Sustainability Matters with Christian Palmer: COVID-19 and Sustainability

While staying at home, WCC anthropology assistant professor Christian Palmer spends a lot of time tending to the various plants in his home garden.
Christian Palmer

by Christian Palmer

The arrival of the coronavirus in the last month has been crazy in a lot of ways. This craziness (and being stuck at home) can give us time to think about old problems in new ways and reflect on our usual state of constant movement. These reflections have given me a few thoughts on our relationship with the planet that I would like to share.

First, the coronavirus reminds us that we are a part of nature. As much as we try to control nature with our elaborate economic, political and cultural systems, it escapes. The virus has reminded us how fragile our man-made systems really are.

The Hawaiian ʻōlelo noeʻau teaches that He aliʻi ka ʻāina; he kauā ke kanaka, land is the chief and man is the servant. Quite literally, humans are not in charge.

When we think we are in charge, we are wrong and need to be more humble and observant. However, our human systems can be more resilient if we work with nature instead of trying to control it.

For example, local sustainable agriculture would allow us to be less dependent on global flows of tourism, money and food. Ultimately, climate change will also remind us that nature is in charge, but if we can learn the lesson sooner, we will be better able to adapt.

Second, humans can make dramatic shifts in a short amount of time when we want to.  Who would have thought that Republicans and Democrats could agree on a massive sweeping stimulus package in a week? Who would have imagined that the entire UH System would have gone online?

Systems that seem entrenched and unchangeable can adapt when needed. All we have to do is agree on what to do, and we can do it. We have seen this kind of mobilization in the U.S. with war efforts, but this is the first time that most of us currently living have experienced this kind of radical shift in such a short amount of time. It makes me optimistic for the other large shifts that need to happen in our political and economic systems to tackle the climate crisis.

Finally, as we all pare down our lives and gather with family and those closest to us, a vision of living more simply comes into view. We can drive a little less, spend a little bit more time with family, and do other small things that can help us collectively slow down a little and refocus our priorities. All three of these suggestions are really about changing how we think about the planet, our relationship to it, and to each other.