As we all grow tired of the confines of this pandemic and the deaths of unarmed African Americans, we frequently hear people say, “I can hardly wait to return to normal.” This statement hits me like an electric shock, because that “normal” we’re hoping for, is what brought us to this moment. The normal American economy is based on an individual competitive model that is fueled by the myth of the self-made man/woman and that is measured in the growth of GDP, Gross Domestic Product. GDP is calculated on the sales of services and products, even those required to restore health to fouled air, water or soil. Services or products that increase the sickness of society such as cigarettes and the treatment for cancers caused by these products are part of the calculation. This means that a very sick society spending billions to save people’s lives from cancers caused by toxic products and billions more to clean up water ways polluted from oil spills or to preserve beaches and wetlands eroded away by rising seas so to stop coastal cities from suffering damaging floods can have a high GDP. It can be equal to that of a society investing in secure national infrastructure and quality education for all children and mitigation of polluting processes so to guarantee healthy water and air and that produces high paying jobs in clean technology. In calculating GDP all dollars are treated as equal even if they prop up a racist system that denies a percentage of the population the ability to reach their full potential and diminishes the productive capacity of our land. In using GDP to measure the strength of the economy we accept that all economic activity is good. We fail to notice that some activity takes away from our natural and human resources, diminishes them, and thus we find it hard to act to stop those activities that limit our productive capacity.
Second, our laws and our culture put the individual above all else, but in so doing we fail to acknowledge that no person achieves their place alone. They are guided and assisted by parents, teachers, mentors, employers, and a myriad of contacts who are lost in stock phrases like: “Do your own thing.” “Pull yourself up by your boot straps.” ”He who dies with the most toys wins”. If anything, our current crises are showing us that this emphasis on individual success above all else has been extremely costly to whole communities. COVID-19 has highlighted how a health care system that is tied to an individual’s economic success can leave large groups of people sicker without the resources to return them to health. When the health and safety of a community is dependent on individual success it is likely that the society will remain at risk and the impacts of Climate Change will magnify this tenfold.
I’d like to share two stories that illustrate how this normal is detrimental to our communities.
Two years ago I spent the winter in the South, mostly Mississippi. One day I decided to drive over to Louisiana and visit some of the historic plantations that lie along the Mississippi River. I found those gracious estates have been curtailed to a few great mansions left on a handful of acres. They now sit in what has been called Cancer Alley, an 85 mile stretch along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge where America’s petrochemical industry has been concentrating its production facilities since the 1950s. I was touring one of these historic mansions. There was a tank farm on one side and a chemical plant on the other. Both were less than a ¼ mile from the grounds we were touring. Suddenly a siren went off at the chemical plant and we all looked to our guide. He explained that was a monthly drill the plant runs in case of an airborne release. He did not say what would be in that release or what we would be expected to do if it wasn’t a drill. How fast does an airborne toxic pollutant travel? How much does one have to inhale before it begins to impact vulnerable tissues and organs?
Later I was driving along the delta with my windows down as it was a warm day for February and I was enjoying the sweet scent in the air. I was imagining magnolias or some other exotic plant on a historic plantation site. I looked around me and there were no historic plantations just chemical plants with names Cargill, Sasol, BP Amoco, and Calumet Lubricants. Next thing I know I’m rolling my windows up like a crazy person because I realize that scent isn’t exotic florals it’s coming from those plants. And I’m thinking about that siren again. Would I hear it when I’m driving with the radio on? Where would I turn for instructions on what to do? I turn east on a larger parish road now in a hurry to get out of this toxic no man’s land. I soon pass small houses and tiny grocers, a liquor store and a pawn shop. This isn’t a no man’s land. There are many small towns in between the tank farms and industrial plants where people are trying to make a living from their small stores, I see few franchises, outside the small towns are subsistence farmers trying to hold on to their land and everywhere there are children riding bikes, wading in creeks, barefoot and in cutoffs and growing up in Cancer Alley.
Twenty-five per cent of the nation’s petrochemical production takes place on the 85 miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge where great plantations maintained by slave labor once languished under magnolias and lush landscapes. Those landscapes have been replaced with pipelines, tank farms and chemical manufacturing facilities. The progeny of those slaves still live in the area in small towns squeezed by the various industrial facilities while other residents try to eke out a living through fishing and small scale agriculture. They suffer cancer rates 50% higher than the national average. Their mortality rates are not higher than the rest of Louisiana, but the state’s average lifespan is 3 years less than the average U.S. lifespan. Cancer Alley is as toxic for the heirs of slaves as the plantation system was and the disparity of wealth is as great as ever.
