By Luke Henkel.
It’s safe to say we’re all feeling a little unsafe lately.
The coronavirus has taken over everything. We’re all aware of the latest statistics, and we’re all watching them grow. Downtown Seattle is eerily empty, metro buses have half the ridership, and events are being cancelled one after the other in a weird societal Domino effect. Most disconcerting of all, Google traffic shows green on I-5 at 5:00PM—in both directions.
All of our routines are a little disrupted. Some of our kids’ schools are already cancelled for weeks, and major universities are scrambling to try and shift massive numbers of classes and students to online platforms. Across the country, people are being told not to travel to Seattle right now as if we’re already the “Wuhan 2.0.” If nothing else, we’re unsure about where we can go when we’re out. Can we go to our normal restaurants, or should we opt for the drive-thru in the safety of our cars? Or, do we simply get delivery? Are the libraries safe? Can we go shopping, even for basics?
“Business as usual” right now quite literally does not apply. For some, there is no business at all as fear notches higher and higher, like a tireless mountain climber spiking his way into the heights of anxiety.
I, like you, am not at ease. I’ve found myself short of breath on various occasionså thinking about what might happen in the next few weeks, and over the last few days my very first thought upon waking has been: check the updates. How many new cases overnight? I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking that it would be quite nice to return to our regularly scheduled lives. This high-intensity coronavirus interruption is just too much for our normal programming. We want to travel, to go back to class, to see our families and celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. We’ve got seminars and conferences to attend, concerts and cruises to enjoy.
I’m tired of feeling unsafe, like I don’t know where the future is going. Twenty days ago, all my plans were in order.
Yet here we are, forced to stop. There are certain things we simply can’t do right now, because of Covid-19 concerns. All of us are having to take at least a little time out.
And we’re all saying, let’s just get back to business as usual. There’s certainly no shortage of discussion about the economic ramifications from this global health emergency. Airlines are fearing billions in lost profit. Stocks are plummeting. The economy is grinding and lurching to its slowest numbers in over a decade, and the shocks may reverberate for the rest of the decade. It’s horrifying.
My suggestion? Be even more horrified about business as usual in the first place.
Now, I want to be very clear about this. I am in no way suggesting that this coronavirus is good for us. Absolutely not.
I am suggesting there is plenty to learn from our current circumstances, as bizarre and unsettling as they may be—and even more lessons to be gleaned from reflecting on what “business as usual” really means.
We began Lent just a few days prior to the first confirmed fatality right here in King County. Lent is normally a time for us to slow down, right? To take an extra moment or two throughout our day to find God, to grow in our relationships and deepen our sense of the sacred at work all around us.
Did that happen?
Perhaps. Maybe you’ve been very intentional about taking extra prayer time or adding a few good deeds into your day.
Or maybe not. Business as usual is such an overwhelmingly powerful force—the inertia of our daily lives is so strong—it’s akin to the spinning of this planet. We don’t even notice it. We’re hurtling along at thousands of miles an hour, yet we’re not going fast enough! We’re in constant motion, yet we are always speeding up. Our momentum feels so often like stillness, so we just rush onwards with ever greater freneticism. The temptation is impossible to resist, even when we’re supposed to be walking more slowly with God for these 40 days.
And then along comes something that’s truly beyond us. It disrupts our inertia like very few other things can, and guess what? It’s not quite mass panic, but it feels pretty darn close. I don’t know about you, but I have quite literally felt like I was on unstable ground in the midst of all this shifting coronavirus news—like the planet was changing its speed of rotation.
But is not business as usual the scarier reality? Is not our current pace even more unhealthy?
Let me give you some examples. While all this coronavirus news is battering us, there’s something else happening you might not be as aware of. The capital city of Indonesia is moving. Jakarta, the current capital of over 10 million, is sinking. Groundwater is being extracted too fast, and parts of the mega-city are subsiding by up to 20 centimeters every year. At the same time, sea levels are rising, so much that plans for a seawall to protect the area from the worst of the flooding couldn’t possibly be executed fast enough. The government is planning to relocate administration and build an entirely new city on the northern Indonesian island of Borneo. They are slated to finish the design for this new “smart city” by 2025 and begin relocating later this decade. This new capital will be built following the principles of the jungle, and will be the most advanced city ever constructed.
