19 pandemic is a reminder that in terms of healthcare, there can be no return to normalcy, the pandemic also asks us to examine what normalcy means in terms of our environmental policies, and how we might reimagine “normal” in that context.

The rapid spread of disease and the increasing numbers of natural disasters go hand in hand. As we rethink the ways we should respond to this health crisis, so too we should rethink the ways we respond to the climate crisis and the need for protecting our environment.

One comment Add yours
  1. I appreciate your inclusion of the Arundhati Roy quote — she is a great, enlightened thinker!

    It’s shocking to see the rather pathetic U.S. response compared to Cuba’s robust and effective actions. (see How Che Guevara Taught Cuba to Confront COVID-19 []

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