Mid-March, the world seemed to come to a dramatic halt. Planes stopped flying, borders closed, factories shut down, rush-hour traffic vanished.
“What if you thought of it / as the Jews consider the Sabbath?” Lynn Ungar asked in her poem Pandemic. “Cease from travel. Cease from buying and selling / just for now,” she suggested.
As humans have been forced into this time of extended Sabbath to avoid the spread of COVID-19, you might wonder whether the earth is getting a much-needed sabbath from us. Studies are already showing that pollution levels have dropped significantly during lockdown, especially in cities that typically have the worst air quality such as Delhi, London, Los Angeles, Mumbai, New York, Wuhan and Rome. By some estimates, lockdown has reduced traffic by 80 percent. Perhaps correspondingly, animal activity in urban areas seems to have increased world-wide. Water in Venice’s canals has become cleaner. The New York Times says 2020 is on track to see an eight percent decline in carbon emissions globally, the largest drop ever recorded.
Even city soundscapes are changing, which scientists have measured. A busy intersection usually clocks 90 decibels during rush hour but that’s decreased by 30 decibels during lockdown. This means city dwellers are hearing sounds that normally get muffled, like birdsong.
Unfortunately, however, a drop in emissions this year won’t make a dent in the long-term effort to manage the climate crisis. In fact, the loss of habitat and biodiversity is creating the very conditions for new viruses and diseases like COVID-19 to spill into human communities.
According to Kate Jones, Chair of Ecology and Biodiversity at University College London, rapid urbanization and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species that we may never have been near before.
The resulting transmission of disease from wildlife to humans, she explains, is a “hidden cost” of human economic development. By reducing the natural barriers between host animals and ourselves, we are amplifying the conditions for the spread of diseases. Major landscape changes mean loss of habitat for animals, which means species are crowded together and also come into greater contact with humans.
Does this sound like a world we want to “get back” to?
A just transition
Business as usual is driving climate change. What would it look like if we emerged from this pandemic with a fierce new commitment to take care of each other instead of trying to maximize profit? What would it look like to fight for a world in which everyone can not only survive but thrive?
Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) has made six recommendations for a just recovery from COVID-19 in Canada, emphasizing that the pandemic has “laid bare what we already knew about the precarity and inequity of our existing systems.” Accordingly, CPJ is calling on the government to put people’s health first; strengthen social safety nets; prioritize the needs of workers and communities; build resilience to prevent future crises; build equity across generations and borders; and uphold Indigenous Rights.
“As we move from crisis to recovery, CPJ’s long-standing call for the development of a resilient, diversified green economy built on the principles of equity and justice is more relevant than ever,” Karri Munn-Venn, senior policy analyst with CPJ, says.
Consumerism, exploitation and greed for power are at the helm of our current extractive economy. Can we imagine instead a world of cooperation, care and restoration?
A Biblical precedent
Our lifestyle of more, of constant work and striving to be bigger, better and stronger has taken its toll on creation. This is why God created the Sabbath – to protect humans and creation. To help us remember that we are not defined by what we do. To remember that God is the Creator and we are not. To remember that he is our provider, that he gives us our daily bread.
Not only did God call for a Sabbath on the seventh day, but also stipulated in Leviticus 25 that there is to be a Sabbath year! “In the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land” (Lev. 25:4-5).
What are they supposed to eat that seventh year? God promises that their crops will yield enough in the sixth year for three years if they follow this cycle. God promises abundance, conditional on the regular rest and liberation of the land.
But God commanded something even more radical – the year of Jubilee. A complete system-wide reset to justice. In the 50th year the Israelites were commanded to take care of each other. Debts were to be forgiven, property returned, no price-gouging. The working poor were to be released from their bondage. Everyone would be set free, including the very earth itself.
This sounds beautiful and inspiring, but is it out of reach – impractical for the complexities of our current reality? How can we as individuals make these systemic changes towards a just recovery that values rest and restoration?
We must start by caring. Caring for the little patch of earth we live on – our backyards, our towns, our cities. We must renew our curiosity for the natural world. To love someone you have to get to know them – their name, where they came from. I encourage you to cultivate a deep friendship with God’s creation. Learn the names of the birds that visit your backyard. Research the types of trees that populate your area. Discover what watershed you live on.
“The impact of the virus, though devastating, has created a space for all members of society to contemplate how to build back better,” Munn-Venn says, “recognizing the interconnectedness of all of creation, honouring Indigenous wisdom, and respecting the limits of the atmosphere.”
During the pandemic, deer visit DeRegt patio in Abbotsford, B.C.