The Earth Charter in the COVID-19 Crisis: The Challenge to our Local Communities

By Rick Clugston

“We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise.”

Indeed, this is critical moment. It’s stunning how dramatic the shift has been from the “best economy ever” to total mobilization for a global “world war” to fight this unseen enemy-the COVID 19 virus. We are to isolate, distancing ourselves from others, and engage in compulsive rituals of disinfection. The US health care system has been overwhelmed. And the “best economy ever” is tanking, now worse than the Great Recession. The stock market is down, millions of workers are being laid off. The mental health consequences of such social and economic conditions are severe.

We see clearly how ill prepared we were for this crisis, and how inadequate the US social safety net is for caring for the most vulnerable and marginalized. We are struggling to put in place a plan to get back to business as usual as fast as possible without a new spike in infections and deaths.

As the Earth Charter states, real recovery will require “fundamental changes …in our values, institutions and ways of living. We must realize when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more.” 

The Earth Charter’s integrated ethical vision calls for major shifts in our understanding of what social and economic development is for, and its principles provide guidance for the changes we need to make in our lifestyles, community and institutional practices, and economic and social policies in order to provide the conditions and opportunities necessary for full human development for all, immediately and for the long term. This requires preserving and enhancing the ecological and cultural systems that make possible the well-being of all in a flourishing Earth community.

The Earth Charter calls attention to the fragility of the dominant economic/social/political system and the root causes of its inability to care for the most vulnerable and marginalized. It offers guidance in how to be better prepared to anticipate and respond to the challenges ahead, which include more pandemics, as well as the increasingly destructive impacts of climate change.

Looking through the Earth Charter lens, we see that the creation and spread of infectious diseases are enhanced by the destruction of natural habitat, the harvesting of bush meat, the concentration of weakened domestic and wild animals in unsanitary wet markets and CAFOs. The crises of pandemics and of climate change are caused by increasingly numerous and interconnected human populations, some desperately poor, some pursuing ever increasing economic growth, wealth and consumption. By prioritizing short term financial gain for the few through overleveraged private and public sectors, our political/economic systems are undermining/exploiting the social and ecological foundations of sustained well- being. We need to rapidly shift to a green economy that cares for all people and reduces our carbon and ecological footprints.

Bringing the Earth Charter to my community in crisis

I’m involved in our local community efforts to plan for the economic recovery of our two northern counties in Wisconsin. As I’ve been writing up my input into this community planning effort, I have been reflecting on how the Earth Charter can be relevant to these local efforts to rebuild a viable economy in the context of the challenges that the COVID 19 crisis poses. How do we create a new normal that more capably advances the Earth Charter’s vision, ethics and actions for a just, sustainable and peaceful future?

Our two counties are very rural and include the Red Cliff Ojibwa reservation. Both counties are on the shores of Lake Superior, and are heavily dependent on tourism, with many summer residents. marinas, hotels, gift shops which contribute the biggest share of local revenues. 

The USA’s response to the COVID 19 crisis

While the health threat and the economic collapse of this crisis has affected us all, it has been disproportionately damaging to those living at the margins: the millions becoming unemployed, who have barely been living paycheck to paycheck, and those still working are in front line essential service jobs. They must leave their crowded homes, take public transportation to work in grocery stores, hospitals, etc. thus being exposed to the virus with little protection. What this crisis is highlighting is how poorly our nation cares for these workers, many people of color, the homeless, those in nursing homes, and those providing essential services to these most vulnerable people.

At this point, the focus is on strengthening our public health system and moving as quickly as possible through the phases of economic recovery. The focus is also on providing adequate financial stimulus to keep small (and large) businesses and unemployed workers afloat until we are back to normal.

The promise, or at least the hope, is that if we all do our part we will flatten the curve, defeat the enemy, and a “fantastic” economic recovery will happen in the latter half of 2020.

The President’s Guidelines for Opening Up America Again addresses the difficult balancing act between ensuring that the virus is contained and resuming business as rapidly as possible.

The gating criteria spell out the conditions a state should meet to reopen: basically a downward trajectory of reported and documented COVID 19 cases over a 14 day period and and hospital preparedness with enough ICU beds and personal protective equipment to handle an upswing in cases. Containing the virus requires an adequate testing and contact tracing capability to quickly detect new cases, isolate those positive, track down and test those exposed by these new positives, and isolate them until we are sure they test negative.

