by Jessica Maudlin, Associate for Sustainable Living and Earth Care Concerns, PHP
In recent weeks a lot of our attention is focused on the coronavirus. Especially as information rapidly changes, we are constantly on high alert seeking information to clarify the situation. In this heightened state of consciousness though it is easy to overlook other critical happenings.
One such happening is the shocking concessions to polluters that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been making in recent weeks.
According to this story[i] from Vox, the (EPA) announced a freeze on enforcing environmental regulations due to the coronavirus pandemic. In their announcement on March 26, 2020, the EPA says it does “not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that Covid-19 was the cause of the noncompliance.”
Many see this announcement as exploiting the the current pandemic to roll back enforcement of important environmental regulations. Even before the current crisis, the Trump administration had been creating another by rolling back critical regulations put in to place during the Obama era.
One New York Times article[ii] written in December 2019, found that the Trump administration had already rolled back nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations. Those actions have made it easier to drill in wildlife refuges, slash regulations meant to combat over-fishing, and narrow safety assessment requirements for potentially toxic chemicals. At the end of March, the administration finalized its rollback of a major policy that weakened auto emissions standards. The Safer-Affordable Fuel Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule will result in nearly a billion additional metric tons of carbon emissions. The rollback advances reckless policies that harm the future of the economy and the health of people.
Violating Our Original Vocation
More than ever, Covid-19 has brought it to our attention that these actions have consequences and nature is out of balance. Human activity is the biggest threat to nature, and we see that in human-caused climate change, pollution and deforestation.
Another thing that Covid-19 is making clear is that environmental health is very much connected to human health. Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease, a disease which is spread from animals to humans. The more humans exploit and destroy nature and the natural habitats of wild animals, the higher the risk of a virus spillover like Covid-19. [iii]
Facing this ecological crisis as people of faith, we know that this disregard of the environment is a violation of our original vocation. Scripture is full of amazingly strong admonitions and commandments to protect animals and nature, charging us to practice thoughtful stewardship over God’s Creation.
In the beginning, the first commandment (Genesis 1:22) was to the birds, whales, fish and other creatures to “be fruitful and multiply,” and fill the seas and the skies. His first commandment to humans (Genesis 1:28), was to “replenish the earth … and have dominion” over other creatures. These first commandments concern the welfare and survival of animals and nature, and human responsibilities towards them. God as a Creator must have considered this very important. Although the passage giving humans “dominion” over nature and animals has often been cited as a right to control, dominate, or even despoil the environment, the mandate clearly refers to human stewardship responsibilities over the earth, to care for and protect God’s handiwork, to be a good steward of the natural world.
While some may argue that personal changes won’t carry much weight, the planet is telling us something different right now. Being mindful of the tragic loss of life during this time, we see that nature is responding to a decrease in usual human activity. This pausing of our regular activity is revealing how combined actions can make an impact, how the Earth can heal when changes are made and the power that we have when we share a common focus.
Calculations indicate that the improvements in air quality recorded in China may have saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5 years old and 73,000 adults over 70.[iv] In Hyderabad, India the ‘Janata Curfew’ enacted on March 22,2020 led to a subsequent decrease in the emission of harmful gases with the Air Quality Index falling 13 points in less than one day putting it under satisfactory levels, a rare occurrence.[v] And while some of the reports of the condition of the canals in Venice running clearer than ever may have been misinterpreted, it is true that the air is less polluted due to a decrease in boat traffic because of the restricted movement of residents.[vi]
Meanwhile, here at home, the Trump administration continues to allow coal companies to dump mining debris into local water sources[vii], withdrew an Obama-era order to consider climate change in managing natural resources in national parks[viii], and replaced the Obama-era Clean Power Plan[ix], which would have set strict limits on carbon emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants.
Leaving vulnerable populations vulnerable impacts the vulnerability of us all. Inequalities are more apparent than ever in this country – those without resources, without clean water and low wage occupations are even more susceptible to diseases like Covid-19.
For example, many indigenous tribes in Montana, Alaska and in Navajo Nation don’t have access to running water in their homes which makes constantly washing hands a very challenging task.[x] Complicating matters further, Native American populations in the U.S. suffer from health disparities suffered by many poor communities, including higher rates of diabetes, asthma and heart disease, making them more vulnerable to Covid-19.[xi]
Embracing Indigenous Wisdom
Perhaps now more than ever we could benefit from the embracing the wisdom of Native and First Peoples. Indigenous Peoples comprise 5 percent of the world’s population while their lands encompass 22 percent of its surface. Much of traditional indigenous identity is linked to the natural world.
The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report states “There is medium evidence and high agreement that indigenous knowledge is critical for adaptation.” This knowledge includes methods of managing forests and agro-ecological systems, as well as their traditions passed down through the generations. These traditions can help to address challenges that the world faces. While the wider environmental community — and all of us really — may benefit from listening to their wisdom, these communities have no guarantee that it will be respected if they offer it.[xii]
This crisis emphasizes the need to return to a healthier relationship with nature and all beings on Earth. This is where our work begins. Without a doubt, people are sorting through grief, trauma and an overwhelming amount of information. Amidst that, we can’t allow important issues to be overshadowed. This crisis should serve as the warning sign that we cannot continue to favor industry over the health of the environment, animals and humans.
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