We Can No Longer Take Breathing for Granted

My own fragile lungs, the insults they’ve suffered, make it clear: all of us, even the ultrarunners and Mount Everest summiters and others who possess lung function like a superpower, need clean air. Not only to live well and actively but also to survive COVID-19 and whatever lung-loving pandemic comes next. Of course this all pales to what communities of color are up against. African Americans who get outside for the same reasons—to live well and actively—risk profiling, abuse, or getting killed when going for a run or bird-watching. (Armaud Arbery. Christian Cooper.) 

Imagine a second term for the current administration: Four more years of exempting factory farms from reporting harmful emissions linked to respiratory problems. Four more years in which manufacturing facilities spew poisons like mercury, benzene, and dioxin without fear of oversight or penalty. Four more years without rules to regulate fracking’s release of poisonous chemicals linked to nervous-, respiratory-, and immune-system devastation. Four more years of a president inciting racial violence and police brutality instead of seeking ways to unite the nation. Don’t forget, too, the unprecedented rate at which Trump has removed protections from the nation’s public and Native lands, like those in the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments, which were accomplished in large part to open those areas to dirty energy development. 

Many of our cities—like my Salt Lake hometown, which is now included in the American Lung Association’s list of top 20 cities with the worst air—are already racking up weeks or months in which residents are being urged to stay indoors or wear masks due to pollution. If breathing clean air was ever a given in America (and, really, was it ever?), those days are over. 

Bristle when your boss, your spouse, or your neighbor says 2020 is the year of a new normal—there’s nothing normal about all this. To accept it as such is a complacency that will kill us. But even before this year, we knew that we’d have to drive less, fly less, buy less soon. We knew that we were living on borrowed time, because glaciers were melting, species were dying, wildfires were burning. More recently, we’ve all known (if only in some tiny crevice in the back of our minds) that when the stay-at-home orders are lifted, even if a vaccine becomes available, we’ll all have to continue to live, in many ways, as we were living this spring.

The laptop on which I write this essay, the shoes I’ll wear to hit the trail when the work is done—they’re affordable because they’re made in places where there are fewer regulations on working conditions and pollutants, including the ones that poison the air.

So what do we take with us when we remove the masks and move forward? What should be on our post-pandemic, post-protest packing list for a more sustainable and equitable world? 

Maybe it’s two lists: the personal and the planetary. Personally, be willing to actively change your life so that all of us, not just some of us, may live well on this earth. If Black and Brown people are disproportionately harmed by carbon and chemical emissions, then it matters all the more that those who are able insist on working remotely. Swear off Amazon. Make do with one jacket instead of two. Get off the parenting crazy train that has us shuttling our kids five days a week to soccer practice, swim meets, violin lessons; maybe we’ll just unleash them to climb the trees in the park. Fight fracking and coal burning like our lives depend on it, because they do. And start fighting racism the way we’ve fought the coronavirus: Assume you have it. Listen to the experts (hint: they are not white people). And fight the spread, at home and in your community. To be asymptomatic is not enough to flatten the curve. 

And vote. Vote for those who would choose clean energies and eternal blue skies. Vote for those who would make medicine and health care available to everyone. Vote for the end of land grabs and choke holds. Vote for fewer cops and far more social programs, including reparations for those who have been under the knee for 400 years. Your lungs will thank you. Communities of color will thank you. The land will thank you. Every animal, every vegetable, every rock face, river, and snowy slope will thank you and, in return, sustain you, sustain all of us. 

The other day, I walked through a little-known canyon that harbors at its head a heart-shaped pool of water. The canyon is chock-full of gold boulders, safe enough for a human to move through without trouble but not the kind of place you run into deer or rabbits or coyotes. So I wasn’t thinking about animals—just the stone, the water, and the sky—when a Mexican spotted owl shot out from the jumble I was in, its great wings beating the air into my ears, its hand-size talons just inches above my prickled scalp. This owl’s northern cousin sharply declined during the heyday of clear-cut logging in the Northwest’s old-growth forests and became a symbol for the sweeping environmental reforms that were achieved through citizen action. That hunting, flying metaphor for all that we have protected took my breath away in the only way I want it taken now until the end of my days. 

When I reached the heart-shaped pool, my own heart still pounding, I knew this, too: in this strange new world, let us be able to say that, along with our lungs, we put this four-chambered vital organ to the test. For restraint. For generosity. Let us say we found it to be strong.

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