Now Borneo, mind you, is one of the most biodiverse regions in Southeast Asia with some of the only remaining primary forests in Indonesia. It is home to the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan as well as dozens of other endemic species like the clouded leopard and the Indonesian pygmy elephant (also at risk of extinction). This city would be developed on over 600,000 acres of rainforest, on an island that has already lost more than half of its virgin rainforests in the last three decades (that’s since after 1980, for a quick perspective). In provinces to the west of this prospective city, between 1990 and 2008, more than half of the primary forests were denuded. Even more would be taken down for this city. Some estimates have it that only 25% of the island’s forests would remain.
This is business as usual on our changing planet.
Closer to home, southern resident orca whales of the Salish Sea are at the critically low population of 76. Salmon populations are also dropping to alarmingly low rates. This is orcas’ food source of course, but warming and acidifying waters, as well as pollution, are affecting where and when they can find these salmon. The whales’ normal migratory paths are changing. This would be similar to your route home changing or disappearing altogether, with every single trip you took. On top of it all, increasing noise pollution from both recreational and commercial boat traffic in our busier waterways is interfering with the orcas’ ability to locate these dwindling schools; they are stressed and starving.
This is business as usual.
In Europe, the warmest winter on record had officials carting in fake snow this year—to Russia. Moscow experienced its warmest and barest Christmas ever, when temperatures were nearly twice their normal average and well above freezing. Germany’s ice wine harvest failed nationwide this February. Ice wine is made from grapes that freeze in the deep late winter cold, but in all 13 regions where this wine is produced, temperatures were too high. There will be no 2019 vintage. Vineyards across the region fear the same for next year.
This—you guessed it—is business as usual.
We are hearing nonstop about the coronavirus, and we’re all scared about its potential destructive swath through our communities.
But are we not feeling a similar wrenching, and equally strong heart palpitations when we think about business as usual? Are we not as concerned about returning to the horrific destructiveness of our daily inertia?
Here’s the thing, my friends. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The inertia is, for a moment at least, disrupted. We have no choice at this time but to slow down. We have no choice now but to stop, and see. This may be our big global opportunity, for the first time since climate change became such a devastating reality, to really see with clarity.
If we choose.
You might be thinking: so what? Indonesia is far away. How can I be concerned about some sinking city on a tropical island when my own city is shut down?
Catholic social teaching tells us that those in Indonesia having to relocate because of climate change are our brothers and sisters. Pope Francis tells us in Laudato Si’ that these soon-to-be refugees are us—because “everything is interrelated” (LS 120) and we, in fact “all creatures are connected” (LS 42). Their world is not separate from our world.
We are told to practice social distancing and bump elbows in order to protect ourselves from Covid-19. But the reality is, business as usual has had us socially distancing ourselves from our own brothers and sisters and refusing to bump elbows for as long as any of us have been alive. That’s the true disruptive force, the true danger to all of us. The moment we decided others’ fates didn’t matter, and that the only concern was our own well-being, was the moment the virus of disconnection took over. Our Pope tells us this is the worst disease of all. (I can guarantee you that your own conscience is saying that, as well. Just look deep enough.)
Now: back to the good news in all of this, I promise. It really, truly doesn’t have to be back to business as usual. The signs are as clear as ever that we ramp up again and continue our mad blind pelting into the future at our own peril.
We have the chance now, in the midst of this health—and climate—crisis, to do the right thing. To reflect. To see. To learn from going slow. To come down a little, and be with each other on a more sane and coherent level. We have a glorious—albeit forced—chance to listen to each other now, as well. How attentively are you heeding the public officials’ notices? How quickly are safe measures being enacted to care for our well-being?
That’s how sharply we should be listening to the cry of the earth, and the cry of the poor. And, that’s how diligently we should be responding.
I want to repeat. I do not wish harm on anyone from this virus, and I’m as slack-jawed and concerned at how quickly it has spread as anyone else. I’d love these fears to go away.
Yet much, much more deeply, I want us to learn from this. I yearn for us to pay attention to what comes next. Will it be business as usual once again? Or, will it be something a little healthier and more humane—for our own social ecosystems, and for the planet’s?
Luke Henkel serves as the social outreach and advocacy assistant at St James Cathedral in Seattle. Luke is most active educating others on climate change, integral ecology, ecobricks, and Catholic social and environmental teachings. He is currently working on his MA in theology and ecology, through the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University.