By Florence Miller, Environmental Funders Network, 28th April 2020
COVID-19 took many of our carefully thought-through plans and scattered them from the window of a fast-moving vehicle. But the pandemic has also brought many things into sharp focus.
We may all be susceptible to coronavirus, but clearly some of us are far more vulnerable to its worst effects than others. We may all be locked down, but lockdown means wildly different things depending on your circumstances.
During our quarantine, the freedom afforded by nature, and the incalculable value it adds to our lives, have rarely been clearer to those of us privileged enough to have ‘access’ to it. Likewise the freedom and value of healthy food: if my own experience is anything to go by, I would wager that many people who had never had to worry about their next meal were sent into a minor tailspin by the challenge of procuring food for their families in the first weeks of this crisis. I’m ashamed to admit how eye-opening it was to realise how much that anxiety shut down almost all my other thought processes. And I am acutely aware that for me it only lasted a couple of weeks, during which time we actually had plenty of food in the cupboards. None of my loved ones were going to go hungry. The different experiences of this crisis are painful to witness.
COVID-19 hasn’t created inequalities of experience, of course, it has only exacerbated existing ones. It found the fault-lines of our society and put a jack in them, pushing the sides even further apart while lighting the resulting chasm up with a floodlight – in much the same way that climate change and other environmental crises are doing.
Addressing root causes
One of our mantras for funders at EFN is ‘address root causes’. We clearly need environmental philanthropy that helps hold the line – funding for initiatives that stop species from going extinct, new coal plants from being built, rivers from being dammed, forests from being felled. Thank goodness for the funders who support this work, and the people who do it; I’m immeasurably grateful to them. But in the long term these holding actions are doomed to fail if we don’t also focus on the root causes of the problem, and create new pathways to a better future.
What the pandemic has helped bring into focus is the interconnectedness of the social crisis and the environmental calamity unfolding around us. The deeper you go into the causes of both, the more tangled their roots seem to be. What the powerful do to the less powerful is essentially the same whether the disempowered are fellow humans or the ecological systems that sustain us. We have built an economic system on exploitation. When crisis hits, those who are most exploited, with the least power, have the least buffer and suffer the most.
But the situation has also shone a torch on something much more positive: our great love for one another. In overwhelming expressions of ‘care-mongering’, people are proving themselves to be compassionate, kind and generous.
On a call for our members recently, one donor expressed the difficulty of knowing whether to support initiatives directly addressing the social and health crisis, or to stick with funding environmental issues.
Perhaps the great expressions of love we are seeing all around us hold one key to solving that dilemma. Philanthropy, of course, means ‘love of humans’. Environmental philanthropy may be focused on protecting the environment that sustains us – but surely it must also come from a place of love, for people as well as nature.
Can we express that love of humanity by supporting work that goes right to the entwined roots of our environmental and social crises?
Now that the pieces of all our human systems – economic, social, cultural, behavioural – have been thrown into the air, we have a long-awaited opportunity to reconfigure them entirely. There are suddenly calls to ‘build back better’ and to reset the economy: a political window has opened that wasn’t there before, and initiatives focused on creating new systems that honour both people and planet are finally feeling the glow of possibility. There won’t be many, if any, moments like this again – when we can still act in a way to curtail the worst effects of climate change and biodiversity loss, and do so in ways that give all people equitable prospects of a healthy, fulfilling future.
Perhaps we just need a simple rule of thumb: is your funding expressing love for both people and planet? Does it solve social and environmental issues together? If not, how can it?
Philanthropists, lovers of people and planet: now is your moment!
Readers: If you are funding or working on initiatives to help us ‘build back better’ in ways that jointly address the environmental and social crises, do link to them in the comments.
Florence Miller is Director of the Environmental Funders Network.