As of this moment, more than 179,000 people have died worldwide from COVID-19, and in the United States, more than 42,000 people have died. As a community of scholars, creative writers, artists, and activists focused on the environment, literature, and culture, we bring a particular set of insights and resources to the pandemic. We wish to draw specific attention to the environmental injustice at the heart of COVID-19 risk and response, to warn against unintentionally affirming the ecofascist rhetoric present in public discourse, and to stand in solidarity against the racist xenophobia fueling anti-immigrant and, especially, anti-Asian violence in the U.S. A more just world will be a more sustainable world; but the reverse is not necessarily true.
Environmental Justice activists and scholars have long warned of the public health inequities shaping our society. It is unsurprising that Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are at disproportionate risk of dying from COVID-19. Structural racism and colonialism, including health disparities, explain the multiple factors shaping COVID-19 risk in the US, from access to clean water to vulnerability to pre-existing conditions such as hypertension and diabetes. We are especially concerned about the disproportionate risk faced by those in prison and imprisoned in detention centers.
We urge caution in highlighting the supposed benefits to the environment from decreased human activity. While the current moment allows us to glimpse the possibilities of tending a more abundant non-human world, such rhetoric risks reinforcing false oppositions between people and nature that environmental humanities scholars have long critiqued. At best, it overlooks the unevenness of COVID-19 risk facing populations in the U.S. and across the planet. At worst, celebrating the environmental benefits of a disease that disproportionately threatens the lives of Indigenous peoples and people of color echoes racist rhetoric that has long positioned people of color as environmental threats. It too easily affirms an ecofascist logic that positions humans as a virus. Ecofascism exploits fantasies of a purified land to assert white supremacy and purge the nation of ‘unclean’ people. Celebrations of suddenly clean environments risk the undertones of genocide. This historical moment is a reminder of the interdependency of humans and the world we inhabit differentially, and it an occasion in which we must affirm the need for environmentally and socially just ways forward.
ASLE stands in solidarity with Chinese, Chinese American and Asian and Asian American peoples. We condemn racist violence and rhetoric. In response to COVID-19, we are witnessing a resurgence of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian violence. The Trump administration has escalated this danger with its language of the “Chinese Flu.” ASLE calls on the U.S. government to stop scapegoating Chinese people and to condemn anti-Asian violence. We recognize that this hate speech is designed to deflect attention from the administration’s many failures in addressing the pandemic.
We call on members and others working in the Environmental Humanities to address these injustices through teaching and public engagement.
Together in solidarity and love.
Environmental Humanities Resources in Response to COVID-19
- Northeastern University professors Sari Altschuler and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon have compiled a community-sourced (in Google Docs) Humanities Coronavirus Syllabus
- covidXclimate invites short responses to the question “What’s this pandemic got to do with climate change?” covidXclimate is a research and documentary project supported by the Penn Program for Environmental Humanities
- Collection of data visualizations, syllabi, essays, short films, etc. on “Pandemics in Context,” curated by the Environment & Society Portal
- The recent New York Times article on “What Historians Will See When They Look Back…“
- List of COVID-19 resources for literary arts from LitNet
- List of COVID-19 Resources for Artists and Arts Organizations from the National Endowment for the Arts
- “Our Communities, Climate Change, & COVID-19”: a panel sponsored by Oakland Asian Cultural Center and Eastwind Books of Berkeley, featuring Julie Sze and others
If you are interested in donating or finding ways to help various vulnerable populations, we suggest consulting these links: