The Casual Blog

Tag: Coronavirus

Safe voting, affectionate birds, climate undenialism, and beginning capitalism 2.0

I voted!   I was not eager to vote in person because of the pandemic, and had some misgivings about the reliability of voting by mail.  But friends pointed me to BallotTrax, a new online tool in NC and other states that lets you know when your mailed ballot has been received and accepted.  It’s easy and fun!  Well, not exactly fun, but reassuring.  In NC, once the mailed ballots are received, they are checked in, and counted on election night.

This week I went to Scotland Neck, NC to visit the birds at Sylvan Heights Bird Park.  There were a lot of beautiful avians, and some of them were surprisingly affectionate, following me around and gesturing.  Had they been missing having human visitors when the place was closed for the pandemic?  Hard to say, but maybe.  Here are a few of the photographs I made. 

Elsewhere we’ve been having a lot of simultaneous disasters, including huge fires across the length of the West Coast, flooding from hurricanes, fracturing ice shelves, and the coronavirus plague, not to mention the drama regarding the fate of American democracy.  These are hard to think about, either separately or together.  But I always try to look for a silver lining, and I managed to find one thing to feel a little cheerful about.  

Which is this:  For the first time in our lifetimes, climate change has become a significant issue in presidential politics.  Global warming and related changes have been happening for decades, and the risks of catastrophic change have become increasingly clear.  But politicians have mostly kept quiet about it.  Now it’s high on the discussion agenda.   That doesn’t mean we’ll fix it, of course, but if we don’t talk about it and make some changes, things will be getting a lot worse.  

Addressing the West Coast fires recently, Biden called Trump a “climate arsonist.”  Meanwhile, Trump expressed doubt as to whether scientists knew what they knew and tried to blame the fires on state officials.  

As loony as Trump was and is, I thought Biden’s “climate arsonist” tag was a little strong, since it’s probable that Trump didn’t actually light fires.  But Trump and his henchmen have done everything within their power to raise doubt and confusion about the reality of climate change, and to make sure there’s more of it coming soon.  Examples include lifting key regulations on vehicle emissions and power plants, lowering limits on methane emissions, promoting fossil fuel mining and drilling on public lands and waters, and opposing international climate cooperation.     

All this will, unless reversed, eventually contribute to death and destruction far exceeding the evil dreams of the world’s most fanatical terrorists.   There are many good reasons to stop Trump, but even if there weren’t, saving the world from climate disaster would suffice.  Still, even with all of Trump’s perverse misdeeds, it would be unfair to blame him alone for the global warming disaster.  

The rise of CO2 levels started generations ago with the Industrial Revolution, though it has greatly accelerated in our lifetimes.  Scientists began warning in the 1980s that dramatically rising temperatures caused by our emissions were going to happen and potentially lead to global disaster.  Trump is not the only one who tried to ignore it — so did almost all of our politicians, and most of the rest of us.

The science behind global warming is a little complicated, in that it involves some basic chemistry, but not nearly as complicated as, say, understanding essentially how a car works.  Ignorance is a problem, but not the biggest problem.  

The main barrier to comprehending climate change is that it doesn’t fit with some of our most basic assumptions about the world and our lives.  We’ve been taught to think of our world as a place of limitless resources, boundless wealth, and unending consumption, and our basic mission as exploiting and enjoying all that.  Any less opulent vision is not just less pleasant — it’s almost inconceivable.  

As Naomi Oreskes recently pointed out in Scientific American, it’s sort of understandable that people want to reject established science when it tells them something that conflicts with their firmly held worldview.    It’s less painful to reject the science than to change our basic way of thinking about our lives.

A week or so back, Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh, and other influential right wing commentators made comments supporting Trump’s denial of climate science.  Per these “pundits,” science was a ruse by the evil liberals to take away good people’s freedom and make them feel less good about themselves.    They argued that accepting ordinary science would mean their listeners would lose control of their lives.  

