Coronavirus has collapsed collective notions of time and facts. But when I climb above the pits of contradictory news reports, endless scrolling, and leadership failures, I see two truths that provide a foundation for hope. The first is well-known: decreased human activity is observably benefitting the environment. The other is receiving less attention: in the face of dire need, people are willingly making huge behavior modifications to help others.
I believe in hope as an antidote for inaction. In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit wrote that hope makes change possible, spurs movements, and should be channeled into immediate climate action. The book was published 16 years ago. It is easy to see that alone as failure; it is easy to dismiss hope as Pollyannaish.
It is harder to point to paradigm-altering movements led by pessimists. Pursuing a fairer, healthier, sustainable world requires a vision. Pessimism pokes holes; like a bad critic, it has complaints, but no alternate ideas. Its cousin guilt allows people to flounder in feelings that take the place of action, providing a false feeling of accomplishment through self-excoriation.
It is easy to groan over stay-at-home failures, at system failures – and as a Florida native, I do. When anger or fear is overwhelming, I return to the knowledge that right now millions are staying home for the benefit of others. Young, healthy, people with less to lose are joining fellow generations in altering normal behaviors. When urgency is demonstrated, many of us are making sacrifices for the common good.
Beyond the relatively comfortable situations of those who now work from home, despair is mounting. For many people, inequities in the United States’ healthcare system, economy, and racial history are being felt with terrible immediacy. Others are awakening to them, some by losing a job or a loved one, others via the inescapable news coverage.
The deaths, suffering, and unfairness of the present situation require mitigation now. Addressing them will create the bedrock of a better world. The three pillars of sustainability have never been more essential: environmentally sound, socially equitable, and economically feasible policy. It is time for collective action by those of us who have the privilege to be able to opt into organizing, instead of being forced to by a lack of PPE or health insurance. Hope is valuable for its ability to be converted into action. Those of us in the comfort of safe homes must seize this opportunity to plot a better future for all people, living things, and ecosystems.
Right now and after this shut down, I want to remember what those pedaling the status quo hope I will forget: together we can create radical change that seemed impossible yesterday. Even while working together, we can embrace diverse methods of dismantling harmful systems.
For me that means deepening my engagement in local politics and policy. Advocating for equitable historic preservation that benefits the environment by taking advantage of embodied energy of old buildings. Getting involved with local political organizations that inspire me. Donating to non-profits working to create a better world. And of course, voting.
I want to join with others who will put politicians on notice: we changed our lives for coronavirus, so we know everyone – from individuals to governments to big businesses – can change for the planet. Those who want my vote will lead the way in making sure it happens.
Jacqueline Drayer is an architectural historian and preservation advocate.