a thermal image of a tree without leaves

Let’s not waste this crucial moment: We need to stop abusing the planet

By making us more aware of the nature around us, COVID-19 lockdowns could inspire us to fight back against climate disaster.

Nature, enduring: Bristlecone pines in eastern California can live 4,000 years or more.
This story appears in the November 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

How these images were made: John Chiara built a large camera obscura, mounted it on a trailer, and drove it to various locations. It makes negative images directly on color negative paper.

In the spring of 1858, three years before the Civil War, a young engineer named John T. Milner rode into Jones Valley, at the tail end of the Appalachians in north-central Alabama. He’d been dispatched by the governor to plan a new railroad. There were riches in those hills: The state geologist had reported coalfields to the north of Jones Valley and, just to the south, cropping out at the crest of Red Mountain, a thick seam of iron ore.

Milner rode up through ancient woods to see it. “I rode along the top of Red Mountain and looked over that beautiful valley,” he recalled much later, after he’d helped fill the valley with Birmingham, a city of belching smokestacks, intersecting railroads, and dark, deadly mines:

“It was one vast garden as far as the eye could reach … nowhere had I seen an agricultural people so perfectly provided for, and so completely happy. They raised everything they required to eat, and sold thousands of bushels of wheat. Their settlements were around these beautiful, clear running streams … It was, on the whole, a quiet, easy-going, well-farmed, well-framed, and well-regulated civilization.”

About a quarter of that well-regulated civilization were enslaved African Americans.

The city Milner and others envisioned was to be a kind of industrial plantation, built on enslaved labor. The Civil War intervened, but when Birmingham was finally established in the 1870s, its founders approximated that vision as closely as possible. With coal-and-iron riches to rival those of Britain, birthplace of the industrial revolution, but with the bonus of cheap Black labor—including legions of fraudulently arrested convicts—the Alabamians built a new economy and a “Magic City.” It was a city that generated great wealth for a few and a decent living for many more—poor white sharecroppers from the countryside and some Black ones and immigrants too. It was a city that churned out rails and girders to build a booming nation. But it was destined to become the most segregated city in the United States, as Martin Luther King, Jr., declared in 1963, and one of the most polluted.

Nowhere is the riven soul of industrial capitalism on starker display than in Birmingham, Alabama. Nowhere is it clearer how much visions of the future can matter.

Since March, when National Geographic shut down its offices in Washington D.C., I’ve been riding out the pandemic with my wife, a native Alabamian, in a house just a mile south of Red Mountain. From our front stoop we can see, on the crest of the ridge, the backside of Vulcan, the city’s giant but oddly dwarfish cast-iron mascot, thrusting his spear into the heavens. Every evening we get a gut punch from the national news—from images of food and unemployment lines and overflowing ICUs; from the stories of people who, unlike us so far, are suffering harshly. Every morning, like other fortunate people in this plague season, I go for a long walk in the neighborhood, listen to the emboldened birds, check on the vegetable garden. I’m not from this place, but I’ve grown attached to it. Somehow, I hope, paying better attention to it will help me make sense of the world.

My job at National Geographic magazine is to think about the global environment. When the pandemic hit, I was on a ship in Antarctica. Our April issue, devoted to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, was on its way to subscribers. What will Earth look like, it asked, on the 100th anniversary in 2070? Back in Washington for a few days, utterly disoriented by 2020, I picked up The Plague, the 1947 novel by Albert Camus. It was flying out of bookstores, the Guardian reported. The parallels were indeed a little eerie. “They went on doing business, they planned trips, they had opinions,” Camus wrote about the early days of denial in Oran, Algeria. “How would they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future … ?”

But our future hasn’t been ruled out. It has just gotten more bewildering—and wide open.

What long-term effect, if any, will the COVID-19 pandemic have on the environment? What will it mean for the air in our cities and the plastic in our oceans, for the rainforest that dwindled further and the climate that kept heating this year—so hot already that large stretches of Siberian tundra burned?(1) Will the experience of COVID-19 change in some lasting way how we treat this planet, as nearly eight billion humans scramble to make a living on it? (Follow National Geographic's comprehensive coronavirus coverage.)

(1) Siberia’s heat wave “would have effectively been impossible without human-induced climate change,” scientists concluded in July.