As far as I know, there’s no left wing conspiracy, but Carlson and Limbaugh have kind of a point.  Unless we deny scientific reality and also reverse the laws of physics, we’re going to have to make some changes, collectively and individually, and it won’t all feel good.  But the alternative is that we, and all future generations, will face climate change suffering on a scale that is literally unimaginable.  A recent summary from the Times of what is likely to happen in the US is here

Fortunately, Trump and the right wing pundits seem to be losing the battle for hearts and minds, while scientific reality seems to be making progress.  Recent polls show more people seriously concerned about climate change, and favoring action.  There’s also been an encouraging shift in thinking about some of the established and related ideas on market capitalism.

This week the NY Times published a noteworthy piece   on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s amazingly influential essay arguing that corporations should disregard social objectives and devote themselves entirely to increasing profits.  

Friedman, then a respected economist, contended that corporations owed no duties other than to their shareholders, and had no responsibilities other than to make money.  To be fair, Friedman left himself a bit of wiggle room, noting that there were a few legal and ethical constraints.  But he argued that for corporations to try to support concerns for social welfare was essentially bad, like communism.

Along with Friedman’s fear mongering — equating social justice with a communist menace — he made some flagrantly ridiculous assumptions.  He assumed (without saying so) that the existing social order was right and proper, and that free markets would naturally continue to uphold that fine social order.  Thus he papered over existing social and political failures, such as systemic racial and gender discrimination, inadequate housing and transportation, poor healthcare, air and water pollution, habitat destruction, and widespread extinction of non-human life.  

Friedman also adopted and encouraged a value system of extreme individualism.  In this system, the prime mover and highest objective is the individual, rather than the family, the community, or the earth.  While other systems put value on mutual support, cooperation, and compassion, the Friedman individualist says,  all that matters is that I get and keep as much as possible, and to hell with everyone else.  

In retrospect, Friedman’s thinking looks nothing like science, but more like a twisted religion, with human sacrifices and profits going to god-like captains of industry.  But at the time it struck a cultural chord.  Increasing corporate profits through deregulation and cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy became the prime policy objectives of the well-to-do right.  Healthcare, education, housing, and other social concerns were matters of indifference.  To the extent that poor people made the discussion agenda, the main initiatives were cutting welfare and enacting harsher drug laws to lock more of them up.  

Friedman’s endorsement of the upside-down morality of “greed is good” gave moral cover to powerful corporate execs and their Wall Street cronies to justify taking more and more for themselves.  The result was our current outrageous inequalities of wealth.  Our political processes were increasingly corrupted by corporate political contributions (effectively legalized bribes) that headed off reform.  Our deep social problems, like racism, inadequate social services, and climate change, continued to fester.   

I’d assumed that Friedman’s theory was still dominant in wealthy conservative circles.  But it was cheering to learn I may have been wrong.  The Times feature on Friedman included statements from leading business executives and academics that indicated a lot of them were rejecting Friedman’s central assertions on the holiness of raw capitalism and the sinfulness of concern for the public interest.  Among the commenters there were still a few unreconstructed free marketeers, but the majority seemed to recognize that considering the public interest was not inconsistent with markets and profits.  

Along this same line, the Business Roundtable, a conservative organization of CEOs of giant American corporations, issued a new statement of purpose last year that significantly modified its previous Friedmanian emphasis on shareholder profits.  The new statement acknowledged that corporations also have responsibilities to their customers, employees, and communities.  It also acknowledged a duty to protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices.

These leaders generally seem to be realizing that pursuing corporate profits alone was a huge mistake, and that there are other imperatives (like climate change) that require a different way of thinking about the public interest.  Divorcing the ideas of markets from the idea of a fair and sustainable social system never made any actual sense, in spite of its surface appeal. If some of the smartest, most privileged beneficiaries of the system are seeing the interrelatedness of markets and the public interest, we could be heading in the right direction.   

The virus is still here, except in Trump’s fantasyland

Having watched almost the entire Democratic Convention, I wanted to give equal time to the Republicans, so I watched their Convention.  Well, I should say, I tried, until I couldn’t take it anymore, and then I read about it the next day.  My tolerance for the alternative reality and fear mongering in real time was generally about 20 minutes.    

