Irene Panke Hopkins
Irene Panke Hopkins

While everyone has been looking in other directions, the government has taken advantage of our distraction to make an astonishing number of disastrous environmental moves.

The pandemic has, understandably, taken a toll on our collective consciousness. People are sick, people are dying, and the rest of us are trying to avoid either. Or we should be.

The partisan politics that have come into play around a situation that affects every single one of us, not only in our country but globally, confound me.

With competent leadership we could get control of this much faster than we have. (New Zealand is a prime example of a country that, with intelligent, clear leadership, has all but eradicated the virus.)

The social unrest since the killing of George Floyd has also taken an enormous amount of our attention. As it should because, again, this affects us all. If one faction of our population is being treated unfairly and murdered without repercussions, then that impacts all of us. Anyone who is not outraged by the reasons for the protests doesn’t fully understand them.

Economically, we are in dire straits. Driving through Ballard, I am sickened by the increasing number of tents and homeless camps on the side of the road. So many, including my own adult children, are unemployed, wondering what will happen after their rapidly diminishing benefits expire with no hope for being rehired anytime soon. And it’s only going to get worse. This, too, affects us all whether or not we choose to acknowledge it.

And then, a quick Google search for environmental rollbacks reveals 100 devastating rule reversals since the current president took office. According to a May 20 article in The New York Times, most of the major climate and environmental policies Trump promised to undo when he took office three years ago have been reversed.

“Calling the rules unnecessary and burdensome to the fossil fuel industry and other businesses, his administration has weakened Obama-era limits on planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and from cars and trucks, and rolled back many more rules governing clean air, water and toxic chemicals. Several major reversals have been finalized in recent weeks as the country has struggled to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.”

There it is. While we are looking the other way, the environment is being ransacked.

More than 60 environmental regulations affecting the air we breathe, the water we drink, drilling, toxic substances, animals, wetlands and infrastructure have been reversed, revoked and/or rolled back, according to Harvard and Columbia law schools’ research; 34 additional rollbacks are in progress. The Environmental Protection Agency claims that Trump’s commitment to clean air, water and land has been delivered. Not so, according to Hana V. Viscarra of Harvard Law School’s Environmental and Energy Law Program. The agency under Trump has regulated environmental harm especially with regards to climate change.

So while people in this country are dying from COVID-19, dying at the hands of the police and suffering extreme poverty, environmental rollbacks are threatening death from poor air quality. “All told, the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks could significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions and lead to thousands of extra deaths from poor air quality each year, according to energy and legal analysts.”

The massive global protests sparked by George Floyd’s death have brought about change already. Police are being held accountable for actions that result in unwarranted deaths. White people are taking up the cause of their brothers and sisters of color. Black Lives Matter is no longer something “they” care about. Policies concerning choke holds and no-knock warrants are changing within police departments. Our voices do matter! And so do our actions!

If we could apply this same thinking to our environment, imagine what we could accomplish. The truth is, the pandemic has forced us to change our behavior and to realize that it is OK. That we can change. For example, weddings have had to be scaled down and done locally. Baby showers are virtual. Travel is limited to nearby locales. Personally, I drive far less than I used to. My consumption is down because stores are closed. When I shop for food, I do it efficiently and with the idea of making it stretch so I avoid constant runs to the grocery stores for an ingredient I need. I have replaced wandering through a shop “just to see what I might want” with walking along the beach. I wear a mask and wave to passers-by from a distance.


Course Correction: There is another way to live in this world, and all of the events of our recent experiences have served to show us the way.

Think for yourself, and do not rely on others to tell you when you are safe to stop wearing a mask. Support your black and brown neighbors. And stay educated about the environment and the havoc that is being wrought upon our home, the planet, by those in control whose short-sightedness will be the undoing of all of our efforts.

We can work as hard as we can to eradicate the pandemic, to promote the BLM cause and to stimulate the economy. But if we push the environment to the back burner, it will all be in vain.

— Irene Panke Hopkins is a writer and essayist. Her work has appeared locally and nationally in magazines, news publications, blogs and anthologies.