By Berenice Tompkins and Richard Lawton
With COVID-19 showing no sign of letting up, politicians and everyday people alike speak longingly of the day when we can finally return to normal.
Facing continued vulnerability to sickness, unemployment, homelessness, and uncertainty about what the future holds even a month from now, it makes sense that we long for security – and that’s something all New Jerseyans deserve. But, “normal” is what got us into this mess in the first place. We can do – and must do – so much better than normal.
If there’s anything the pandemic can teach us, it’s that “business as usual” isn’t working. Our benchmarks of progress and prosperity are flawed. For one thing, they fail to account for the cost of doing nothing. Stalling federal action to restrict viral spread has ended up costing us far more – in lives and livelihoods, as well as dollars – than it would have cost to take the strongest precautions on Day One.
The climate crisis is perhaps the ultimate consequence of our failure to account for the cost of doing nothing. Tropical Storm Isaias left more than 1 million New Jerseyans without power and triggered deadly tornadoes in the South – and it was one storm in a historic hurricane season that is barrelling through our alphabet – and the Greek alphabet, too. We’ve seen how climate change and COVID-19 can strike as a double whammy, with storms forcing people to choose between social distancing and seeking safety in crowded emergency shelters, and cooling shelters limiting entry this summer because of social-distancing constraints.
Even worse, our “normal” barometers of economic success, and the political priorities that reflect them, put shareholder profits first and pass the real costs on to the rest of us. They also accept the avoidable deaths of thousands of essential workers, the sacrifice of whole communities to flooding and the brutalization of Black and brown bodies as inevitable collateral – as though some people are just more important than others. They say we must accept an economic and political system that serves a tiny percentage of the population.
Though much of Milton Friedman’s economic dogma has proven to be flawed, he was right when he said that big change is possible only during moments of crisis. Rather than planning with the goal of returning to normal, New Jersey has a rare opportunity to reassess what we value and who we care for as a state. We can create a new normal where farm, food service and domestic workers are honored and compensated for keeping our state running both in and out of a crisis, where health comes first and healthy air, water, homes and a safe climate are guaranteed for all people.
Jersey Renews, a multi-sector coalition of environmental, labor, faith and community groups and business allies, recently released A Roadmap Toward a Just, Green Recovery, laying a path toward a new and better normal for New Jersey. The “green” aspect is as important as the “just” one: climate change is an economic and health crisis of its own (in fact, science shows it increases the risk of pandemics like this one), and addressing it is part of a health and economic recovery.
The Roadmap offers a framework for providing immediate relief while redesigning the systems that place poor, Black and brown communities on the frontlines of health, economic and climate crisis. Investment in a renewable economy, necessary to safeguard New Jersey from a constant deluge of Tropical Storm Isaises, is also an opportunity to put tens of thousands of people back to work. If we keep the state’s Clean Energy Fund whole, it can provide utility relief, support efficiency programs that will bring longterm savings to New Jerseyans who struggle to make ends meet, remediate lead and other home hazards and train workers for today’s – and tomorrow’s – good jobs in communities hit hardest by the pandemic, all at the same time. Fully funding New Jersey Transit can enable expanded service and give all communities access to mobility, protect transit workers, get essential workers to work safely and clean up air pollutants that worsen COVID-19 risk.
The cost of these investments is relatively small, compared to the cost of business as usual. Most importantly, they could help bring our state to a place where we do not accept the loss of human life, livelihoods and dignity as part of the collateral of “normalcy.” We know how to create a vibrant, sustainable and equitable New Jersey economy; let’s not waste the opportunity to make this vision real.