Though I don’t understand it, I accept  that there are people who are going to vote for Trump, and I was hoping to get a better grasp of why.  I assume a lot of Trump voters are decent and well meaning, with things in their life experience and psychology that net out to belief in MAGA.  

At the Convention, there were many normal-looking, normal-sounding people singing the praises of Trump.  Some told anecdotes about Trump’s being helpful to particular industries or being nice to particular people, some of which could have been true, though after four years of his nonstop lying, who knows?

I felt like I’d somehow wandered into an alternative universe, where the last four years hadn’t happened.  Everything Trump had done was kind and good, while his cruelty, corruption, and incompetence had disappeared.  It was disorienting, but somehow familiar.  Then I realized where I actually was:  the Fox News universe, a media bubble where Trump  is a god-like being receiving unquestioning adoration, and his impulsiveness and crack pot ideas are lauded as genius.

Some of the character references could have been viewed as ordinary political puffery.  But there were some claims and positions that were dangerous and so flagrantly false that it’s difficult to see how anyone could agree to say them, much less believe them.

A prime example is the Covid-19 pandemic, which Trump and other speakers spoke of in the past tense as having been successfully addressed by Trump.  It pushes the limits of the human capacity for denial and delusion to think either that the pandemic is over or that Trump did a good job handling it.  

As of this writing, the United States is seeing around 40,000 new cases per day, with a total of around 180,000 deaths so far.  The US is the world leader in active cases and total deaths.  Many of these deaths would not have happened under an ordinary, competent president, as shown by the lower infection and fatality rates in other countries.  Trump still has no plan for handling the pandemic, other than trying to distract attention from it and promoting miracle cures, like ingesting bleach.  

In fact, Trump continues to push in exactly the wrong direction by discouraging masks, modeling non-social distancing, and encouraging people to get back to work.  For his speech at the White House on the final night, he showed his profound selfishness and recklessness by having thousands of worshippers crammed together, with no testing and almost no masks.  They may have believed the lie that the pandemic was over.  In any case, with the President’s encouragement, they effectively risked their lives.  What kind of person would do that to his followers?  

As with the pandemic, in other areas the Republican Convention challenged America:  are you going to believe us, or your lying eyes?  With millions unemployed and thousands of businesses shuttered, the Republicans praised Trump for a fantastically successful economy.  He claimed to have kept every promise, and declared victory on health care, job creation, building the wall, foreign relations, building new infrastructure, and other areas in which he has accomplished almost nothing.  He did not attempt to defend his support for Russian interference in our affairs, his energy rules that will worsen the climate crisis, his tax cuts for the wealthy, the criminal conduct of his close advisors, or his own corruption.  

With police shootings continuing and Black Lives Matters protesters still calling for an end to racist police violence, Trump persuaded a few Black supporters to say he’s not a racist.  But he continued to claim that Black people are threatening to burn down our cities and invade the suburbs if he loses.  He did not explain his proposed solution to this imaginary problem, other than to keep repeating the phrase law and order.  Based on his recent activity, this seems to be shorthand for meeting protesters with tear gas and bullets and locking them up.

All this was unsettling, especially when combined with fear mongering about liberals.  Trump and his acolytes warned loudly and absurdly that Joe Biden and the Democrats embodied a dangerous alien ideology (such as communism or socialism) and would turn America into a hellhole.  There were a few quick nods to non-white people, but no acknowledgement or apologies for Trump’s ongoing support of white supremacists, his tear gassing protesters to get a photo op, his Muslim ban, and his putting immigrant children in cages and then losing them.  At least he didn’t threaten to lock up Joe and Kamala — yet.  

How do we know what is reality?  In general, we have a look at the people around us and try to figure out what they agree on.  This usually works well enough for us to stay out of big trouble, but as the Republicans have shown, not always.  Last month, Naomi Oreskes, a history professor at Harvard, wrote a short piece in Scientific American about the intellectual foundations of science, which I thought was so intriguing that I bought and read her new book, Why Trust Science?    

In the SA piece, Oreskes noted that one common reason for rejecting scientific knowledge is that people don’t like information that conflicts with their existing beliefs.  Thus there are many people who deny scientific consensus findings on climate change because they require responses that are inconsistent with their faith in markets and opposition to government, or just with their rosy picture of the world.  

