2020: the year that keeps on giving.
As the COVID-19 global pandemic reaches its sixth month in the United States, tens of thousands of new cases and hundreds of COVID-19 related deaths are being reported on a daily basis. Wildfires in the Western United States and Canada have killed over 24 people and burned millions of acres – and are far from contained. Air quality in cities in Oregon, Washington, and California is the worst in the world and has gotten so bad that it exceeds what the Environmental Protection Agency identified as hazardous to human health. Downtown San Francisco looks like a scene out of Blade Runner. Hurricane Sally, meanwhile, is bearing down on the Gulf Coast. By the time we send out this email, slow-moving Sally will be hanging over the region, dumping massive amounts of rain on low-lying towns and cities. It will be days before we know the full extent of the damage the flooding and storm-surge Sally will bring with her, but as we type on Sunday evening, the National Weather Service is warning of total rainfall amounts of 12 inches and locally higher amounts over 20 inches.
The United States is hardly alone in facing its fair share disasters lately. COVID-19 is a global pandemic – and things are not going well almost anywhere. Cases are spiking again in Europe. India may surpass the United States as the worst affected nation in the world by October. A resurgent outbreak in Israel has led to Benjamin Netanyahu’s embattled government to order a three-week nationwide lockdown, including all schools, malls, and hotels. Meanwhile, as COVID-19 continues to do its thing, mother nature is having her fun too. The Korean peninsula has been battered by a record number of typhoons after a record-setting monsoon season. Large swathes of Bangladesh were inundated by flooding earlier this year, and China has faced some of its worst flooding in recent history, including the largest flood peak in the Three Gorges Dam history last month. San Francisco isn’t the only Blade Runner-esque city in the world: epic sandstorms in Sudan’s capital of Khartoum have cast a red pall over a city so recently the victim of intense flooding itself that left over 100 dead. Locusts swarms have ravaged large parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, creating new food scarcity concerns, to say nothing of rising global food prices and potential refugee flows as a result.
Natural disasters, climate change, global pandemics – these are hardly unprecedented in history. We have faced them before, and we will face them many more times. But the changes happening in the world right now are not the sort you can batten down the hatches for and then get back to living like “normal,” whatever that means or was. Back on March 18th, when COVID-19 was just beginning to wreak its havoc on the United States, we argued that “there will be toilet paper and hand sanitizer in stores again but make no mistake – the world won’t be the same.” There is toilet paper and hand sanitizer in stores again, and soon, perhaps even in early 2021, there will be a COVID-19 vaccine. But make no mistake about it: the world we are going to back to living in, traveling in, and hopefully toasting each other and hugging each other at bars and dinner parties in, is not going to be the same. One way or another, some aspects of the way we live have to change. We can either choose to expedite those changes and prepare our communities better for these disruptions, or we can wait for mother nature to have its way with us.
That sounds ominous and maybe even a little melodramatic. So, what exactly do we mean when we say that we need to “change the way we live”? Let’s pick just two examples that hit close to come. Consider that over half of the crude oil refining capacity in the United States is located in the Gulf Coast region. The latest graphics of this disturbing fact are dated from 2015 on the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) website, but if you take the time peruse the latest data, you’ll find that the U.S. – even after disruptions caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey – has not only not managed to reduce its dependency on refining capacity so close to the Gulf of Mexico’s warm, hurricane-strengthening waters, but has actually increased that dependency since 2008. The EIA’s website also has a particularly disturbing graphic that shows the location of nuclear power plants in the United States. One would think that after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan that moving nuclear plants away from coastal areas in danger of sea-level rise and climate-driven flooding might be a top government priority. Guess again! Nine nuclear plants and four nuclear reactors are within 2 miles of the ocean and were built at a time when there was “no consideration of climate change.” These are disasters waiting to happen.
Or consider our food supply chains. We have gotten so used to being able to go to a grocery store whenever we want and get whatever want that we do not seem to notice that our domestic food system is at best irrational and at worst a disaster waiting to happen. Megan Konar, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Illinois, led a team that published a study last year that showed that nine American counties – mostly in California – are so central to the overall structure of the food supply network that disruption of even one would ripple throughout the entire food supply chain of the country. As a nation, we waste almost 40 percent of our food supply each year and our per capita food waste has increased by a whopping 50 percent since 1974. With the amount of food we waste in the U.S. alone we could put a serious dent in global hunger. And yet, even as we waste more and more food, and even as our food supply chains become more and more consolidated, we are fatter than ever. The age-adjusted prevalence of obesity among U.S. adults was 42.4% in 2017–2018 according to the CDC. 42.4 percent! Are we trying to win some kind of prize? Our food supply chain is wasteful, overdependent on a few key nodes, and is making the U.S. the fattest country in the world.
The world is changing, and we are not ready for it. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the only thing stopping us from preparing for it is ourselves. In the early 2000s, many scientists were warning that diseases with a non-human animal source had been increasing in recent decades, in part due to changes in environmental conditions such as rainfall, temperature, and severe weather events. Look hard enough and you can see not just the risks on the horizon but the opportunities we have to make changes before those risks come to fruition. That’s what human civilization is all about. Mother nature throws a punch – and we use our collective brains, will, and skills to punch back harder. COVID-19, Hurricane Sally, the Western Wildfires – these are all wake-up calls. We can either take them lying down, and content ourselves with wearing masks for the rest of our lives and scurrying away from the coast whilst praying our energy infrastructure and food supply chains can withstand hurricanes and fires and derechos and flooding – or we can do something about it. We can change the way we live, or have it changed for us. Either way, change is coming.