If these conditions are met we can move into phase one: the most vulnerable remain isolated, no gatherings of more than 10 people, social distancing, masks, hygiene are maintained, and the first round of most essential/least risky businesses open up following these practices. Generally these businesses are retail and restaurants, manufacturing and construction, beaches, parks, golf courses. After a period of time in which we can assess if spread is occurring, around 14 days, and then another 14 days of meeting the gating criteria, we can move into Phase Two: in which more crowded venues (50 people) can open, still practicing social distancing, etc. In Phase Three we can pretty much return to what it was like before the COVID 19 crisis shut everything down.

If all goes according to this plan, there will be no new upsurge in cases, we will be back to normal, maybe by August, and we will have in place the capacity to deal with a possible resurgence of the virus when flu season starts up in the fall.

Looking ahead, even in this best case scenario, we will face certain challenges which will make a return to the “greatest economy ever” difficult. Various factors can delay this rapid movement through these phases. These include: 1. not having in place the public health capacity to conduct the testing and contact tracing necessary to contain the virus, 2. the failure of individuals and businesses to really practice the distancing and hygiene requirements, and 3. the inability of many businesses and workers to make it financially through the transition, especially if there are delays in progress to Phase 3.  For example, if restaurants, movie theaters, other venues begin opening with only 25% capacity, they’ll have a 75% reduction in revenues from customers with no reduction in costs, maybe even an increase to meet the new safety requirements. Many in the recreation and hospitality industries must wait until phase 3 to open. Unless there is sufficient stimulus funding to support these businesses and workers through these phases, there will be bankruptcies and chronic unemployment.

One of the biggest dangers for economic recovery in locales and regions, especially those who rely on tourism, is the influx of people from more urban places with higher infection rates. Ideally, these tourists would need to be identified, quarantined and tested in order to protect the local community.

For business owners to open up, and their staff to return to work, they need to have confidence that their workplaces are safe for them and they need some safe place for their children to go. Opening up business requires the opening up of schools and child care centers, summer camps etc. and these institutions will need to follow these same guidelines and phases.

Now, in late April, many states are relaxing their stay at home orders and allowing some business to open up, from restaurants, retail stores and malls, parks and beaches, to gyms and massage parlors, etc. Most of these states have not met the President’s gating criteria for opening up. After the two week lag time between infections and symptoms, we’ll find out if their various strategies have hit the balance right in maximizing economic activity without a rebound in COVID 19 infections leading to hospitalization.

The New Normal: The following three factors will shape the economic recovery and the new society we will eventually enter in to, even if we move through the various phases relatively quickly:

1.Consumer confidence and consumer spending has dropped precipitously.  We don’t know how quickly people will be financially capable of, or feel confident enough to, spend on “nonessentials,” especially big ticket items like cars and homes or luxury goods. This crisis, striking so suddenly and completely, is traumatic for so many, making us anxious and insecure. Our health and the health of those we care about is threatened, and we are hesitant to return to shopping and spending as usual. Many of the unemployed are having trouble paying for their necessary goods such as food, rents, health care. Even prior to this economic collapse, American consumers were becoming increasingly in debt, e.g. the average credit card debt before the crisis was $6000. Maybe consumers will prioritize paying off their debts and saving up enough money for an emergency fund to tide them over in uncertain times.  

2.This crisis is accelerating our shift to a digital economy. Half of information workers have been able to keep working from home. Only one in twenty service workers can work for home. And over a million citizens are not accessing the internet. The trend to shopping on line is accelerating with an increasing number of goods and services becoming available through such platforms as Amazon, Netflix, etc. Rather than venture out into potentially dangerous, and more difficult shopping and dining experiences, many of those who can access such goods and services from home, may choose to do so.

It is likely that this rapidly expanding digital infrastructure will remain in place even after this crisis is past. Many more business, educational, and shopping transactions are being digitally mediated, with a resulting decline in the need for retail stores, movie theaters, office and meeting spaces.  The gig economy will expand, as will the use of robotics and artificial intelligence in manufacturing and other sectors, resulting in the loss of full time and unionized employment.

3. States, counties, municipalities are running out of money.  They have had to reallocate funds to strengthen their public health system to respond to this crisis, and their tax revenues are shrinking rapidly. They need to balance their budgets Not only will they be unable to expand needed services to the most vulnerable, they will need to cut basic services, unless they receive major federal funding. The federal government is already borrowing/printing money to provide economic stimuli, adding to the preexisting federal debt of more than $23 trillion dollars. It is uncertain whether the federal government will provide financial support for state and local governments, or continue to offer economic stimulus for small businesses and the unemployed for the duration. Many economists point to the already huge and dramatically increasing level of corporate and governmental debt as a bubble that will burst, preventing economic recovery.