“The first terrible revelation of this unprecedented crisis is that all the things that seemed separate are inseparable,” writes French sociologist Edgar Morin in a new book on the lessons of the pandemic. Shut in as never before, Morin believes, we’ve become more open than ever to reconsidering the path we’re on as a species. He brings exceptional experience to the matter: He’s 99, born in the shadow of the 1918 flu pandemic.

As I was reading his book in mid-June, the U.S. was in its fourth week of demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd. Confederate monuments had begun to fall across the South, including in Birmingham.(2) Calls for “systemic change” were everywhere. And suddenly, the idea that the system that needs changing stretches from the way we treat people of color to the way we treat the Earth, and from the federal government into each individual heart, seemed to make emotional sense. Climate extremes, the pandemic, and police violence all lead us to become aware of the same feeling: vulnerability. In 2020 it became a nearly universal experience.

(2) In removing one obelisk, Birmingham mayor Randall Woodfin defied a 2017 Alabama law.

That shared sense of vulnerability could open our hearts to the need to transform our world for the common good. It also could lead us to see other people merely as threats, and make us long to return to the pre-pandemic normal as soon as possible—with more walls and less air travel, perhaps, but much the same level of environmental destruction. However the future unfolds, it’s not something to be predicted, like the passage of a comet. It’s something we build. As I walked along Red Mountain this year and looked down into the valley, it was not hard to keep sight of that commonplace yet crucial truth.

Early on, amid the pain and suffering, there were glimmers of a greener world. Economic shutdowns produced a real respite from air pollution, for example. The cleaner air was more than an aesthetic delight: In China, from mid-February to mid-March, it averted some 9,000 deaths or more, Yale University researchers calculated—roughly double the number caused in China by the coronavirus. But the reduction was only temporary. By July, China’s economy had reopened, and air pollution was worse than the year before.

Worldwide, carbon emissions also declined sharply—by as much as 17 percent in early spring. But they too inevitably rebounded, and researchers estimated that the decline for all of 2020 would be no more than 8 percent, depending on the course of the pandemic. On one hand, that’s a large drop: It shows that with a gun to our heads, we can stop driving and flying. On the other hand, the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere continued to rise this year, just a little more slowly. To keep global warming since the 19th century below the internationally agreed upon target of two degrees Celsius, we’d have to cut emissions to near zero no later than 2070. That would require declines like 2020’s every year for decades. (See how your location’s climate could change by 2070.)

And what about the birds, widely reported this year to be exceptionally loud and happy? I noticed them too as the traffic noise I’d been oblivious to briefly ebbed from our backyard, and I was eager to talk again with the ornithologist who’d inspired me to learn a few of their songs. Mario Cohn-Haft works at the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, Brazil, a city that has been hurt badly by the pandemic. He knows the Amazon well and the songs of more than a thousand birds by heart. He dismissed the talk of resurgent wildlife.

“What I’ve seen is a steady, gradual decline in abundance and species diversity in the 30 years I’ve been here,” he said, recalling how Manaus expanded from a sleepy river town to an industrial metropolis of two million people.(3) The pandemic wouldn’t change that. On the contrary, he worried about a backlash against wild animals, starting with bats—the carriers of the novel coronavirus. “Humanity’s relationship to nature is pretty ambivalent to begin with,” Cohn-Haft said. “This kind of event just fosters people’s fear.” In the Amazon this year, deforestation has been far worse even than in 2019, when it surged dramatically.

(3) In North America the total bird population has declined by 29 percent since 1970, a 2019 study found—a loss of nearly three billion birds.

The environmental problems we face have been building for decades. If COVID-19 makes a lasting difference, it won’t be because it briefly stopped traffic. It will be because the whole experience—including noticing birds and breathing cleaner air—changed our culture. (See how COVID-19 is making us rethink energy and emissions.)

“Science clearly shows that this decade is the decisive decade for humanity’s future on Earth,” said Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, outside Berlin. His office is in the tower of a former astronomical observatory, and when we spoke on a Thursday in May, he was all but alone in the sprawling 19th-century building. Since 2009 Rockström and other researchers have argued that humanity is bumping up against, or in a few cases hurtling past, nine distinct “planetary boundaries.” The biodiversity we’re losing as we cut down forests and extinguish species is one boundary; the nitrogen we’re funneling into waterways from overfertilized fields is another. Scientists debate the extent to which these boundaries can be quantified and whether beyond them lie “tipping points” of catastrophic change. But the basic idea that we’re doing dangerous harm to the planet is hard to dispute. Climate change is the prime example.

