Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
by Shaun Bartone
Perhaps like you, I lie awake at night, losing two or three hours of sleep on many nights, wondering if I’m going to be next to be infected. I have two serious health conditions that would make me more susceptible to not only getting COVID-19, but dying from it: heart disease and a lifelong auto-immune disorder; in addition, Type A blood.
But something remarkable is happening in the midst of this pandemic. The skies are starting to clear. So are the streets, as pedestrians take over roads from cars that sit in their driveways.
Two weeks ago, bus drivers picketed the WRTA in Worcester to demand that they allow passengers to board through the rear door, so that drivers would not be exposed to the virus. That would mean that riders would not have to pay a fare to board the bus.
The Coalition for Fare Free Public Transit has been advocating for three years for a fare-free bus system in Worcester County. It took a deadly pandemic to finally make it happen. Passengers can board the bus through the back door and do not have to pay a fare. The fare-free system is only in place for the month of April, but there is a possibility it could be extended into May, and perhaps for the rest of the year, if we demand it.
New Delhi, Seoul, Los Angeles, Beijing, New York. Reports are coming in from all over the world that levels of urban air pollution are dropping at staggering rates. Cities that were,in business-as-usual times, choked with toxic gases from cars and trucks, are ejoying air that is fresh and clean. Urban skies are crystal blue and people can see the stars at night. The air in these urban metropols is, as one writer described it, “alpine.”
No one is flying. International air flights have been grounded all over the world. Current maps of global flight patterns show less than a dozen flights at any one time. The airline industry is hemorrhaging profits as their planes sit on the ground. Everyone is staying home, and no one wants to risk infection by trudging through international airports.
London, New York, Paris, Boston. Urban roads are being cleared of cars and trucks and designated for pedestrians only so that people can walk and maintain ‘social distancing’ of six feet. Streets are, finally, for people, not for cars.
As people stay out of contaminated subway systems in New York City, more people are riding bicycles as their main form of transportation, in addition to walking. New York, Mexico City and Bogotá have installed new bike lanes to make room for more bicycles.
There are random reports of wild animals meandering through our stilled city streets. Goats ramble thorugh empty town squares. Dolphins appeared in the canals of Venice. Species long thought extinct are showing up in places that humans abandoned.
Carbon emissions down. With everyone staying home, no one is traveling. So the burning of fossil fuels is also dropping at unprecedented rates, and therefore so are carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases. The Guardian reports that global carbon emissions from the fossil fuel industry could fall by a record 2.5 billion tonnes this year, a reduction of 5%, the result of the biggest drop in demand for fossil fuels since World War II.
Oil is going down to $20 a barrel. (Update 4-21-20; Oil is now priced below zero dollars for WTI, WTS indexes.) Fracked oil and gas wells are shutting down, oil projects in the Canadian tar sands are going bankrupt. The oil indistry is running out of places to store the oil that is not being burned. Major oil producers, Russia and OPEC, have agreed to cut production.
And even though we’re spending many more hours a day on the Internet, for school, work and socializing, electricity use has actually gone down. Electric grids are burning less coal. Emissions from factories and shipping has dropped dramatically. Since milllons of people are out of work, we don’t have money to spare for “consumer goods.” Retail shopping is no longer a leisure activity. We only have money for absolute necessities, which are:
Arts and Culture
and the Internet. That is the one totally modern invention that, were it absent from our lives under lockdown, would probably result in skyrocketing death rates and mass riots. We can safely and peacefully connect onilne and suppport each other through the pandemic.
When this is over, whenever that may be—a month from now, six months from now, or when they finally roll out a vaccine—we cannot go back to business-as-usual. The lesson emerging from the coronavirus pandemic is that we have to do more than cut carbon emisisons to salvage a liveable climate. We have to totally restructure our economy to only produce what we absolutely need: food, shelter, medicine, education, local mobility, culture and social support. And we have to live locally and stay at home.
We don’t need cruise ships, those floating laboratories of death that spread disease all over the world. We don’t need most international air flights and we should shut down runways and airports. We need to end gas and diesel-fueled motor traffic. We need to redesign streets for people and bikes, not cars. We need fare-free public transit. And we need to move as much of our work and daily activities online as we can, to reduce global travel and the burning of fossil fuels.
As I lie awake at night, wondering if I’m going to be next, I have another insight: we can’t go back to the way things were before coronavirus. For over a century, we have been brain-washed into believing that “there is no alternative” to a globalized capitalist system that destroys our living planet in the service of profit.
But look what happened. As soon as the homeless in downtown Worcester became a danger of spreading disease to everyone, the City of Worcester put the homeless into hotel rooms. They housed all the homeless in the city in less than a month. Problem solved, no more homeless. The pandemic has shown us that we can solve all these problems in an instant if we want to.
We’ve been told that there is no alternative. Oh yes, there is. Another world is possible, and we know that deep in our gut because we’re living through it right now.