The global pandemic caused by COVID-19, climate change, and racism all have some unfortunate similarities. They are all global crises and they all have a death toll. They each cause the most harm to the least well-off in society, and they all lay bare our structures of social inequality. And they all are made worse by, sometimes purposeful and strategic, misinformation.
To deal with these and other crises, we need a “sustainable humanism.” On a very basic level, sustainable humanism means that we care about and value one another, which in the end sustains the welfare of communities. We need to see the dignity and worth of people and care about their future. To fight racism, the spread of the virus, and bend the curve of rising global temperatures we need to care about other people and act in a way that builds integrity, trust, and well being.
The picture becomes more transparent when thinking about groups that either want these crises to continue, or at best, do not want to take steps to ameliorate them. These groups have some interesting similarities, much of which surrounds preserving privilege that harms others.
Beating the pandemic requires us to take precautions about congregating and wearing masks, but some groups have protested these measures, and often these protesters are armed. Let’s call them “anti-lockdown protesters.” Anti-lockdown protesters are angry. They are fed through echo chambers that repeat medical misinformation and conspiracies. They believe their personal freedom is harmed and that the government is using the virus to control people and foster tyranny. Notably, anti-lockdown protesters are predominantly Caucasian. The Washington Post reported in May that in addition to attracting militia groups and white supremacists displaying swastikas and the confederate flag, these protests:
“… have been supported by conservative megadonors, have ties to a host of darker Internet subcultures — people who oppose vaccination, the self-identified Western-chauvinist Proud Boys group, anti-government conspiracy theorists known as QAnon, and people touting a coming civil war. “
This description also seems to describe counter-protesters to the Black Lives Matter protests who have appeared, some fully armed with semi-automatic rifles and tactical paramilitary gear. These counter-protesters have attracted white power groups, and some have used their vehicles as weapons, driving into crowds. This is inhuman. To resolve systemic racism, we need the opposite, we need – individually and socially – to see Black people with the dignity and worth inherent to being a person.
When it comes to climate change, we need to de-carbonize our economy. This will have costs – though most analysts believe those costs will be far outweighed by benefits and damages avoided. Bearing these costs will require us to think about and value the lives of others, and in this case, some people in other countries. However, if we continue to fail to reduce greenhouse gases, insecurities and threats will multiply and the ones affected most will be the poorest among us on planet Earth.
Sustainable humanism recognizes the value of these lives and the suffering that they feel – and will feel in future generations – and requires us to act to lesson the loss and damage already underway. Importantly, this crisis also means valuing non-human life that is also threatened by climate change. Scientists agree that climate change will bring explosive biodiversity loss and extinctions which will have a chain reaction causing other extinctions. If this were the only fact of climate change impacts, we would still be obligated to avoid eating away at the web of life because, as many Indigenous traditions assert, our ecology around us constitutes part of what being human means.
In contemporary sustainability studies, we speak of “social-ecological” systems that mutually reinforce and inform one another, and people simply would not exist without ecological systems in which we have evolved. We are co-constitutive with our ecological systems, though humans have shaped Earth systems so extensively we now refer to our time as the Anthropocene. Part of the Anthropocene concept is the fact of climate change, and the basics of climate science is solid. Some 97% of climate scientists agree that the average global temperatures are rising, due mostly to human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases, and that this is and will have some very important, negative impacts like species extinctions.
However, there has been a thirty-year program organized (as a social “countermovement”) to cast doubt on this science without doing any important science of their own. This is because climate denial is not about science, but politics. It is animated by a fear of loss of power and privilege that is imagined in the transition from conventional energy sources that have fueled modern progress and industrialization. The Climate Change Countermovement disseminating misinformation was started in, and is primarily, a U.S. phenomenon, with some in the UK and other “Anglo” countries like Australia and Canada.