Why do we find it so hard to come to grips with this well-documented threat? Princeton University psychologist Elke Weber has spent decades researching that question. “The most fundamental problem is that we’re too myopic as a species,” she told me. “We’re focused on us. We’re focused on the here and now.”

In the Stone Age that was a good survival strategy, but now that we’ve spread across Earth, we face threats that aren’t here and now, like lions were then. Climate change is global, and to stop it we have to take actions whose benefits will only be felt far in the future. Yet with our limited attention, Weber said, we generally default toward choices that preserve the status quo.

The scale and complexity of the climate problem also discourage thinking about it. But there are ways of making it seem more manageable. One morning on Zoom, the director of the MIT System Dynamics Group, John Sterman, walked me through a choose-your-own-future simulator he’d created with an outfit called Climate Interactive. At the bottom of the screen, 18 sliders allow the user to set policies that affect climate. Moving a slider triggers instant feedback: A large number in the top right corner indicates the resulting global temperature rise by 2100. The game is to keep the rise below two degrees Celsius.(4) Sterman assured me all this was based on the latest science.

(4) The simulator is free at climateinteractive.org/tools/en-roads. Surprisingly, population control doesn’t help much.

Anyone with a dash of nerdiness and number-love might enjoy the simulator; I personally was transfixed. One of my own future worlds pushed energy efficiency to the max in cars and buildings, cut greenhouse gas leakage from pipelines and farms, taxed carbon moderately, and stopped new investment in coal and oil by 2025 and 2035, respectively. A couple more measures got me almost down to two degrees; sucking some CO2 out of the atmosphere pushed me to the finish line. Because the technology to do that is unproven, Sterman himself preferred to slap a higher price on carbon.

Sterman has briefed Democrats and Republicans alike many times with the simulator. “What it allows people to do is create the future they want to see,” he said. He never tells them ahead of time what to choose; discovering a path yourself is far more convincing—and activating. “They come away with the sense that solving the problem is important,” Sterman said. “But even more, that it’s possible.”

In her behavioral psychology experiments, Weber has found several other ways to encourage people to focus more on the future. One is particularly relevant now. In that experiment, members of one group were questioned on their beliefs about climate change and their willingness to make pro-environmental choices. Those in the second group got the same questions—but first they spent a few minutes writing a short essay on how they’d like to be remembered by future generations.

“We all hate the fact that we’re going to die,” Weber explained. “Every once in a while we get reminded that we’re mortal.” In her experiment, at least, the reminder made people more concerned about the environment and more willing to help.(5)

(5) Reminding people of their country’s long history also encourages them to think long term about the future and the environment, Elke Weber has found.

Thinking ahead to the Earth we’ll leave our children, and to the story they’ll tell about us, can be bracing. So is looking back at the story we tell ourselves, consciously or not, and where that story comes from. The narrative that underpins European and American civilization has had a big effect on the planet over the past few centuries. The Bible is a good starting point.

In Genesis 1, according to the King James Version, humans are called on to “have dominion over … every living thing that moveth upon the Earth.” Ellen Davis, a theologian at Duke University who has written a book on the agrarian roots of the Bible, has reflected at length on that passage. “When we hear ‘dominion,’ we think ‘domination’—a heavy-handed, top-down imposition of human power on the rest of the world,” she told me. But in context, Davis thinks, the Hebrew word radah meant something very different. If so, Western civilization is based in part on a misunderstanding of one of its founding texts.

There’s no question that Genesis gave special status to humans as the only creatures made in God’s image, Davis explained. But God blessed the other creatures even before us, and in the same way, commanding them also to “be fruitful and multiply.” Whatever radah means, it can’t mean “annihilate the blessing,” Davis said. And yet increasingly, that’s what we’ve done: eradicated other species as we’ve subjugated the Earth. Now, by some accounts, we’re reaping the whirlwind in the form of wild-animal-borne viruses such as SARS-CoV-2.

Instead of “have dominion over,” Davis translates radah as “exert skilled mastery among the creatures.” God was enjoining us to be skilled craftspeople, she said, following God’s example in creating us, and skilled stewards of creation. Our misreading of that nuance has been consequential—as if an ancient etiquette book had commanded us, on first meeting someone, to touch his cheek lightly, and we had taken that as license to punch him in the face.

