A Permanently Altered Society

Scott Deshefy


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Without question climate change and the pandemic have permanently altered society. At some point, if we approach 85 to 90 percent herd immunity (an unlikely scenario in the U.S. given its intellectual and vaccine resistant laxities) mask-wearing might become an elective again, even in crowded venues. As COVID cases decline, however, were wisdom and ethics heritable memes in our culture, we’d still be donning masks in highly infectious settings, such as theaters and bars, sports arenas, public transit, grocery and department stores, hospitals and nursing homes. It’s been a hard lesson to learn, but Americans should by now be attuned to the ease with which airborne diseases can spread and the noninvasive logic of source control. Masks, “jabs” and social distancing are safe, effective and cheap. Prophylactic measures alone have not only prevented countless respiratory infections and mortalities from COVID-19, but also produced a year of less frequent common colds and resoundingly fewer deaths from the flu. The case for continuing such practices, at least in congested gathering places, is sound.

The pandemic’s also proven how moderate containment of profligate consumption has profound and far-reaching benefits. A brief period of “anthropause” ─ working at home, buying more prudently, traveling less ─ not only reduced traffic, gas prices and car accidents but commensurately lowered atmospheric carbon emissions and enabled the rest of nature, especially wildlife, to temporarily rebound. The crisis also boosted Connecticut’s real estate values, primarily because New Yorkers migrated from Big Apple townhouses and apartments to here. But, as human activity returns to “abnormal,” threats of resurgent contagion and ever-increasing specters of climate change will continue to widen America’s fault lines. The “all in this together” mantra, never grounded in truth, hasn’t bridged those chasms. As usual, negative impacts affected low and middle income populations disproportionately. Rental arrears and utilities debts, both business-related and individual, are financial hardships with long-term consequences waiting in the wings. Despite global warming and climate change, Americans keep buying realty at risk from wildfires and floods. Especially along coastal regions, that portends mortgage defaults far surpassing the subprime collapse.  

Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have caused the Earth to warm 1 degree Celsius in just 20 years. To a nonscientist, that may seem little, but on a planet whose surface is 71 percent water, atmospheric energy and water vapor repercussions are huge. The Biden administration’s recent steps to ban hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are laudable. HFCs leak profusely from supermarket freezers and AC units and, like chlorofluorocarbons banned in 1996, destroy the ozone layer. They’re also hundreds of times more potent greenhouse gases than CO2. Despite dips in carbon dioxide emissions during COVID lockdowns, atmospheric CO2 is now a record 417 ppm. That’s 50 percent higher than pre-industrial concentrations and 32 ppm higher than in 2007, when NASA’s James Hansen advised we get to 350! Over 24 million people are displaced each year by ecological disasters. Influxes of climate migrants will expand urban areas into megacities, potentially creating slums, unless city planners prepare and control that urbanization now. Architecture, structural engineering and zoning laws must first address climate change and secondly dismantle forms of individuality making cities inequitable. As coastal towns buy and raze homes to mitigate flood risks, taxing the rich and corporate irresponsibility (i.e. externalities from toxic waste, harmful products, rapacious executives and carbon emissions) will enable adaptations that make “hyper-urbanization” more livable.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.