You Are Essential

During this global crisis we’ve watched as governments and public agencies make decisions deeming what is “essential” for our society to function. To be clear, this is an incredibly tough job for our elected officials. It’s not easy to flatten the curve of a rapidly spreading global pandemic while maintaining life-supporting systems (medical, water, waste removal, etc), food supply chains, and educational systems, not to mention balancing intense political dynamics.

Our deepest gratitude and appreciation goes out to the workers on the frontlines who have bravely met this challenge head on.

Despite this challenging time full of difficult decisions, I have been inspired by the ingenuity and creativity of our global community. Our ability as humans to adapt and discover new ways of being, working, and thriving is simply incredible. From online dance parties and mutual aid networks, to a 90% drop in global air-travel in a matter of weeks, it’s clear that collective experience can spark rapid transformation.

Photo Credit: NASA’s Earth Observatory

This unplanned transformation and renewed focus on what’s “essential” has placed our values and the values of our society’s systems and structures on full display. And while, for the most part, the clarity provided by humanity’s inherent values has been inspiring, our political structure and economic systems have been laid bare, and they say very plainly,  “You are not essential.”

The pandemic and our necessary response to it have stripped away the veil that each of us is a valued member in this current economic and political system.

All the posturing, all the “talk” and no action, all the complex laws, codes, and unwritten rules steeped in systemic oppression and racism have been put on full display. From the initial bailout – which prioritized the boardrooms of big corporations over its employees, to EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler waiving pollution standards and placing vulnerable populations at an even greater risk, to the stock market rebounding even when record numbers of Americans applied for unemployment, to communities of color facing significantly higher COVID-19 infection and death rates.

Our economic and political systems have prioritized the ones who have the most and left behind those who have the least.

In our work at Dogwood Alliance to protect the forests and communities of the US South, this unfortunate scenario has been most visible through the speedy and unquestioned approval of the forest destroying company Enviva as an “essential” business. Enviva, who destroys and degrades nearly 10,000 acres of Southern forests every single month and produces thousands of tons of harmful air pollution, was given the green light to continue business as usual without hesitation. In North Carolina, every single one of Enviva’s facilities are built in environmental justice communities. Environmental justice communities are areas where the poverty level is above the state medium, and at least 25% of the population is nonwhite and they are most impacted by environmental risks and harms. The system is clear – these communities are not essential.

For years, local people and supporting coalitions of organizations have campaigned against the approval of these Enviva biomass facilities. Demanding that this was not the type of economic development they needed, not the type of industry they wanted in their community.

Community members from Richmond County NC protesting the Enviva facility

Despite overwhelming public opposition, local and state governments approved Enviva’s permits time and time again.

In 2018, I remember being at a county commissioners meeting in Richmond County, NC with dozens of community members who had come out to protest the proposed biomass facility. The commissioners had invited Enviva representatives to give a presentation. While local police intimidatingly surrounded our small but mighty group of local citizens, the red carpet treatment was given to an out-of-state company who planned to export local resources and profits, all while receiving sizable tax incentive packages from the local government. During the protest, I’ll never forget when the county commissioners left the room, shaking hands with the Enviva representatives, eyes visibly rolling at our signs and chants.  A community member turned to me and said, “Must be nice to be listened to.”

Yes, not being essential is not a new revelation in the time of COVID. It’s historic, deeply ingrained and self-reinforcing. It’s easily hidden through misleading narratives like trickle down economics and the bootstrap mentality. Hidden, until now.

But this global pandemic provides us an amazing opportunity to determine what in our world is essential.

Members of the Frontline Resiliency Organizing and Entrepreneurial Solutions Training (FOREST) Circle who work towards alternative economic development solutions in their communities

An opportunity to re-imagine a future that holds: healthy children and communities, abundant natural environments, and an economic system that works for all.  No, it won’t happen easily or quickly, but the time for transformation is now.

Continuing to build our economy around extractive industries like Enviva Biomass, who boost profits by using taxpayer subsidies to destroy, degrade, and export nature – is not the answer or essential. In fact, that ideology devalues most of what is actually essential for our society and our planet.

To use another forest example, wetland forests in the US South are some of the most important – dare I say essential – forests in our country. Not only do they purify water, clean the air, and provide critical habitat, they also protect local communities from extreme weather events like flooding from hurricanes. Yet, fewer than 10% of these forests are protected from industrial logging. Less than 10% protected, despite the fact that by shifting forest management from timber production to native ecosystem health, wetland forests increase over fifteen times in value from about $1,200 per acre to $18,600 per acre.

Beautiful Photo of Wetland Birds

We must use this opportunity to build together a restorative economy and a just political system, one that truly values what is essential: people, nature, community, health, culture, and the type of economy and jobs that supports these values.

The good news is that this transformation of our system’s values has already begun. You’ve already seen it in the creativity and resilience our communities have shown through this pandemic, shining a light on what matters. Now we must seize this moment, build upon it, and transform society. We’ve got what it takes to make this world a better place. The opportunities are abundant. They are here and now – from individual choices and communities’ decisions, all the way to influencing our national policies.

May we never lose sight of what we’ve been shown. Even though the current political structure and economic system says you’re not, you are essential!

You are absolutely essential.

And we need you in this movement.

Here at Dogwood Alliance we will continue to challenge companies like Enviva and work with communities to protect Southern forests. We will continue to stand in solidarity and fight for what is truly essential. I hope that you will join us.

Take action that helps protect forests and communities: Sign the Stand4Forest pledge.

See you on the other side.

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