The next major plot twist in the Western narrative came in the 17th century, with the Age of Enlightenment. It freed our minds from complete domination by ancient texts but amplified the idea that we should dominate the Earth. One root of the Enlightenment, according to German historian Philipp Blom, lay in the Little Ice Age of the 16th century, a period so cold that an iceberg appeared off Rotterdam and harvests failed across Europe.(6) Religion was no help with crop failures, and people increasingly began to question its authority. They began turning instead for knowledge to systematic learning from observation and experience—that is, to science.

(6) The Little Ice Age has been variously linked to volcanic eruptions and solar activity—natural fluctuations unrelated to global warming today.

With that, the idea of progress entered Western civilization. And from the start, Blom writes, it was equated with economic growth. Growth had been slow and intermittent before, and it remained so until the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Then, spurred by science and technology—as well as cheap coal and resources extracted from far-flung colonies and places like Alabama—it took off.

In the 20th century, economic growth became an end in itself. During the Great Depression, when economies collapsed and traumatized a generation, an American economist named Simon Kuznets developed a way of measuring the output of an entire nation. Now there was a single seductive number attached to economic growth. After World War II, growing that number, which came to be called gross domestic product (GDP), became an obsession for governments worldwide. “That fixation has been used to justify extreme inequalities of income and wealth coupled with unprecedented destruction of the living world,” writes British economist Kate Raworth.

To sum up: Economic growth, rooted in a misunderstanding of the Bible that was supercharged by the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution, has become our overarching story. Raworth believes that doesn’t serve us well.

What would it look like if the economies of the world were stewarded within limits set by nature? Even to ask the question, and to raise the specter of any kind of limits, amounts to fighting words in some circles. The fight has been going on for half a century, and growth proponents have always had a powerful moral argument: Economic growth has lifted billions of people around the world out of poverty, and billions more still need its benefits.

The point isn’t that all growth is bad, Raworth argues in her book Doughnut Economics. Some countries clearly still need much more of it, while others don’t.(7) The point is that growth shouldn’t be the point.

(7) If happiness is the goal, rising GDP doesn’t buy it in rich countries: U.S. surveys show that happiness has stagnated for decades.

The doughnut illustrates what Raworth thinks should be our purpose. Its outer edge is the “ecological ceiling”—the planetary boundaries defined by Rockström and his colleagues. The inner edge is the “social foundation”—the food, health, education, and other basic conditions of a dignified human life. The idea is to allow everyone on Earth to lead such a life without ruining Earth for us all.

How do we get there? The doughnut is more of a vision than a blueprint. Raworth sees the varied crises of the 21st century—“financial meltdown, climate breakdown, COVID lockdown”—as all related to the “expansionist human project,” she told me. Changing that project will require a profound cultural transformation, a collective shift in mindset—a shift that the pandemic, terrible as it is, might conceivably favor. “I think this pandemic is pushing us faster toward the future that we knew we wanted,” Raworth said.

You could see faint premonitions of it this year, if you were so inclined. You could see it in the January decision by BlackRock, which manages over seven trillion dollars in assets, to begin divesting from coal, if not yet oil and gas. (“I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance,” wrote CEO Larry Fink.) You could see the shift too in the European Union’s decision in July to invest 550 billion euros in climate action over the next seven years, or in the proliferation of bike lanes on city streets in Europe and the U.S. Ellen Davis saw it in May when she addressed the Festival of Homiletics, attended by thousands of Christian preachers: This year they had signed up for a week’s online instruction on preaching about climate change. Two-thirds of Americans are worried about it, according to a recent survey—as many as ever, in spite of the pandemic, in spite of the current administration’s indifference.

There are social tipping points as well as climate ones, a team led by Ilona Otto of the Potsdam Institute concluded in a paper published in early February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Change can start in a boardroom, or in government, or on the streets. (“In times of upheaval,” Blom writes, “new stories grow through cracks in the concrete of official truth, strengthened by uncertainty.”) Wherever the change starts, it can sometimes, for reasons scientists can’t readily predict, spread contagiously, as people are inspired by the example of others. A small minority can tip the rest of us.