Yet, this region contributes a great deal to U.S. GDP. In 2018 Louisiana’s chemical sector had $80 billion in profits. Companies like Exxon-Mobil, Koch Industries and Cargill have considerable resources in Louisiana. At a time when the petrochemical industry was showing historical profits the surrounding communities of Cancer Alley were only seeing 9% of the FT jobs in these plants, despite repeatedly being told that new plants would bring new employment. What it has brought is an increase of 25% in industrial plants that report toxic releases over the last 3 decades. During that same time nationally the number of such plants dropped 16%. (“Welcome to Cancer Alley, Where Toxic Aire is About to Get Worse”, ProPublica. October 30, 2019) And, no surprise, this area experiences 29% poverty as opposed to Louisiana’s overall 20% poverty, a rate that puts it near the bottom of the states. This region is also where the highest outbreaks of COVID-19 have occurred in Louisiana. This is normal.
As I write this, two tropical storms — potential hurricanes — are due to make landfall in this area in the next 48 hours. The news has shown images of state responders trying to replace recently eroded shorelines with enormous manmade bundles of sand and natural materials to prevent further erosion. For decades the petroleum industry has torn apart the wetlands that used to stretch south of New Orleans to build oil pipelines for delivery to those refineries in Cancer Alley. Those wetlands protected New Orleans and the other gulf communities from storms in the Gulf. It is a place that has already begun to experience the impacts of rising seas and intensifying storms.
This is the second story:
Not long ago I was driving home from Spokane Valley on Glenrose. Glenrose is a road that has few stop signs. For months it has seemed more like a country meander with greatly reduced traffic, inclined to stay within the 30-35 mile an hour speed limit. On this Saturday, however, things had returned to “normal”. There was much more traffic and many were exceeding the speed limit on a road with little police presence .
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a fawn laying next to a driveway. I stopped the car and we watched each other, but I began to feel something was wrong. I tried to move the car further off the road and I frightened it. It attempted to get up but at least one and probably two or more legs were broken. It stumbled, drug and rolled itself into the grass on the other side of the driveway. I couldn’t go to it and offer comfort without causing it more pain. I imagined that it wondered why it couldn’t run away and where was its mother to offer comfort. This beautiful young creature should have been leaping through a meadow on this warm sunny day, but it was broken and alone by the side of the road.
All I could do for the fawn was call State Patrol and ask for an animal officer to come out. I couldn’t even bring myself to wait for the officer to arrive because seeing its suffering was too painful and I was angry. I was angry because someone in a hurry didn’t pay attention, perhaps was texting. The driver forgot he/she was part of a community, an ecosystem that included many other lives and this baby had paid a terrible price.
Too often our roads, especially our freeways, are killing zones for animals. Our fast paced life in our individual cars has made it dangerous for wild and domestic animals alike to move across the landscape. Thus the shoulders of our transportation corridors are littered with the corpses of deer, raccoons, skunks, armadillos, dogs and cats, and occasionally moose, mountain sheep and bear. Our need for speed, made possible through millions of fossil fueled vehicles, is devastating to the other beings that share our planet. In a study done by the UC Davis Road Ecology Center roadkills of large wild animals fell by up to 58% (that was the reduction in the rate of roadkills of cougars in CA) during the pandemic shutdown. Similar rates were found with regard to large domestic animals including dogs and sheep. If this rate were to continue through the end of the year at least 500 million vertebrates would be saved. Roads and our fossil fueled cars are not only a central cause of death for animals, but are driving some, like the Florida panther to extinction.
“Normal” is not serving our communities, although it does serve a small percentage of individuals very well. Success in our society means you get to not only avoid Cancer Alley, but that you can opt out of sharing community burdens; live in a gated community so you don’t have to deal with strangers (see Pat McCormick July 7, 2020); you can hire private security so to have immediate service and not have to wait with those who have far less to lose; and you can buy bigger homes and drive faster cars so your success is apparent. Whenever anyone near the bottom of that economy looks for a little help they’re told to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. We have ignored the fact that nearly no one does that. Those who have succeeded have had family, friends, networks to offer allowances, provide tutoring, open doors with internships and summer jobs and make calls to others who might open doors. And there have been teachers and ministers and scout leaders and big brothers and big sisters and neighbors and grand parents and coaches who have believed in us and helped us keep our feet on that path to a better life, to success. So where are the sayings that honor the community that gets us to that better place? How many give back to that community that made success possible?
If we are to overcome the challenges of the moment and those which are facing us with climate change we must look to the health of the community. Forget the bootstraps. Rely on those who reach out to you to help you stand. Build stronger communities where none are left behind. And the one who wins is the one who participated in keeping that community strong, in making sure everyone has what they need and the weakest are protected from our excesses. If that is how we determine success we all win, including our natural world. We need an economy that creates strong communities and recognizes there are only so many things any of us need. But there are services we need over and over again and the individuals who provide those services should be able to make a living wage while doing that work. Buying things empties our world of resources. Investing in living resources enriches our communities, our ecosystems. Our great faith leaders have long taught such ways of life. Care for the poor, recognizing the temptations of excesses of wealth, treating each other as we wish to be treated, and being the good shepherd for our world are tenants of many faiths. They may help us to find a new normal.