State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Maintaining Hope in A Horrible Time

Just when you think it can’t possibly get worse, it does. To recap a sample of the flood of bad news this year, we have experienced:

  • The lockdown that began in March to reduce the spread of COVID-19;
  • The murder of George Floyd;
  • Trump’s effort to delegitimize the election;
  • Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death and proposed “replacement;”
  • A horrific presidential debate displaying a president out of control;
  • A seemingly endless pandemic with millions of Americans out of work and hungry;
  • More people than I can remember sleeping and begging on the streets of New York City;
  • Over 200,000 Americans dead, and now a president and first lady infected with COVID-19.

We are a nation in crisis, poorly led by a dysfunctional government and a set of seemingly strong institutions buckling under the strain. This is a moment when we need to look to each other, our families, neighbors and communities for mutual support, understanding and a sense of hope.

The world has seen worse in the past and today many people throughout the world are suffering far more than we are. Those of us in America who remain employed, well fed and well housed are fortunate for what we have. But the crisis of this moment requires that we think about and act on our best rather than worst instincts. It requires us to draw on our inner strength, find purpose and if possible, work to help others during this horrible time. Crises like this bring out the best and worst in people. Creativity, innovation, determination and courage are all required. Moreover, the maintenance of our democracy requires trust.

Since March, many of us have been largely confined to our homes, carefully venturing out masked and keeping our distance from people on the street, in stores or in parks. The diversity of our life experiences has been reduced to a world of routine and most of our interaction occurs in two dimensions on Zoom or FaceTime. When this all began in March, few of us seriously thought it would still be going on in October and now it’s not clear when we will resume our normal lives. The uncertainty and isolation are exhausting and no one should be surprised if at the end of the workday you are weary in a way that seems a little extreme.

Many people have tried to substitute old routines with new ones. My daily time at the gym has been replaced by a stationary bike and weights I now use at home. My gym has reopened but I don’t see myself returning for a long time. I miss the people and the place but have decided to minimize indoor interaction with people. My wife and I walk in the park once or twice a day, and I am teaching, masked and in a classroom, but I have not been in a restaurant since March and even outdoor dining doesn’t tempt me. To be clear, my lifestyle is luxurious compared to the many people out of work and lining up at food pantries for the first time in their lives. I am inconvenienced but far from threatened. But just the same, I find myself waiting to exhale. Trying to find a sense of peace and purpose in a world turned upside down. It helps to stay in touch with family and friends by phone, FaceTime and Zoom. While it can’t replace face-to-face contact and the human touch, it still provides emotional sustenance.

Everyone is looking for a way to cope and find joy in this horrible time. Fall brings shorter days, colder weather and thoughts of Thanksgiving and winter holidays. But travel and large get-togethers are bound to be difficult if not impossible this year. Interaction via electronic means will need to suffice while we wait for medical technology to come to our rescue. Life goes on, love and friendship continue, and time slips by in new ways. I frequently find myself surprised at the date and time in a world that passes by both slowly and rapidly.

Again, like many, I find myself engaged in my work, trying to adapt to the new conditions we operate in. Teaching in a mask, simultaneously to students in a classroom and other students at home on Zoom. Learning how to “share my screen” and utilize “breakout rooms.” Grateful for the young people who work with me who keep teaching me how to use these technologies. Young people who grew up with the internet operate in that world with an ease I could never imitate. But I enjoy learning from them and trying to understand these technologies better than I do.

As a student of environmental sustainability, I recently completed the second edition of my book The Sustainable City. This edition includes a co-author, my talented colleague, Dong Guo. Our revision includes much more treatment of China and other places outside of the United States, and a new emphasis on the need for more comprehensive and competent systems of public health. Sustainability requires densely settled cities, and pandemics threaten our ability to achieve density. So, I have been thinking a great deal about the organizational capacity and standard operating procedures we need to build to prevent the next global pandemic. We not only need medical technology, including rapid tests, rapid vaccine development, and better treatments, but we need the ability to deliver it everywhere as a fundamental human right on a crowded planet.

These projects related to adapting to our new conditions provide an outlet for creativity and a distraction from thoughts of what I’m missing. I realize that modern technology has made it possible for me to work anyplace that connects to the web and that the internet’s unparalleled access to information has made it possible for me to work far more effectively and rapidly than I used to. Columbia University’s incredible library has spent the last several decades digitizing many parts of its collection and adding access to electronic resources that enable scholars to continue their work without needing to visit a library in person. These resources make it possible to continue to explore and increase understanding of the issues I care about.

One source of hope for me is the creative adaptations people and institutions have made to resume operations in a pandemic: The libraries have developed a system that enables you to reserve and pick up books “grab and go style.” I am impressed by the stores that protect their workers with shields and masks and signs to reinforce social distance. I am also impressed by the extraordinary work that my employer, Columbia University, has undertaken to protect students and staff. In fact, the most amazing transformation has been turning part of Columbia’s student union building, Lerner Hall, into a giant medical testing and flu vaccination center. Melanie Bernitz and her team have built an amazing, well-organized and well-managed facility to help ensure Columbia’s Morningside campus is safe. I recently volunteered for a pilot test for faculty and staff to receive weekly COVID-19 tests and I was in and out of the testing site in about seven minutes. Since June 22, Columbia has administered 23,483 tests and only 12 have been positive. Writing in the New York Times recently, Shawn Hubler reported that Columbia was not alone in keeping its campus safe. According to Hubler:

“As campuses across the country struggle to carry on amid illnesses and outbreaks, a determined minority are beating the pandemic — at least for the moment — by holding infections to a minimum and allowing students to continue living in dorms and attend face-to-face classes. Being located in small towns, having minimal Greek life and aggressively enforcing social-distancing measures all help in suppressing the contagion, experts say. But one major thread connects the most successful campuses: testing. Extensively.”

There are of course many other examples of institutions, businesses, and individuals figuring out creative ways to function in this horrible time. And in the final analysis, it is that human ingenuity and persistence that gives me hope and helps me navigate the worst public health catastrophe in a century. My wish is for others to also maintain hope in this horrible time.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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3 years ago

To add to our list of “bad news” since the publication of this post, the US has removed itself of the Paris Agreement, Amy Coney Barret has been confirmed in the late Ruth Bader Justice’s seat, and we are waiting behind our computer screens, refreshing the count every 30 minutes to see the final outcome of this election. While Biden is favored to win by projections from CNN, FiveThirtyEight, and other news sources, it is too soon to call. Right now, we need to focus on the small and large victories in this election and the accounts of human ingenuity through COVID19, as you describe, to give us hope. And yet, as I sit behind my computer, receiving a graduate degree from a prestigious American university, in a predominantly wealthy and white city, I wonder if the hope I strive for(pertaining to the election and otherwise) is 180 degrees separated from the hope that another American yearns for. Yes, hope is in the small gains of human ingenuity we have seen through the course of COVID19, but it is also the ability to strive for equality in healthcare, access to decent education, and decent housing. This can change through policy made by those we elect in our next administration. But, even if Biden is elected, we are seeing that over 69.8 million Americans (and counting) support Donald Trump, who has run a Presidential platform on hatred and on putting communities beneath others. Are there two forms of hope in America? A Biden truth and a Trump truth? Moving forward after this election, how can our country come together to have even the basic agreement on what “hope” looks for. Perhaps we are in a path of narrowing this divide, or perhaps it will continue to get larger, regardless of the election. My goal is to follow your advice of looking for hope in my personal life to keep myself sane, and also to begin understanding the hope of others in this country in an effort to narrow our divide.