Social media platforms evidence a variety of memes—both sincere and ironic—that laud the ecological benefits that come with the cessation of economic activity. With less traffic and less noise pollution, wild animals are able to move about with much more freedom. With so many fewer cars on the road and so many factories temporarily shuttered, the air quality in cities around the world has rapidly improved. Critics, however, point to the misanthropic quality of such sentiments, which celebrate environmental flourishing as something that follows from human suffering. It is certainly true that global economic collapse and massive fatalities would mitigate against climate change, but to champion such outcomes smacks of moral corruption. Such a view is, in essence, the converse of the depraved notion that “protecting the market” justifies mass death.
The climate crisis and the coronavirus crisis are connected, not merely because quarantine fuels our collective imagination about a world without us, but, more to the point, because the COVID-19 pandemic raises many of the same moral questions as does climate change. For example, the pandemic and climate change pose similar quandaries: Individual actors are called upon to pay modest costs now in exchange for long-term benefits that accrue at the societal level, strong generational effects make it difficult for younger and older citizens to work in coordination, and time lags between action and benefit make it hard for casual observers to sense the moral urgency. In short, the pandemic, like climate change, is a wicked problem.
Despite the fact that public debates about these issues are conducted primarily in a secular key, religious ethics figure centrally in the way societies imagine and pursue the collective good. As I have argued elsewhere, debates about the environment draw on deeply, and perhaps unconsciously, held theological views about human being and the relationship of human beings to the rest of the biological order. This way of thinking about climate ethics may prove useful for thinking about the relationship between individual responsibility and collective goods in this time of pandemic.
Debates about environmental issues have in the United States generally demonstrated a confusion about how to conjoin private and public moral goods. The conservation movement, the foundation of our national land management and environmental preservation policies, prioritized personal recreation and privatized resource extraction as the foremost goods. But subsequent waves of environmental mobilization generated more egalitarian approaches; for example, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act incorporated public health standards and made considerations of justice more directly relevant to environmental ethics. With respect to nature, Americans are schizophrenic. We celebrate nature’s benefits for individuals—its beauty, its bounty—but we consistently reject the idea that individuals need to sacrifice much of anything so that these benefits can be widely shared.
These same dynamics are recapitulated in the case of climate change. Flying and driving remain common practices even for the growing number of Americans who understand the serious and immediate danger presented by runaway greenhouse gas emissions. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide continue to grow primarily because our underlying social and economic systems tend to value private goods more than they protect against public harms: We continue to act as we do because the harms caused by our individual actions accrue at the global scale. The pursuit of individual flourishing is embedded within a profoundly problematic moral ecosystem where professional growth, prestige, and financial security are quite directly tied to carbon intensive practices. Our private moral deliberations may be locally influential, but are ultimately insufficient to the task of confronting climate change. Massive systemic reform is needed. Political leadership, nationally and globally, is essential. The climate crisis will only be met when we develop means of confronting it collectively, rather than privately.
As the United States lurches into the COVID-19 pandemic, these same dysfunctions in our political culture are starkly evident. The impulse to act exclusively in self-interest—without consideration of the elderly, the incarcerated, the poor, or those with underlying health conditions—is already a defining feature of American culture, now exacerbated by a president allergic to empathy. Self-isolation is an ethical practice intended not to protect individuals, but to improve the aggregate outcome for society as a whole. “Bending the curve” is a collective endeavor that requires non-trivial sacrifices from individuals in order to help prevent the health care system from being inundated by a sudden and massive influx of sick people.
Rather than be distracted by the “ecological silver linings” of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a moment that demands we think deeply and seriously about the relationship between individual and collective goods. There can be no “climate benefit” to the coronavirus crisis because these intersecting challenges should be measured by the same metrics. Our responses to climate change, like our responses to the present pandemic, are viable only so far as they envision and enact a future of collective human flourishing.
Such visions are common features of religious ethical traditions; hospitality and care figure central in most wisdom traditions. Theologies can provide a rich source for the collective imaginaries we so badly need. But theology of itself does not work that way. One of the key reasons why the United States has struggled so mightily to respond to COVID-19 (or to climate change, for that matter) is that our dominant theologies center on the individual—the salvation of private individuals. Thus, the primary lesson that can be drawn from the resonances between pandemic and environmental crisis is the poverty of our national public imagination, which overflows with religious justifications for autonomy, but is lacking in its ability to articulate the bases of social cohesion.