April 15, 2020

As Earth Day Approaches, Suggesting Care For the Future Like We Have Shown Care For Each Other

To the Editor:

Of all the astonishing changes the invisible coronavirus has wrought, unwelcome or serendipitous, from financial loss to a treasured family reunion with children now grown to adulthood, the most extraordinary has been the silence. Walking down the sidewalk of a formerly busy street, I’m surprised by the sound of my own footsteps. People’s voices, no longer competing with a background din of traffic, have a new clarity. Herrontown Woods was so peaceful yesterday I could hear the buzzing of a honey bee colony 40 feet up in a tree. The sky has been given back to the stars.

This massive shutdown of machinery came after a month in which I was exposed to a progression of traumas inflicted by automobiles. In broad daylight, one started to turn left towards me as I rode my bike down Nassau Street. It came to a screeching halt only a foot away. Not long after, a colleague of my wife’s was run over at night by a SUV and dragged for 60 feet. A friend of mine bicycling home was struck hard by a car at dusk. Another bicyclist, forced towards the curb by traffic, was thrown head first onto the pavement when his bike struck a sunken storm drain just down from my house.

These experiences of vulnerability and unwitting harm brought a new level of tension both to riding a bike and driving a car. COVID-19 has shifted that tension from outside to inside, making streets far safer while injecting a weird sense of terror into shopping at the grocery.

I long for an end to social distancing, and yet I also dread the return of what has long passed for normality. In turning our world upside down, COVID-19 has turned some things right side up, teaching so much, about our long untapped resourcefulness and capacity to adapt and rise to a collective challenge. Above all it has demonstrated the grave threat posed by unintentional harm.

For three decades, these lessons have been begging to be learned, tailor made as they are to apply to the grave risks posed by the unintentional transformations our machines’ invisible exhaust wreaks upon the earth’s climate. To watch those machines ramp back up will be as heartbreaking as watching a loved one return to drink after a promising stint in rehab.

The pandemic has shown that people are willing to temporarily sacrifice the economy for a greater good. Imagine, instead of simply revving the economy back up to continue its collision course with nature and our collective future, that we impose upon ourselves the necessity of saving a stable and livable world for our children. As the 50th Earth Day approaches, we would care for the future like we have shown we can care for each other, and do what it takes to build our way to a new prosperity, this time with machines that no longer seed the atmosphere with another invisible peril. Dangers collectively spread, we are proving, can be collectively stopped.

Stephen K. Hiltner
North Harrison Street