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GREENINGS: Reflecting on who actually matters (Mar. 2020)

March 24th, 2020 · No Comments

COVID-19 response speaks volumes about those we choose to ignore

By Terri Chu

There’s a China-sized hole in the world’s pollution map thanks to the coronavirus (COVID-19). Flights around the world have decreased, economic activity has gone down substantially, and our air has never been cleaner. Even Venice’s famous canals are running clean, and are once again home to swans and the odd dolphin.

If there’s anything COVID-19 is teaching us, it’s that when faced with an existential threat, we can actually take measures to prevent humans from dying. Unfortunately, preventing humans from dying depends largely on the humans we’re trying to protect. 

What we need is an economy that no longer depends upon consumption of goods for consumption’s sake

There have been thousands who have died from or been displaced by flooding, typhoons, and hurricanes who have gone largely unnoticed because they were impoverished. The millions who will die from the famine resulting from locust swarms in Africa don’t matter, because they are poor and, well African. (There has been scant news in this part of the world about the East African locust swarms that threaten the lives of millions.) 

The world, however, can and will act when disease threatens those who can afford to put food on the table, buy airplane tickets, and consume endless amounts of stuff. This message has been sent loud and clear. We will only act in the face of imminent danger to those whose lives matter.

Thanks to climate change, diseases are predicted to spread further and faster than ever before. Acting swiftly and decisively might actually happen on a more regular basis.

I feel terrible for everyone stuck in an economic system that dehumanizes the very workers who keep it afloat. For many, there is no other path to putting food on the table other than being a cog in the machine that churns out goods and services that we don’t actually need. The fact is, we can function perfectly fine as a society without fancy handbags, designer clothes, and destination handbags.

We now live in a society that is suffering from the over-abundance of useless products that we pay people to help sort, store, and dispose of. The one thing that we can’t do without is food. Yet in our economic system, being able to eat has less to do with food availability than it has to do with finding a way to produce an economic unit of labour, even if nobody needs that labour. Even more unsettling is that about 60 per cent of what we grow ends up wasted, even as many continue to starve.

At the moment, China has slowed production of the gadgets that will become tomorrow’s landfill. And while there are those for whom the self-distancing measures brought on by COVID-19 are merely an inconvenience, many on our society’s economic margins are suffering. 

We don’t need a more robust economy to deal with this fall out. What we need is an economy that prioritizes land, water, and biodiverse ecosystems over immediacy and convenience. We need an economy that will take seriously the threat to the lives of billions of people, even those that don’t “matter”. Because in fact, every human life matters.

COVID-19 demonstrates that the world (minus the United States) is mostly capable of acting. The question is whether we think the lives at stake are actually worth acting for. 

Terri Chu is an engineer committed to practical environmentalism. This column is dedicated to helping the community reduce energy use, and help distinguish environmental truths from myths. Send questions, comments, and ideas for future columns to Terri at


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