This essay is part of #TheRisingTide4ClimateJustice’s Elephant in the Room series (link): a writing project calling out the institutions and ideas that contribute to environmental environmental injustice within the Birmingham community and across the South.

By Teresa Chandler

The last 6 weeks have been all about confronting the elephant in the room, haven’t they?

We’ve been having these much-needed conversations in a context that no longer seems so removed from reality, as our food and supply chains disrupt, as our economy disrupts, as the world looks on in horror and the supposedly strong United States becomes the epicenter of a world plague.

A month ago, people all over began hoarding – food, toilet paper, water, disinfectants, masks. It turns out, we don’t trust one another to share or do what’s right when things get tough. And why would we? We don’t know who to trust, but we do all know, instinctively, that we’re endangered by the precarious ways our society is structured. 

Different people react to the disruption of the status quo based largely on their own position in that status quo. Some willingly join up with astroturfed campaigns protesting for their “rights” to get haircuts and manicures. These same people, who see themselves as staunch advocates of individual freedom, are grossly silent about the fact that their demands to be serviced endanger the lives of those technicians and stylists or their families.

We can’t have people getting it in their heads that their lives are worth something, can we?

Others are anxious about going back to work – even though they dread it and know it’s still dangerous to get out there, even though they fear being an asymptomatic carrier that harms another person. Being in this position is perhaps familiar to these people. They’re used to doing what they have to in order to survive, even if it hurts their soul. They won’t have any sort of health insurance unless they go back to work, and they also don’t have enough money to get by – even with the stimulus payouts and unemployment benefits.

States are opening back up prematurely, partly to avoid paying unemployment benefits and expand the social safety net. In fact, some are complaining that the federally mandated $600 unemployment benefits are too high and might encourage people to stay home instead of going back to unsafe, underpaid jobs. It’s unthinkable for these expendable people to think they have the right to stay home in safety. We can’t have people getting it in their heads that their lives are worth something, can we? (By the way, the US Federal Government values each human life at $10 million. Maybe we should adjust our own mindset accordingly.)

Many are just learning for the first time that some of the nation’s major polluters – specifically factory-meat production systems – are also the source of our food. We can’t eat without people sacrificing their lives on assembly lines to clean pork and chicken, they tell us. And it’s all because greed has gotten out of control.

The elephant sure is doing a lot of damage, and it’s hard to even bring the conversation down to a manageable level unless you focus on one issue at a time. The more we try to talk about it, the more people pretend there is no elephant by diverting the conversation, by not connecting the dots. They do this even as the elephant sits on their chest and suffocates them.

The work we’re doing now, the solutions coming out of this crisis, are all necessary to the challenges that we’ll continue to face in our lifetimes.

However, so much hope has sprung up in the last month – if you are watching for it. Ideas that were radical two months ago – universal basic income, healthcare for all, telecommuting – are becoming more and more acceptable. Small-scale economies are springing up. Creative solutions to daily issues are widespread, all while we’re quarantined in our houses. People are voluntarily staying at home to protect their fellow humans. Sure, there are some loud voices, but people are showing they care and are willing to protect other humans.

Oil ships are sitting on the ocean, being paid to store fossil fuels “safely” since there’s not enough demand. This one boggles my mind most of all.

The elephant is omnipresent. We’ve got to deal with it. Living in the time of COVID-19 presents us with the opportunity to do just that. The work we’re doing now, the solutions coming out of this crisis, are all necessary to the challenges that we’ll continue to face in our lifetimes.

Ironically, this disaster has given me the hope that has been eluding me of late. There is so much to grieve, but there is much to fight for, too. It’s hard to find the right words to wrap up such an odd Earth Month, but mostly, I am grateful to still be here to learn the lessons this April has given me. Maybe I am learning and growing. Maybe we all are.

Let’s go deal with that elephant.


Teresa Chandler has loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.