Columnist Marty Nathan: ‘I can’t breathe’ and our colliding crises

  • In this handout photo taken Sunday, June 21, children play in the Krugloe lake outside Verkhoyansk, the Sakha Republic, about 2,900 miles northeast of Moscow, Russia. A record-breaking temperature of 100.4 F was registered in the Arctic town of Verkhoyansk on Saturday, June 20, in a prolonged heatwave that has alarmed scientists around the world. Olga Burtseva via AP

Published: 7/2/2020 11:13:50 AM

Editor’s note: Columnist Marty Nathan returns this month with a two-part column examining our country’s three current crises: racism, coronavirus and a warming climate. Part two, which will offer solutions, is scheduled to run in the coming days.

I am guessing that your mind, like mine, is spinning with the changes occurring in our society and our biosphere. We are witnessing a shake-up in the social and political order wrought by the collision of three crises: the reckoning with centuries of racism and its violence, the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapidly heating climate.

Those three upheavals affect different spheres of our lives, but there is growing recognition that they are connected and that dealing with them must be inter-coordinated and must face their common source: massive wealth and power disparities.

Last week’s heat wave reminded us that 2020 is on its way to becoming the hottest year on record, following the six hottest years before it. Then, ominously, on Saturday, June 22, for the first time since recording began in 1885, temperature in the Arctic Circle surpassed 100 F. Longtime climate movement leader Bill McKibben admitted to being scared by the report. As should we all be.

This Arctic heating at twice the rate of the rest of the globe portends mass melting of its tundra, releasing a climate-annihilating amount of the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere. That discharge will trigger one of the most dreaded feedback-loops known to climate scientists. And of course, the circumpolar heat will melt the huge Greenland glaciers and unleash rapid sea-level rise, threatening 200 million coastal people worldwide.

If that were the only emergency facing us, it would be more than enough. But on Memorial Day we saw a Black man lose his life under the knee of a white policeman in Minneapolis and the rage at centuries of violent and humiliating racism poured into the streets. Many Valley residents joined the protests. This was a crisis seemingly of a different kind, but in fact the racism of Minneapolis police parallels the lopsided distribution of suffering from the effects of climate change and its broker, the burning of fossil fuels.

The climate crisis disproportionately victimizes Black people, Latinos and other people of color in part because they unequally bear the burden of poverty. Globally and nationally, these folks are most likely to suffer and die from summer heat, lacking air conditioners or access to a country get-away.

The majority of those 200 million affected by sea-level rise compounded by megastorms are people of color. (Think Hurricanes Katrina in New Orleans, Mitch in Haiti, Maria and Irene in Puerto Rico and Harvey in Texas in the Western Hemisphere alone.)

Central American droughts have already been a causal factor in the mass migration north of farmers, workers and their families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. At our border they were met with, rather than relief, caging and family separation that can only be attributable to racism.

The Inuit of the Far North are losing their communities to melting tundra and their livelihood to melting sea ice, forcing them, like Central Americans, to join the 200 million climate migrants who must involuntarily leave their homes by 2050.

Meanwhile, pollution emitted with carbon dioxide in the burning of fossil fuels and biomass is directly toxic to humans. It causes illness and death from asthma, chronic lung disease and vascular disease. Polluting sources — power plants, highways and factories — have deliberately been sited in the midst of Black and brown communities which have been forced to breathe poison. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America ranks Springfield is the Asthma Capital of the Country, with one in five of its children suffering from the disease and African Americans and Latinos more likely than whites to end up hospitalized or in the emergency room for an attack.

With the third crisis, the pandemic, again, we see the stamp of historical and ongoing racism. Black, Latino and most people of color are more likely to contract and die from the coronavirus. The understandable causal factor is poverty, affording a greater risk of poor or absent housing, medical care and nutrition. Social distancing is nigh to impossible in overcrowded buildings and people of color are far more likely than whites to work essential jobs, which are often low paid and under protected. Prisons, the destination of residents from too many overpoliced communities of color, are petri dishes for the pandemic.

But it is even more tangled than that. The air pollution to which low income and people of color are more likely to endure worsens the symptoms and leads to a higher death rate in COVID-19 infected people. “I can’t breathe” is a cry appropriate to whole communities in this nexus of crises.

And of course, Black joblessness from the pandemic is twice that of whites, throwing millions into worsening financial despair.

To disentangle and begin to resolve these seemingly insoluble problems, we have to exam the conditions that created and contributed mightily them: a profit-driven system that allows the wealth of corporations (and slave merchants and slaveholders before them) to enrich at the expense of human life and well-being and the fate of the planet.

Racism in this country had its birth in the purchase of slaves for their labor and the murder of Indigenous people for their land. It continued to serve its usefulness in sharecroppers’ fields where crops were stolen; in factories to cheapen and divide labor; and on Caribbean islands and in Latin American countries plundered for their mineral and agricultural wealth. Millions in real estate profits were made by redliners like Trump. Brutal policing and mass incarceration have been critical to maintenance of the system. The military has been the ultimate enforcer overseas.

Global warming was created and perpetuated by fossil fuel corporations addicted to their profit, criminally concealing the threat and dominating government and media to prevent conversion to a green economy.

A forceful and adequate response to the coronavirus was blocked by corporate pressure to keep the economy open and the money flowing. Of course, Trump could not tolerate such a threat to his reelection. And a profit-driven medical system is a hopeless barrier to care in a public health crisis.

To save our biosphere and the lives of millions we must deal with the stranglehold of the billionaires and corporations and fully and publicly fund the solutions to all three problems. We must reappropriate to the commons the trillions that have been privatized, defund police on the local level and the military on the federal, in order to create a just, healthy and fossil-fuel free sustainable world. Time is short. We must start now.

Marty Nathan is a retired physician, mother, grandmother and social justice and climate organizer.

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