MCKIBBEN - TOGETHER WE CAN CONFRONT THE CORONAVIRUS AND THE CLIMATE CRISIS

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4 april 2020

"Working Together Is What Humans Are Built to Do": Social Trust Is Key to Stemming the Coronavirus Crisis

By Bill McKibben, The New Yorker, 04 April 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is now so sprawling that it has revealed the souls of tens of thousands of individuals, from remarkably kind nurses to online sellers seeking to corner the market for hand sanitizers (until finally deciding to donate them). One saga that we should not soon forget involves Rand Paul, the Republican senator from Kentucky. On March 16th, out of “an abundance of caution,” he said, he got an early test. For a week, while waiting for the results, he kept circulating in public, continuing his work on Capitol Hill (where he lambasted and then voted against a bill that would have offered free tests to all Americans), and even working out in the Senate gym and swimming in the Senate pool. The test results came back positive, and Paul then went into self-quarantine.

The reason to focus on this story is not to suggest that Paul is a selfish jerk; he is a medical doctor, for heaven’s sake. It’s because he is the foremost representative of libertarian philosophy in our nation’s Capitol, and that philosophy has helped produce the world we live in: one in which we struggle to solve both the coronavirus pandemic and the larger climate crisis. Last week, I tried to show how those crises were linked through the variable of time; this week, it’s social trust that’s the issue.

Ayn Rand and her novels—one of which, “Atlas Shrugged,” was once, according to a survey for the Library of Congress, the second-most influential book in the country —helped get this ball rolling. Rand’s novels are worth thinking about, because they’ve shaped the thinking of American leaders since the Reagan era, when Rand’s acolyte Alan Greenspan became the most powerful economic figure on the planet. This view of the world—that government is the problem, that we should free individuals and corporations from its clutches—has made it all but impossible to address global warming. The Koch brothers, for instance, came directly from this milieu; it was after the late David Koch failed in his Vice-Presidential bid on the Libertarian Party ticket, in 1980, that he and his older brother Charles became two of the G.O.P.’s biggest funders. Since they were among America’s biggest oil and gas barons, it was no wonder that they opposed restrictions on the fossil-fuel industry, but it wasn’t just self-interest: the government action necessary to tackle climate change is incompatible with their belief system. The right-wing syllogism became, I think, the following:

—Markets solve all problems.
—Markets aren’t solving global warming.
—Q.E.D.: Global warming is not a problem.

That’s not logical, but it is comforting if you’ve committed to the basic idea that, as Ronald Reagan once put it, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ ” But, of course, that’s nowhere near the scariest sentence. Try: “The hillside behind town is on fire.” “The subway system is flooded.” “Your test came back positive.” “There are no ventilators.”

Old impulses die hard. Donald Trump—who once described himself as a fan of Rand’s and her book “The Fountainhead” because “it relates to business (and) beauty (and) life and inner emotions. That book relates to . . . everything”—has been using the pandemic to, among other things, drastically relax what environmental laws remain. Meanwhile, his economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNBC, “I just think the private sector is going to solve this disease.” As Charlie Baker, the governor of Massachusetts, said, when informed of Trump’s desire to “pack churches” on Easter, “Yeah. No.” In fact, the countries dealing best with the coronavirus are precisely those with high levels of social trust: South Korea, for instance, where a comprehensive national health system made sure that no one had to worry about getting a test or paying for treatment. Or the Scandinavian nations, which a United Nations report released on March 20th said are in the best position to deal with such crises. Nations “with higher levels of social trust and connections are more resilient in the face of natural disasters and economic crises,” it concluded, because “fixing rather than fighting becomes the order of the day.” It’s probably no accident that, in many ways, the Nordic nations also lead the climate fight, or that South Korea’s ruling party proposed a sweeping Green New Deal to confront the economic slump that the virus left behind. Working together is what humans are actually built to do.

Passing the Mic

The fossil-fuel-divestment movement has been one of the most productive fronts in the fight against climate change for nearly a decade, growing into the largest campaign of its kind, with endowments and portfolios worth twelve trillion dollars pledging to sell their fossil-fuel stock. But some of this country’s richest universities, including Yale and Harvard, have declined to join, despite votes showing students and faculty overwhelmingly in favor of divestment. So some Harvard students and alumni started a group called Harvard Forward, which, with a petition drive, managed to get five climate-focussed candidates on the ballot in the university’s Board of Overseers elections, which alumni would have been able to vote in beginning this week. (Harvard announced on Tuesday that, because of the coronavirus, it would postpone the balloting until midsummer.) One of them is Thea Sebastian, who graduated from the college in 2008 and the law school in 2016, and is the policy counsel for an N.G.O. called the Civil Rights Corps, where she “coordinates nationwide strategies to address race-based and wealth-based injustices in our criminal-legal system.”

