On Saturday morning I met a friend for breakfast at a local diner. We weren’t sure whether to sit outside because of the surging Delta variant of Covid, or inside because stinging smoke from wildfires consuming northern and western California had spread into the Bay Area.
Our small dilemma is a microcosm of what many Americans are going through or will be soon. The combination of multiplying Covid variants and mounting environmental damage is making the air dangerous to breathe, inside or out.
What to do? Clean air is the quintessential public good. It’s supposed to be free, abundant and safe. Few Americans alive today have ever before worried about microscopic particles containing deadly infections or deadly bits of carbon.
And yet largely because we’ve taken it for granted, and therefore as a society didn’t pay enough attention to public health or to the disintegrating environment, the air we breathe is no longer safe. We now need to rely on masks, air filters and other devices to protect our lungs. And it’s far from clear how long this will go on or if and how it will ever end.
It’s not as if we weren’t warned. But it’s been bizarrely difficult for us as a society to focus our attention on this most basic of all needs. I’m tempted to blame Republicans, capitalism, greed, the oligarchy. But these feel like copouts.
Our collective tendency is to wait until big problems become catastrophic before dealing with them. Most of the time we’d rather not pay attention. We have all we can do to make a living, bring up our kids decently, save a bit for retirement, hopefully have a bit of fun along the way. We assume others will take care of the biggest threats.
Or we tell ourselves there’s nothing more we can do. We may try to live modestly, recycle and conserve energy, use masks and get fully vaccinated. We might even write a few emails to politicians advocating for cleaner air and for stronger public health measures. Beyond this, it can feel hopeless.
Hell, I was in a president’s cabinet. I personally know dozens of members of Congress. I have a big megaphone. But when it comes to this simultaneous pandemic and environmental crisis, I sometimes despair too.
Americans speak a lot about “revolution”. We’re a nation born of revolution. What we don’t talk about enough is a revolution in our thinking and behavior – realizing that we are not above and outside the natural world but part of it, that we cannot continue to exploit and plunder for profit, that there is something called the common good that requires personal sacrifice, and that those of us who are better off have a moral duty to sacrifice the most.
Yet I’m old enough to remember when California had smog days when the air was putrid and orange, when older and sicker people dared not venture outside and kids couldn’t play outdoors. I’m also old enough to remember when Britain had noxious air – coal-fired fogs that blanketed cities, burned lungs and sometimes killed thousands.
I don’t recall the last pandemic, but I do remember when polio ripped through the land, spreading fear and paralysis. It put two of my six-year-old friends into iron lungs.
In all these instances, we acted – as a people, as a society. We got smog out of the air. Britain cleaned up too. And we dutifully lined up at school to get polio shots (without the howling of governors or anti-vaxxers). We eradicated polio.
In other words, despite our tendencies to wait until the last moment, to get caught up in our own private needs and wants, and feel overwhelmed in the face of gigantic problems, we sometimes achieve the common good. It’s important to remember this.
My friend and I chose to have our breakfast outside. I’m not sure it was the right choice. Although we reduced our risk of Covid, the smoke stung our eyes and probably did worse to our lungs. But I am sure this is not the only choice ahead.
Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and The Common Good. His new book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, is out now. He is a Guardian US columnist