In her new book, Oreskes argues that what is distinctive about science is not that it is always correct (it isn’t), but that it involves a social methodology involving trained and specialized experts that in the usual course corrects errors and leads to improved understanding.  She points out that when we need specialized knowledge to fix a problem, we turn to experts, whether they are plumbers, electricians, or doctors.  Scientists are our experts on the natural world, and they assist and correct each other.  Like all other experts, they sometimes get things wrong, but on the whole they do better than non-experts.  

Anyhow, it isn’t surprising that Trumpists often don’t care to engage when scientists are trying to communicate unwelcome news.  But that’s a big problem with the coronavirus pandemic.  Many if not most of us know people who have been seriously ill or died from the virus.  Adopting the Trump position that the pandemic is no longer of serious concern is a mistake of epic proportions that will lead to a lot more deaths.  We’re at a new frontier in propaganda and politics:  a presidential message that all those deaths are of no consequence, with a political party prepared to advance it.    

Happy 50th Earth Day, and calling out the plutocrats

Great blue herons at Jordan Lake

I went out to Jordan Lake a couple of mornings last week, including on Wednesday, which was the fiftieth anniversary of the first Earth Day.  I managed to get my photography gear down the loose rocks to the river side, set up the tripod, tested exposures, and waited to see what would happen.  I enjoyed watching the birds, and especially the ospreys and the great blue herons. 

The GBHs are really good at catching fish!  It happens so fast that you can barely even see the catch.  Looking at the pictures afterward, I felt sad for the unfortunate fish, but still happy for the birds.  They aren’t cruel; they fish out of necessity.    

On the drive, I listened to more of the Scene on Radio podcast,   which I’ve found very thought-provoking.  The producers and scholars discussed libertarian ideas, including the notion that all government is bad and individual wealth is the highest good, and explored how those ideas relate to race and politics.  

As the podcast noted, what drives the hard-right plutocrats is not just pure greed, but also a kind of twisted idealism.  They believe that the individual is supremely important, and individual success is the highest good.  There is no point to social organizations or communities other than as a platform for high achievers.  Wealth is a sign of virtue, and poverty a sign of vice.  Greed is good, and only the wealthy matter.   

Osprey with fish

These people generally admire the work of Ayn Rand, a third-rate writer and pseudo philosopher whose awkward and sad novels idealize grotesquely rugged individuals.  Admiring Rand is more than a sign of poor literary taste; it indicates moral immaturity.  In the Randian libertarian view, it is not just understandable, but desirable, to cultivate indifference to the welfare of others.  The poor are by definition unworthy, and deserve whatever misfortune strikes them.

Preventing minorities from voting is an important political objective for the libertarian right.  The plutocratic leadership  expects to always be a minority working to benefit itself, and so an actual democracy where everyone is allowed and encouraged to vote would not work for them.  

If there were a level playing field and an informed electorate, the majority would never vote for such a system, since it doesn’t serve the best interests of most people.  But of course, we do not have those things.  Instead, we have massively-funded disinformation campaigns, gerrymandered electoral districts, and laws discouraging the non-rich from voting.  And if that is not sufficient, they cheat.  This could all be viewed as wrong, but they view it as well justified, since they believe (or at least some part of them believes) that all that matters is their own welfare and success.  

It is hard to believe how pervasive these libertarian, anti-government ideas have become, especially given how much they conflict with traditional American norms of fairness, equality, and representative democracy.   This helps explain why we in the US lack some of the basic attributes of advanced democracies in Europe, such as a health care system that works for people other than the rich and safety net programs for ordinary people.  Such programs would involve government action.  And in this extreme libertarian view, government action is always bad.  The same for taxes.

This is one of the rays of hope of the coronavirus pandemic:  it exposes the narrowness and moral degeneracy of these ideas.  It could hardly be more obvious that government action is needed to address the pandemic, and it seems crazy to argue otherwise.  To be sure, some still do.  Some are so in love with their ideas, or desperate for income and food, that they have been marching in protest against business closures, at the risk of their lives.  But others are not so fanatical, and are moderating their views to accommodate reality, and survive.    