Harvard is filled with scholars studying the climate crisis. Why do you think the administration has been so unwilling to follow institutions around the world and divest from fossil fuels?

Harvard has been an incredible leader on many issues, taking difficult stances that challenged accepted norms. Take, for example, our leadership on affirmative action. Take our stance on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Where our endowment is concerned, we haven’t shown this same courage. We only divested from apartheid after the moment had passed. And on climate change, we’re poised to do the same.

In my view, our reticence stems from a belief that investments and values are separable. If we’re doing good research and going carbon-neutral, we can make money however we want. It’s the same bifurcation—a line between profit and purpose—that describes much of our economy.

The thing is, this bifurcation doesn’t hold. Our investments are a crucial instrument of our values. That’s true both at Harvard and far, far beyond. We won’t fix climate change—or solve structural inequities—without building an economy where companies act and invest responsibly. I want Harvard to lead this charge. And, in my view, that starts with divestment.

Much of your work is on civil rights and structural inequality. Harvard is as close to the center of the establishment as it’s possible to get. Can it really play a role in dismantling systems it helped build?


Yes! That’s why Harvard must play this role. We currently have a society where economic fortunes are mostly determined by Zip Code and skin color. And, unfortunately, American higher education isn’t exactly helping. In many ways, it’s making things worse.

The thing is, Harvard has an incredible opportunity to address this problem. First, Harvard has an incomparable platform to amplify cutting-edge, exciting policies to increase diversity and insure that first-generation students have every opportunity to attend and succeed at Harvard. What Harvard does, given its stature, will percolate elsewhere.

Second, Harvard builds the leaders of tomorrow. If our curriculum encourages our students to engage these inequities, we can build new health, educational, economic, and other systems that genuinely ensure opportunity for all.

You’re right that Harvard is the establishment. So let’s use that. Let’s orient this establishment toward solving climate change, structural inequality, and the greatest challenges of our generation.

Describe how hard alumni had to work to sign a petition nominating you for the Board of Overseers.

The last petition candidates, in 2016, only needed approximately two hundred signatures to make the Overseers ballot. This year, Harvard Forward needed almost three thousand. Worse, the online process was so cumbersome that it was almost unusable. Given my experience in voting rights, I know that these things matter.

Harvard Forward cleared this enormous hurdle to make the Overseers ballot. And, looking to April, we’re more inspired than ever to make our campaign successful.

Climate School

Well worth reading: Eliza Griswold’s fine essay on how faith-based activists are giving up carbon for Lent because they “believe that being willing to make personal sacrifices encourages us to conceive of ourselves in the context of the larger system that needs to change.” (And, while we’re on the topic of religion, do not skip reading Pope Francis’s remarkably moving sermon, delivered last week to an utterly empty St. Peter’s Square. “Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet.”)

The week’s great gift comes from Greta Thunberg and her family: first, the news that they are on the mend after contracting the coronavirus, and, second, a new book, “Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis.” I confess that I picked up this book assuming that I knew what it would be about; I was wrong. The story of Thunberg’s school strike and the global movement it launched comes only in the last few pages; before that is an incredibly frank and beautifully written account, in the voice of Greta’s mother (and the opera star), Malena Ernman, of how the family figured out how to work with the neurological and developmental differences (Asperger’s, O.C.D., and so on) of Greta and her younger sister, Beata, and how those differences helped open them to a world that was hurting. In the worlds of both environmentalism and mental health, it became a classic the day it was published.

Scoreboard

he world is suffering through an unending skein of losses this week; there’s no use pretending otherwise. But, by necessity, indigenous communities have been forced to take a longer view of history than most of us, and they won two legal victories. In a huge victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, a federal court ruled that the government had failed to do a complete environmental review of the Dakota Access Pipeline before granting permits. Meanwhile, in Nova Scotia, a judge decided that further consultation with the Mi’kmaq band was required before plans for a giant natural-gas underground-storage cavern could proceed.

Warming Up

To return to the theme of this week’s newsletter—“We’re all in this together”—the genre of great music from cloistered humans just keeps growing. (Can some TV producer please put together a weekly “Quarantine’s Got Talent,” and make it a celebration, not a competition?) A couple of my favorites, which may have already shown up on your timeline: Daniel Matarazzo is clearly Tom Lehrer reborn—for rollicking public-health advice, this can’t be topped. The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra has figured out video-conferencing technology. And Mirko and Valerio, homebound twelve-year-old Sicilian twins, have fiddled with Coldplay simply to make you grin.


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