Of course, the tipping angels might not be our better ones: In this terrible year especially, we might easily be tipped by fear toward retrenchment and restoring the status quo. Raworth is focusing on cities, trying to persuade them to “emerge from this emergency” with a new direction.(8) In early April, in the midst of its own shutdown, Amsterdam became the first city to adopt her doughnut model, pledging to consider the full range of impacts—ecological and social, local and global—of everything it does. To start, it said it would cut its use of raw materials in half by 2030.

(8) In May, 38 global cities belonging to the C40 network pledged to shun “business as usual” as they recover from a pandemic with “roots in environmental destruction.”

“People are drawn by stories that give them hope, give them hope of a secure future where they matter,” Raworth said. “And this is one in which we reconnect with the living world, we reconnect with our community, and we ask big questions about what it means to thrive.”

In 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr., brought the civil rights campaign to Birmingham—a tipping point in the fight against segregation—it had been exactly one century since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It also was one century since John T. Milner had opened the first mine on Red Mountain, to supply iron to the Confederacy. In 1962 U.S. Steel closed the last one. For 99 years that stretch of ridge on the southwest side of Birmingham had been ravaged.

“There was nothing on that mountain” back then, said Wendy Jackson, the former director of the Freshwater Land Trust, a local environmental organization. “No trees. Nothing except the mining operation.”

By the time Jackson first walked around it in 2004, the land had been left alone, except for people dumping trash, for more than four decades. Forest had grown back. Kudzu had washed up the sunlit slopes like a green tide and draped the forest’s edge. This was not pristine nature—but it was nature resurgent. And hidden in the woods were the crumbling mine shafts where a century’s worth of miners, Black and white, had descended into the mountain each morning, following the sloping seam of iron ore ever deeper. Trees grew from the windows and fallen roofs of the concrete bathhouses where the men had rinsed the red dirt off at night. You felt, Jackson said, “like you were as close as you could be to touching the past of Birmingham.”

In 2005 she and the Freshwater Land Trust negotiated a deal with U.S. Steel to buy 1,100 acres of the mountain and convert it into a park. Red Mountain Park opened in 2012. In the early years my wife and I went only a few times; it wasn’t on our radar somehow.(9) Then the pandemic hit. Now we hike there just about every Sunday morning. The park is within the city limits but large enough—1,500 acres now—that we can disappear into the woods and be alone with the birds and cicadas. When the heat sets in, we rest in the cool draft from a mine entrance. And with the steel industry much diminished, and cars less polluting, the view from the top, out over the valley, is clearer than in the old days.

(9) “The greatest threat to the environment is the disconnect between people and nature,” Wendy Jackson said. “The only way you conserve something is if you love it.”

Early one morning this summer I went for a walk with Jerri Haslem, the park’s first Black senior staff member, recruited just last year. She was born in 1963 in Birmingham, she told me as we walked along the bed of the short-track railroad that once hauled iron ore to the mills. The daughter of a steel-industry worker, she was born in a Black maternity ward in a hospital basement, into a city that had preferred to close its parks rather than desegregate them. She was born two days after white segregationists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four little girls—an infamous crime that helped tip the country toward passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Haslem had just ditched a corporate career to work as a motivational speaker on health when the director at Red Mountain, T.C. McLemore, persuaded her to come help him try to expand its reach. In its early years, they both told me, the park had aimed to be an adventure destination for trail runners, mountain bikers, and zip-liners.

“This was a park for people from Homewood,” Haslem said, referring to the predominantly white suburb where my wife and I live. “But the park sits in Birmingham!”

The pandemic has hit Birmingham hard. By this summer the city was facing a $63 million hole in its budget because of tax shortfalls from closed businesses, and the virus was surging. Red Mountain also was facing a challenging future, McLemore said; it’s a public-private partnership with little public funding. Yet the pandemic had also been good to the park: Attendance was at all-time highs even though the zip line and climbing center were closed. Black residents were coming as never before, Haslem said, some through a new entrance on the north side, the Birmingham side. They were coming to get out of their houses, to walk in nature, to “listen to the damn birds.”

“It’s got to be a lot of different forces,” Haslem went on. We were talking now about how this seed of something new might thrive. “It’s got to be the government, the community, the average joe, the rich joe. It’s got to be everybody. If you have only poor people come, it’s not going to make it. If you only have rich people, it’s not going to make it. It’s got to be everybody. And it’s organically happening, because of COVID.”

Environment editor Robert Kunzig’s last feature was about the circular economy. Bay Area artist John Chiara designs and builds his own cameras.

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