Op-Ed: ‘The Great Pause’ should encourage us to reflect, take better care of Earth

In 1962 a biologist named Rachel Carson wrote a book exposing the effects of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) on bird populations. This book, ‘Silent Spring,’ launched the environmental movement in a big way.

By 1970 the movement in the United States led a whopping 10 percent of the population to mass protest, activating Earth Day for the first time.

Today, Wednesday, April 22, 2020 finds us in perhaps the most poignant time since Earth Day began 50 years ago. In a recent article on Medium.com, Julio Vincent Gambuto called this time of coronavirus measures ‘The Great Pause.’ After 100 years of runaway dependency on oil for transport, industry and consumables, we are amazed to see shockingly blue skies from a sudden and huge reduction in nitrogen and carbon emissions.

Mount Kenya is visible in Nairobi! The Himalayas are visible from India! All major cities are experiencing this ‘breath of fresh air.’ In many of these cities, just weeks ago, the air was literally unbreathable.

For our entire lives, we lived in a situation that we knew was unhealthy, we knew was destroying our planet, we knew was destroying local ecosystems. We developed certain patterns of coping, of pretending that we were okay when subconsciously we knew we really weren’t.

Finally, thanks to remarkably young warriors like Greta Thunberg and Wiikwemkoong’s own Autumn Peltier, we saw a magnificent world-wide uprising of young people forcing us to recognize that things are not okay. And these young people did not let up. They protested in ever greater numbers every Friday for more than a year. Their message was starting to change us, but slowly…too slowly.

Then, just two months ago, tensions between Indigenous traditional belief systems and ‘big oil’ was tearing our country apart. And now, suddenly, The Great Pause and we are forced into seclusion. Many of us are doing some serious introspection. Some thinkers are proposing radical yet exciting changes to our systems of capitalism, colonialism, democracy. We are all experiencing shifts in the way we relate to each other.

What will happen next? What will tomorrow look like, or next month, or next year? What about the economy? The virus is scary enough, and now this? What can we do? It’s overwhelming, and our fear and powerlessness can be crippling.

In the spirit of Rachel Carson and the environmental movement, there is something very, very simple that we can all do every day. Even though some community parks have been blocked off, there are many roadways, fence lines, shorelines and forests that we can still visit and there is plastic litter everywhere!

When plastics break down they act as endocrine-disruptors. This means they mess with hormones of living things. At this microscopic level they get into our water, and then into our bodies. Since the 1990s we’ve heard about the potential effects of endocrine-disrupting plastics on human health: early menses in girls, breast cancer and prostate cancer, autoimmune disorders and more. For our fish, amphibians and waterfowl, plastic pollution means strangulation, blocked intestines, ulceration of delicate tissues by jagged fragments and reduced reproduction.

As Islanders, we are all in close contact with the waterways that feed into the Great Lakes, and it is just so easy and fulfilling to get out there and clean up this plastic garbage. If every one of us picked up litter for one or two walks every week, the entire Island would be blessedly free of plastic litter by the end of the summer!

Something magical happens when you stop and search and bend and reach for litter—you connect with the plants, insects, micro-level life forms, and even the spirits of these lives all around us. They are grateful that we love them enough to keep these plastics out of the system.

If you want a little extra motivation, look no further than Anishinaabe-kwe, deceased but still with us, Josephine Mandamin. This extraordinary woman’s Water Walker movement has now gone global and helps humans all around the world understand that protecting our environment isn’t just scientific, it is spiritual. 

Finally, scientists, physicists, mathematicians, Indigenous knowledge keepers and elders can all agree on one important point: it is all connected.

Whatever we put into the environment will become a part of us soon enough.

So, if you were wondering what to do this Earth Day, go to the website EarthDay.org. You and your children can become online science citizens by recording the days and amounts of litter that you save from entering our ecosystems. You could even try plogging—yes, that is a movement too. You can learn about it and other powerful ideas on that website!

Good luck, my friends. Stay safe, stay isolated physically, but stay connected emotionally. If this moment truly is The Great Pause, may we all use it as a gift to connect in new and deeply meaningful ways with ourselves, our family, our neighbours and our ecosystems.

Sarah Baron

Little Current

Sarah Gabrielle Baron is a writer and teacher on Manitoulin Island.