Perhaps we’ll emerge from this crisis with a more realistic view of the importance of government, and more compassion for those less fortunate.  We might rediscover the significance of the natural world, and cultivate more appreciation for animals other than humans and the fascinating interrelationships of living things.  If we can get started down that road, there’s still hope that we won’ t ravage the planet completely  before Earth Day 100.        

 

Big birds, pandemic masks, non-dairy cheese, factory farms, and the war on climate change

Bald eagle at Shelley Lake

I managed to get up early three mornings this week to spend some time with the birds of our area, including these bald eagles, great blue herons, and ospreys.  The birds weren’t doing anything special — just living their lives. But it was especially heartening in this perilous time to get their orientation — intense, with all the senses open, and prepared for the next opportunity.

This week Sally got me a coronavirus mask that had been sewn by the tailor at our dry cleaners.  It’s green and looks, well, strange. I’m starting to wonder whether we’ll be getting used to not seeing much of each other’s faces.  

As the pandemic and the stay-at-home order continue, we’re trying to make the best of things.  One good thing is finding time and energy to try new projects. This week I finally got around to one I’d been meaning to do for a while:   making non-dairy cheese.  

I’ve known for some time that dairy products involve heart-breaking cruelty to cows.  Like other mammals, mother cows feel intense attachment to their young. The reason they make milk is to feed their babies.  Factory dairy farms get them to make more milk by a cycle of artificial impregnation and stealing their calves immediately after birth. 

The mothers cry out for their missing calves and grieve. Confined in small spaces, they are fed unhealthy diets that often include hormones and steroids.  Their natural life span is around 20 years, but on factory farms they are too exhausted, sick, or injured to keep going after 5 years. So they are killed to make hamburgers.     

Great blue heron in early morning fog at Jordan Lake

 

Some time back, Sally and I started finding good plant-based substitutes for milk — soy, cashew, almonds, oats.  Quitting ice cream was challenging, for obvious reasons, but we’ve recently discovered some delicious non-dairy substitutes — Ben & Jerry’s, So Delicious, and Nada Moo.   But it’s been hard to give up the deliciousness of cheese. We’ve had good plant-based cheese substitutes in restaurants, but haven’t seen them in our grocery stores. If you’re looking for a business opportunity, there’s a business idea, which you’re welcome to steal.

In the meantime, I tried a friend’s recipe for non-dairy brie, the main ingredient of which was cashews.  It took some work, and I nearly burned out the blender motor, but the result was pretty good. I used fresh herbs — rosemary, sage, and chives.  It tasted a lot like brie, but the consistency was more like a dip. I may have done too much blending. Anyhow, I’m planning to give it another shot soon.    

I just finished reading Jonathan Saffron Foer’s recent book, We Are the Weather:  Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. It’s a book about the relationship of factory farming to climate change and to us.   Foer reviews the facts, including the fact that animal farms are a major contributor to global warming. He thinks that we need to take whatever action we can as individuals to combat the developing catastrophe of climate change.  Recognizing how deeply habituated we are to eating meat, he proposes that if we can’t quit entirely, we try eating it only at dinner.

Foer is a fine writer, and I was heartened by his good sense and good-heartedness.  But I agreed in part with Mark Bittman, the NY Times reviewer, who said that hoping to save the planet by giving people good reasons to change their habits is probably not going to work.     Old habits die hard, especially when they’re constantly reinforced by the advertising of agribusiness fighting for its accustomed profits.  

Bittman recommended a piece by Bill McKibben that was in the New Republic in 2016 titled  A World at War — We’re Under Attack from Climate Change, and Our Only Hope Is to Mobilize Like We Did in WWII 

 The war metaphor is not a new one, but it is still apt.  McKibben points out that if Hitler had been wreaking havoc on our cities with firestorms, hurricanes, droughts, and floods, we would have seen the necessity of mobilizing to fight back.  As McKibben recounts, in WWII the US mobilized in just weeks and months to make bombers, ships, tanks, and other weapons under the direction of the federal government. He argues that we’re going to need that sort of leadership to head off complete disaster.  