The idea of de-carbonizing the economy fundamentally scares climate deniers because it threatens their global position and privilege, as well the lifestyle that is enjoyed by some the most privileged people in some of the most powerful countries, like the US and the UK. The fact that the Climate Change Countermovement is not significantly organized elsewhere should be telling. And, yes, the countermovement supporters are mainly White. Surveys analyzed by McCright and Dunlap (2011) find “that conservative white males are significantly more likely than are other Americans to endorse denialist views … and that these differences are even greater for those conservative white males who self-report understanding global warming very well.” The last point made there is theorized to exist because of echo chambers of misinformation that go unchallenged and shared within a homogenous community, similar to the Black Lives Matter counter-protestors.
Between the triple crises, opponents to solving these crises fear losing their individual freedom and White privilege. This opposition has been looking inward, self-regarding to the exclusion of others. This is system-defending behavior that make the crises worse in each issue. To flip the logic around to deal with each crisis means we turn to other-regarding thinking and action, policy that values the inherent worth of people beyond instrumental terms.
I argue that we need a new humanism to address each crises, and as a society this would also arm us against other crisis, such as the unemployment crater that hit our country. For this reason, I call it “sustainable humanism” because it provides a moral compass that will help us maintain the human prospect itself. It is not enough for any of these problems, but I think it is necessary. To be sure, past iterations of humanism were problematic, indeed chauvinistic in their focus on the Enlightenment “man” and “man’s” undiluted, all-powerful reason. That kind of chauvinism is not sustainable, and we have seen all too many episodes of human abandonment of reason, especially to consolidate power. We certainly do not want to resurrect that kind of humanism, but instead build a new humanism that works against prejudice and the abuse of power, a humanism that sustains all communities.
During the pandemic, countries like New Zealand and Iceland took the approach that (1) firmly acted on the best medical science, and (2) was based on a value for human wellness. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, openly embraced a humane, public empathy meant to commiserate but more importantly build trust. Both countries forcefully built the capacity to track down anyone thought to be exposed to the virus and forcing them to quarantine for two weeks, requiring a minor inconvenience of people for the public good and to stop people from dying. This worked because they systematically stopped people from transmitting the disease. These and other similar countries – who also are interestingly led by women – have been spared the worst of the virus.
In the U.S. we have held the economy as our central priority and value while indecisively squabbling about how or if to substantially support the unemployed, the small businesses, and state and local governments. That has not been sustainable. If we valued the dignity and worth of people, we would prioritize their life and welfare and take steps toward supporting those values. In New Zealand, 22 people have died of the virus as of writing this in early September 2020. Iceland lost 10 people. In the US, more than 180,000 people have been sacrificed for a skewed moral compass empowered by leaders who do not value science or the people whose lives have been upended by this virus. I am making a normative argument, and reasonable people can disagree over my proposition, but ask yourself this: if values inform our actions, what values do you think would be able to solve racism, a virulent disease, and fate of our planet?
Dealing with crises requires us to be humane – that we minimize harm and suffering and that we are good to each other. That is utterly inconsistent with racism and leaving people to starve – either from unemployment, climate change, or systematic inequity. Sustainable humanism does not give us a detailed agenda or policies but does perhaps gives us some parameters to discuss these things – a discussion that should be inclusive, well-informed, honest, and kind.
Dr. Peter Jacques is a Professor of the School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs & the National Center for Integrated Coastal Research at the University of Central Florida. Jacques specializes in global environmental politics and sustainability, and has published 5 books and many research articles on various related issues. Currently he is Managing Executive Editor for the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, the flagship journal for the Association of Environmental Studies and Sciences.
This article was written as part of the Addressing Global Crisis Project (AGC), which is run by the University of Central Florida’s Office of Global Perspectives & International Initiatives (GPII). AGC examines how governments, individually and collectively, deal with pandemics, natural disasters, ecological challenges, and climate change. AGC is organized around five primary pillars: (1) delivery of services and infrastructure; (2) water-energy-food security; (2) governance and politics; (4) economic development; and, (5) national security. Through its global network, AGC facilitates expert discussion and features articles, publications and online content.