With half a century of Earth Days behind us, we face a new level of urgency in our environmental crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that we live in interconnected systems. Some of the factors driving climate change are also increasing our risk for infectious pandemics. Deforestation, often in service of agriculture, contributes to a warmer planet. Habitat loss also forces animal migrations that increase the chance of pathogens spreading to new hosts. Raising livestock in our industrial agricultural system is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and a potential source of pathogen spillover from animal to human populations. And our reliance on fossil fuels—another key contributor to global warming—causes air pollution that makes us more vulnerable to respiratory infections We affect our environment, and our environment affects us. The more we understand about these connections, the more resilient we can become to protect our health, our communities, and our economy.
The past year’s disruptive wildfire seasons following extended droughts in Australia and California have given us a sobering glimpse of the future that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned we will face if we fail to limit global warming to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels. In light of these impending, catastrophic risks, our understanding of environmentalism, and what it means to be an environmentalist, is due for a critical reappraisal.
Historically, environmentalism has signaled a commitment to conservation and preservation– the latter an effort to return to some past pristine environment. Yet natural scientists, social scientists, and humanities scholars alike have underscored that the notion of an ahistorical, untouched nature is a faulty one. If we are to reorient the environmental movement’s goals and actions to avert crisis, we must reassess how we assign value to different ecosystems and human communities. To be sure, protecting open spaces and wild lands is still important as a part of the future management of our ecosystems, as they ensure crucial environmental protections for habitats that preserve our biodiversity, create carbon sinks that lower greenhouse gas levels, and provide natural areas we enjoy being in. Yet our current crisis requires that we also look to those less idealized environments—cities, suburbs, and industrial areas—and understand that we must also include them in our vision for overcoming the challenges of climate change.
We propose rethinking environmentalism through the lens of resilience. Resilience offers an approach to the environmental crisis that differs in worldview and practice from the preservationist management strategies commonly associated with Earth Day and environmentalism more broadly. Whereas preservation focuses on returning to a fixed, idealized past environment, resilience emphasizes a roll-with-the-punches-like approach to living with and managing environmental change. Ecologists generally define resilience as a system’s ability to return to its prior condition after a disturbance, with more resilient systems mitigating the impacts of disturbance more quickly and completely.