Monday, September 16, 2013

An environmental injustice -- of a slightly different kind

Today I want to write about environmental injustice. This is an upcoming topic to be covered soon in Environmental Issues and Insights (the second class in our core Environmental Citizen Curriculum, which I'm teaching this semester), but the particular injustice is not the usual one covered.

Usually, when college teachers speak of environmental injustice, what we are talking about are cases where minority or low income communities are discriminated against in the siting of polluting factories, incinerators, power plants and the like, and so the burden of dealing with environmental toxicity is added to the burdens of dealing with social prejudice and lack of money.

But the burden I want to speak of is one I've experienced directly, and I'm neither a minority nor do I get a particularly low income. For me, the reality of this new difficulty hit only last week when a particularly taxing search and rescue call-out, during an out-of-season rainstorm, left me with a broken vehicle and behind on my work, a situation that was only remedied by, essentially, working the whole weekend and spending several hundred dollars I didn't have on vehicle parts.

I get paid relatively well for a Maine worker, if not for a college professor, and so the difficulty is only temporary, nothing that a couple of good nights' sleep and a little belt-tightening couldn't fix.

But it did make me wonder what the same amount of stress might have done to some of my less-well off comrades in the emergency response system, while the current news buzz about denialist response to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report reminds me that we're in this fix for a reason: because of certain people who've taken it upon themselves to intersperse themselves between the American public and the truth, in many if not most cases for their own nefarious commercial gain.

This new type of environmental injustice occurs when global climate change helps create extreme weather events. The change itself is being exacerbated by our government's inability to act, which is itself caused directly by denialist groups funded by oil and coal interests such as the infamous Koch brothers, or conservative ideologues like Rupert Murdoch. If it weren't for the denialists, we might have been able to get control of emissions by now. But the emissions keep rising, at least globally, while in the US they are falling only slowly, and so the difficult, dangerous weather keeps coming. The people that are suffering most from the added incidence and severity of severe weather events -- other than the direct victims whose homes and livelihoods are wrecked -- are the first responders, police, fire, ambulance, and search and rescue professionals and volunteers.

(I'm one of the latter, a search and rescue volunteer, who also just happens to be a scientist and science educator working in the transdisciplinary nexus between energy and climate policy.)

The new environmental injustice occurs when low-income emergency volunteers, members of rural volunteer fire departments and search and rescue teams, are forced to respond to extreme weather emergencies. These added burdens stretch their ability to cope. Part of the problem is time. Another is money. Rural workers typically have to work longer hours than urban ones, and often face long commutes to get to work, often in less than perfectly maintained vehicles. They also often lack medical insurance. If a low wage worker is also an emergency volunteer worker, the unpaid hours spent on calls cut into paid work, which makes it hard to keep private vehicles gassed up and running or to pay the rest of the bills. When you're already stretched, a big wildfire, windstorm, tornado or hurricane can result in a lost job, an unpaid mortgage, a bankruptcy, a vehicular accident, an injury or illness, relationship stress, or, most likely, some combination.

The additional burden from extreme weather emergencies might easily become the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

This seems to me to be a clear-cut environmental injustice. There's an environmental perpetrator, environmental victims, an environmental agent that is loosed on the victims by the perpetrator, and a clear environmental remedy. It isn't quite as immediately dramatic as Erin Brockovich or A Civil Action, but it's happening all the same, and involves effects that can be just as toxic to a healthy, happy life.

The denialists are the perpetrators, especially the rich elites like the Koch brothers, the rural emergency worker whose energy, goodwill, and finances are stretched beyond bearing point is the victim, the environmental agent is the carbon emissions that result in the extreme weather, and the remedy is an environmental global policy that would result in reduced emissions and/or increased sequestration, and so limit the increased incidence of extreme weather or reverse its growth.

I expect the Koch brothers, like most of their well-to-do ilk, have various spiffy country pads, in the Berkshires, possibly, or Colorado. But the wealthy, disconnected from the gritty realities of day-to-day survival, may not realize that fire and rescue coverage in these kinds of places are typically provided by low-to-middle income volunteers and retirees.

That's right, folks: In many of the more desirable rural regions of our great country, poor people volunteer to put out fires in the homes of rich people or to search for their kids when they get lost in the woods. Go figure.

Federal money after the 9/11 attacks has boosted the quality and quantity of fire and rescue equipment that departments and teams have at their disposal, but the recession has cut into jobs and incomes in these kinds of places, and so while the technical resources look more abundant and competent than in the past, the backbone of the system, the rural volunteer, is stretched further and further.

In a more just world, it would be the residences of wealthy denialists that would go up in flames, unattended, or be blown to the ground in the cruel dark of the storm, and it would be their children and senile grandparents that would get lost in the woods, never to be found.  But, of course, these are more or less random events, life's unavoidable catastrophes. And the thing that begins to make it better is the hard, dangerous labor of the unpaid rural volunteer emergency worker, who does attend the fire and even puts it out, while the senile grandparent or precious missing grandchild does get found more often than not, although at great expense in labor and sweat.

We must now start thinking about the ethics of these things, if we are to call our society civilized.

When God handed out a sense of community and duty to each and every one of us, he didn't do so fairly. Some of us got more than our fair share, and far less of what we may really need, that Ayn Rand-type of arrogant, me-first selfishness, the kind of King Canute-type sensibility that makes one think it might be reasonable to negate a scientific fact. As a result, we emergency workers tend to suffer for our naïveté and ignorance of the real ways of the world, while others less dutiful will prosper.

The western wildfire season is coming to an end, spectacularly so in the region around Boulder, Colorado. Tornado season in the midwest and upper south is also dying down. All have been far worse than usual. Here on the eastern seaboard we're getting the last of the summer storms, which have come to include more frequent microbursts and tornadoes, while we gird our loins and pack our ready gear for hurricanes and the deep snow of winter. Both the latter have become less predictable and more damaging lately. Readers may remember how Hurricane Sandy was followed too close for comfort by deep blowing snow in the mid-Atlantic region.

In each of these places, the volunteer emergency volunteer is putting his or her life and livelihood on the line. Many, I expect, are worn to the bone, especially in Colorado right now. We should turn our attention to these good people, the backbone of rural resilience. They deserve more. They deserve the truth, unfettered by obfuscation and self-interest.

If we don't give them the truth, and act on it, the easily predictable result will be that each year, as the weather gets worse and worse, there will be fewer and fewer volunteer emergency workers to respond. The thin red line will get thinner and thinner. How could it be otherwise?

And while we wait for that truth, the denialist elites just get richer, selling us the petroleum, that we pay for ourselves, profiteering from the very gas that gets us to the firehouse or command post, in our own vehicles.

If that isn't an environmental injustice, I don't know what is.

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