Sacrifice in a Time of Pandemic: A Model for Climate Change?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has had unexpected implications for climate change. COVID-19 mitigation has meant reductions in travel, industrial activity, and energy consumption. These measures are significantly reducing carbon emissions. Though governments have mandated these measures, in many cases they are willingly accepted, and motivated by a spirit of collective sacrifice. Given the enormity of the sacrifice, which has involved shutting down much of modern life, and given its impact on carbon emissions, does collective sacrifice in the face of this pandemic provide an inspiring model for the struggle against climate change? The answer is complicated.

At its most noble and egalitarian, sacrifice pulls communities together. We agree to shoulder hardship or self-deprivation in order to serve the common good or even ensure collective survival. Here, we are reminded of the roots of the word sacrifice itself, which, as political scientist Karen Litfin points out, are sacre, sacred, and facere, to make. Thus, as she notes, sacrifice is not merely self-deprivation, but elevates the actor by building connections with others and involving one in a larger sense of purpose.

This model of sacrifice informs the current response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Writing in The Atlantic, Garrett Graff says that Americans’ willingness to engage in social distancing and give up many aspects of daily life in order to protect those most vulnerable to the disease “is a collective act of almost unprecedented community spirit, a fundamental statement of how we stand together as a species. The many act to protect the few — an almost tribal, communitarian instinct that is all too rare in modern life.” In this spirit, a sign posted in the college town where I teach says, “Take care of each other.”

The sacrifices demanded by the pandemic crisis are temporary. We are not permanently embracing a life of staying home and keeping at least six feet from each other whenever we have to venture out. That would not be a recognizably human existence. We are temporarily — hopefully only for months — sacrificing things we still consider desirable. What makes these sacrifices bearable is their impermanence and that we will once again enjoy what we’ve given up. It is an open question, though, whether these sacrifices will remain tolerable if they continue for, say, a year or more.

The climate crisis is different. Its duration is not months, but decades and centuries. But the difference is not just a matter of time horizon. A climate-friendly future requires a very different type of society. Unlike measures to mitigate the pandemic, addressing climate change in the long run does not mean depriving ourselves of goods that are otherwise desirable. It means rethinking what is actually desirable.

Because the sacrifice associated with the pandemic has been a matter of self-deprivation, it will be quickly abandoned once no longer necessary. People will eagerly get behind the wheel or board airplanes in order to pursue all the things they have denied themselves. And, just as they did when the economy rebounded after the Great Recession, global emissions will resume their dangerous ascent.

Therefore, confronting climate change requires changing the very way we think about some of the activities — for example, flying — that have been curtailed during the pandemic. It means recognizing our planet’s limits and abandoning our self-destructive pursuit of limitless wealth and consumption. It means reducing energy and water use; giving up big cars, big houses, and most air travel; trading in sprawling suburbs for higher-density, walkable communities; relying more on walking, biking, and public transportation; eating more locally and in season; and seeing our devices and appliances as durable and fixable rather than as items to discard and replace every few years. It means recognizing that justice entails equitable sharing of the Earth’s limited ecological capacity rather than relying on an infinitely expanding pie. It means accepting the need for more government regulation and management. And perhaps most importantly, it means reorienting our conception of the good around living more simply, slowly, deliberately, and locally, embracing human goods and activities not tied to high levels of consumption, and valuing civic responsibility and engagement much more than we currently do.

In some ways, this type of sacrifice is similar to that demanded by a pandemic. It puts a premium on collective purpose and community and should not simply be imposed from above, but also willed from below. But there is another similarity. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have until 2030 to significantly cut emissions and begin radically decarbonizing the global economy to avoid massively catastrophic temperature increases. If we heed this warning, the next ten years will demand a great deal in terms of our collective willingness, backed up democratically enacted government regulation, to sacrifice by depriving ourselves of many aspects of our consumer lifestyle that we might still seem desirable.

However, a long-term response to climate change ultimately has to move away from notions of self-deprivation and sacrifice itself, and consider a more ecologically responsible existence as normal and desirable. Instead of denying ourselves goods that we consider worthwhile, we would ultimately be embracing an alternative set of goods as we build a decarbonized, truly sustainable society. The watchword will not be sacrifice, but a revised conception of the good life.

Yet collective sacrifice in the time of COVID-19 can nevertheless help us address the climate emergency. Certainly, social distancing itself should not outlive the pandemic. But the measures we take during this pandemic may enable us to realize ways in which we can live without frequent air travel, significant amounts of driving, or high levels of consumption. Moreover, the current moment offers intimations of some of the goods that might animate an ecologically responsible society, including a spirit of collective purpose and civic virtue; enjoyment of the outdoors; a renewed appreciation of home activities, family, and pets; and care for the welfare of friends and loved ones. In these ways, addressing the coronavirus pandemic may indeed help us envision a better climate future.

Professor of Government at Hamilton College

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