Osprey at Jordan Lake

One benefit of the pandemic is that it is helping us get a new understanding of what a real crisis is, and how we can’t just do nothing.  That may help us understand the need for government leadership on climate change. The idea that markets alone will solve our current problems is not going to work, and the political leadership now in place is not going to work.  

The TImes reported this week on new research on the threat of climate change to animals.  The scientists found that the risk of mass extinction is much closer than previously thought, with thousands of species at risk beginning in the next decade.  The study emphasized that this is not inevitable, if we take dramatic action soon.  

At the same time, the pandemic has brought into focus the precarious situation of working people.  With businesses shut down, no jobs, and no savings, having food and housing is no longer a given. Pending getting new leaders and a compassionate safety-net system, we’ve been trying to do some extra giving for food and other necessities.  

The latest:  Sally discovered the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which is raising money for domestic workers who have no other resources.  It’s a great time to help workers whose job is helping others and who can’t work from home.  

Wildflowers, back problems, conspiracy theories, and hope

Wild geraniums at Swift Creek Bluffs in Cary

There were a lot of wildflowers in bloom this week.  One morning I went to Swift Creek Bluffs and took some pictures.  For these, I got down in the dirt, trying to stay clear of poison ivy, ticks, and snakes.  At times a light breeze was blowing, moving the flowers slightly, and I waited for a while for the wind to pause.  It took some work, but it was also cheering to be close to the wild geraniums and lilies. Especially in this difficult time, I found these images soothing, and I hope they are for you as well.  

The next day, I somehow managed to pull a muscle in my back.  I think it was when I was practicing juggling with my three bean bags.  Juggling can look frantic, but for me it’s usually calming. But I probably should have done a little stretching before working on under-the-leg throws.  There was no sudden violent pain, but over the next several hours it got harder and harder to move.  

Atamasco lilies

So I’m struggling physically.  But otherwise, things are OK. Actually, I’m feeling surprisingly cheerful and energetic.  It’s been a great time to try new photographic processes (both with the camera and with software).  I’ve learned a lot about Lightroom, Photoshop, Topaz, and Nik applications from knowledgeable and generous people who’ve put up instructional videos on YouTube.  

I’ve also been trying new musical experiments on the piano, including working on some Liszt flourishes and the blues.  I cooked a crock pot full of Jocelyn’s famous vegetarian chili. I’ve made progress on my German and Italian with Rosetta Stone lessons.  My sketching is improving. And I’m getting better at juggling, though that is on hold for the moment.     

We were starting to get a bit worried about running out of toilet paper.  Anxiety and panic buying is understandable, but still, it’s odd, and kind of disturbing, that people are hoarding TP.  Fortunately, our neighborhood pharmacy/convenience store on Glenwood Avenue got a shipment just in time.  

The tenuousness of our relationship with reality is also in view with some bizarre new conspiracy theories.  Max Boot in the NY Times  wrote a piece describing some of these.  Some are self evident nonsense, like the idea that cellphone networks cause the virus, or that the pandemic was engineered by Bill Gates on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry.  Some are not absurd, but are unsupported and unlikely, like the idea that the virus is a bioweapon from China, or else the United States.  

Why do people gravitate to conspiracies?  According to Boot’s sources, people are especially likely to latch onto conspiracy ideas when they are feeling overwhelmed, confused and helpless.  By providing explanations, the conspiracy theories provide a degree of comfort, giving people a sense of power and control. The more bizarre theories may give a greater sense of agency, in that the believer has secret and therefore especially valuable knowledge.  Sharing such theories provides a tenuous sense of community and significance. 

Whatever psychological needs such ideas satisfy, there are major downsides.  They lead some people to disregard the recommendations of the most knowledgeable experts, and, say, refuse to adopt social distancing.  People have attacked cell phone towers and relied on unsafe cures.  

There is also a dangerous feedback loop.  As people get more accustomed to disregarding experts that oppose their conspiracy ideas, they’re more prone to adopt more conspiracies and disregard more actual experts.

