Power and Purpose during the Great Pause

Written by Joshua Humphreys

As 2020 comes mercifully to its end, I cannot help but recall that this was to have been, as its name suggests, a year of acuity and foresight. Instead, it rapidly descended into one of the most clouded and contentious years of this crisis-ridden century.

From the very outset of the year, record-setting bushfires in Australia provided an on-going reminder – as if we needed another one – that the impacts of climate change continue to be unleashed across the globe. They ravaged 19 million hectares of land down under, killed or displaced nearly three billion animals, and released the densest “black carbon” plume of smoke ever recorded by NASA at elevations more than six miles into the stratosphere, wafting across the Pacific Ocean and over the Americas.

The Australian inferno merely prefigured what would become yet another terrifying year of wildfires on the west coast, the worst on record that ecologists now say will leave centuries’ long scars across California’s forested landscapes.

Meanwhile, the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season proved to be relentless, producing the largest number of tropical storms on record and the second-highest number of hurricanes in history. Extreme weather events and these “unnatural disasters” have become a new normal of our age.

Yet it was another new normal – the Great Pause of the novel coronavirus – that has most resolutely reshaped social life in 2020. By the Ides of March, COVID-19 had been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, and under the declaration of a National Emergency, the US spiraled into a chaotic lockdown with every state crafting its own public-health response in a desperate effort to “flatten the curve” of coronavirus cases and avoid overloading a largely underprepared healthcare system.

Stay-at-home orders associated with the coronavirus lockdown merely accelerated the long-standing secular decline of the fossil-fuel industry. As markets began to process the magnitude of the crisis, throwing millions out of work, crude oil prices fell into negative territory for the first time in history, and a fresh wave of oil and gas company bankruptcies broke over the economy. But this was nothing new. Since 2015 more than 200 North American oil and gas companies with more than $130 billion in unpaid debts have declared bankruptcy.

Those of us who began raising alarm bells about fossil fuels in the era of BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, alongside a rag-tag bunch of student endowment activists calling for coal divestment back in 2010, deserve a measure of credit for our 20/20 vision a decade ago. The share price of ExxonMobil, often seen as the most efficient, untouchable oil supermajor, peaked more than six years ago at over $103; as of today’s writing, it trades at less than 42 bucks – a nearly 60-percent decline.

Foresight into the extractive economy’s failings gives me cold comfort amid the ongoing crisis. Immersed in this year’s unceasing turmoil, tragedy, and terror, from mounting COVID-related deaths to the resurgence of brutal racial violence, it’s fully understandable if one feels at times a piercing sense of displacement, a kind of collective survivor’s guilt, when we are forced into isolation from friends and family, colleagues and neighbors, as well as from the rites and rituals that define the cycles of social life throughout any given year – celebrations, graduations, and commemorations, whether public or private.

What has helped me most throughout this taxing year is an agrarian admonition I shared with others early and often, as the pandemic first began to strike terror in the hearts and minds of so many: take solace in nature’s indifference to your fear.

After all, ecology easily ignores executive orders. The COVID crisis revealed that our social routines are far more fragile than the cycles of resilience at work in the natural world.

And faced with the recurrent social injuries and injustices that our public-health crisis merely magnified, resilience is precisely the posture that we desperately need to assume. Those who refused to let police violence and political authoritarianism define this year, those who stepped into the voids of our overstretched industrial food system, those who served on the frontlines of a healthcare crisis that still sees no immediate end – they all in their own way exemplified precisely this kind of power and purpose during 2020.

As the final days of this year draw near, let us draw sustenance from their examples.

With all my wishes for a rejuvenating holiday season,

Joshua Humphreys 
Croatan Institute