Emerging from this major recession, by definition, requires a return to economic (GDP) growth, which is dropping dramatically, probably to about -30% annualized in our first and second quarters.  About 70% of GDP comes from consumer spending, so if our citizens do not resume the level of spending that existed prior to the economic collapse, we will remain stuck in a protracted recession.

The convergence of these three trends, especially in a prolonged phasing in, could easily result in many business closures, high and sustained unemployment, and an inability for local governments to strengthen the needed public health system and even maintain their current level of educational, public safety, and other essential services. If this happens, the number of poor and underserved will increase. Our resolve to improve the very poor social safety net we had before this crisis will be difficult to implement.

The relevance of the Earth Charter

Most citizens in my Wisconsin community do want a return to social and economic life as it was before this crisis, i.e., with the influx of tourists filling the resorts, restaurants and gift shops, packing into the tour boats and the many summer concerts and festivals. If this doesn’t happen quickly, they face a loss of much of their social lives and economic livelihoods.

So far in our community discussions, I haven’t mentioned the Earth Charter or climate change, nor any critique of our dominant patterns of production and consumption, nor anything related to our political situation. My hope is that by focusing on this current crisis and the path to recovery in the terms that are acceptable to all, we can sustain a community wide discussion of the best way forward without triggering the tendency to polarize, politically and otherwise.

How can we best bring the Earth Charter’s analysis of our global situation, and its values and guidelines into such discussions?  Juxtaposing the urgent public safety and economic recovery issues that our local communities are wrestling with, and what the Earth Charter is calling for, how do we bridge the gap between the two?

If I bring into our community discussions such issues as climate change, critiques of corporate greed and crony capitalism, blaming Trump and the Republicans, pushing for a green new deal, etc. it’s likely we will further inflame the deep political polarization that undermines any progress toward transformative change. Wisconsin has been, and still is, at the top of the list of bitterly polarized states, now manifesting in the fight over how and when we open up the economy.

I think if we can, in a nonpartisan way, keep the focus on the immediate recovery issues, we may be able to reflect on the deeper questions this crisis poses: What accounts for the fragility, the rapid collapse, of our economic/social/political system and its inability to care for the most vulnerable and marginalized?  How can we be better prepared to anticipate and respond to the crises ahead? How do we rebuild our communities’ infrastructure to be more resilient, more capable of caring for all its citizens, especially in times of hardship?

If we can move into open, inclusive and respectful discussions concerning the answers to these questions, we will be able to “deepen and expand the global [here local] dialogue that generated the Earth Charter, for we have much to learn from the ongoing collaborative search for truth and wisdom.” (from The Way Forward) This requires we all must relax insistence on our particular agendas and be open to others’ perspectives in order for a genuine dialogue on the way forward to occur. In part, this is a test of our capacities to help facilitate a recognition that we will probably not be able to return to business as usual, and that by embracing an agenda for transformative change, such as the Earth Charter articulates, can lead to a better, more fulfilling life. In part, this is also a test of our ability to sustain the sense of unity and compassion that manifested at the height of this COVID 19 crisis.

The better angels of our nature

At the height of this crisis, when the first CARE stimulus package was being crafted to strengthen the public health systems capacity to care for all and to provide financial resources to get us through, there was bipartisan cooperation, and even mutual appreciation.  Politicians on both sides called us to recognize that we are all Americans united in a great cause, accepting hardship in the service of the good of the whole community, especially for those most vulnerable and most suffering in this crisis, e.g., “it’s not red vs blue, its red, white and blue.”

Our politicians urged us to be careful and caring: to think about the well-being of others and to help those most endangered by the virus and economically devastated. To resist the temptations to go out and have fun, to price gouge, to play partisan politics. To honor and celebrate those essential workers that put their lives on the line as well as the business owners and average citizens that were generous to others, despite their financial difficulties. We were encouraged to be grateful for the opportunity to cease our busyness, spend time with our families, cultivate our inner lives, have conversations about what really matters in life, and to have faith that we will make it through OK, and that a better life can emerge from this crisis.

During this “finest hour” of collective solidarity, I kept thinking about the following passage from Lincoln’s first inaugural address: “ We are not enemies, but friends…Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection…The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

However, as the curve begins to flatten and economic recovery becomes a more dominant focus, and as the November elections increasingly loom large, these better angels of our nature seem to be receding in a rush back to business, politics, and life as usual. Our brief time of common humanity politics is being displaced by a return to common enemy politics.

A crisis, by definition, is a “turning point…in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent.”  This crisis will test our capacities to broadly “join together to bring forth a global [and local] society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.”