Jack Krugman, Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist, had an interesting column recently related to this problem.  He pointed out that trickle down economics and climate change denialism both rely for their survival on disregarding informed scientists and experts.  The habit of disdain for science and expertise seems to have carried over to the pandemic.  

Krugman also noted that for those who think all government should be done away with, it’s a particularly difficult time.  For the less ideologically committed, it seems obvious that pure market forces aren’t going to get the job done in this pandemic, and we need effective government.  Right wingers may worry that if people see that government is saving lives, their central creed that government is bad may be unveiled as a sham.

The Times had a very good essay proposing that this moment of crisis is also a moment of opportunity. The editorial board observed that the pandemic is casting new light on some of our system’s worst failures, including shameful inequality and indifference to the suffering of those less fortunate.  Our systems for healthcare, housing, and the social safety net are costing many lives. The essay points out that at earlier times of national crisis, Americans have achieved a greater measure of compassion and fairness.  It is possible that this crisis will as well.

Getting close to birds and farther from people: hunkering down for the pandemic

Last week I got out to Jordan Lake three times and spent some time around sunrise with the wildlife there.  I saw lots of great blue herons, and several ospreys and bald eagles, as well as the less glamorous  gulls, crows, and turkey vultures.  

With the human world in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, I was especially grateful for some time with the birds.  Of course, they have their own life and death struggles, including finding enough food to survive each new day.  But they manage it without undue drama, keeping their focus on the task at hand.  Once the essentials are taken care of, they become very still, alert but peaceful.

The pandemic has quite suddenly changed everything.  We don’t know how long it will be before something like normalcy returns.  In the meantime, there will be brutal economic hardship for laid off people who need the next paycheck for housing and food.  On top of that, cutting direct human contact will likely cause a spike in depression and suicides. This is going to be tough.

In the midst of what looks like an epic disaster in process, it may not be the best time to talk of lessons to be learned.  On the other hand, we’re all going to have some time on our hands, which we might use to think about our situation.

Illness can be a revealing crucible.  It forces us to face up to reality. For example, parents may have all kinds of kooky ideas about praying for health, but when their own child gets seriously ill, and prayer doesn’t seem to be working, they will usually take the child to the doctor.  Illness forces us to quit playing and get serious.  

And so it is that we’re now looking to scientists for guidance about covid-19.  Our President has led a war on science, muzzling experts and eliminating scientific positions and agencies, as the Times and others have noted.  But he seems to be shifting gears, and now he’s consulting with doctors, public health experts, and other scientists.

At this point, it is hardly news that we have an incompetent and mentally ill President who sees the world exclusively in terms of how it can gratify his ego and bank account.  But like the parents with a sick child, even he has come to see it’s time to go to the doctor and get actual facts and possibly some help. He’s still inclined to boost xenophobic conspiracy theories, but he’s finally making concessions to reality.  Along with increasing death and misery, denying reality now might even be politically damaging. 

As little as I respect the President and as fervently as I want to see him defeated, I want to wish him well in this regard:  may he find the wisdom to defer to the best experts. Our scientists and doctors won’t have all the answers, but they’re our best hope.  Assuming we make it through this crisis, we might apply this same rule to address other global crises, like global warming.    

For the rest of us, there’s an opportunity to pause and reflect.  Covid-19 has brought into stark relief the fragility of our social, economic, and governmental systems.  If it wasn’t clear before, it’s now clear that our national healthcare system is a hopeless mess. Our social safety net is full of holes.  Our system of profit-at-all-costs capitalism is failing to address basic needs.    

In the face of the pandemic, even those officials of the all-government-is-bad view are modifying their opinion and trying to do something.  It looks like the government may be sending out real checks to actual families to mitigate some of the hardship. This looks like progress, and also like a tiny band-aid.  But who knows? We may look back on this as the historic beginning of a transformative new system with a universal basic income and greater fairness.

One thing is certain:  this is not going to be easy.  It’s definitely not the case that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.  We need to cultivate our courage, and our compassion. Those of us with some surplus need to help others.  My old friend Deborah Ross, a Democrat running for Congress in N.C. District 2, suggests donations to the N.C. Food Bank. The Washington Post yesterday had a helpful list of charities working for those who will be hardest hit.