Burning Down The House

Published June 15, 2017 at https://www.thenation.com/article/burning-down-the-house/

“As the weather gets warmer…” That’s the throwaway description I heard on a recent radio report about increased migration to Europe from countries in Africa and along the eastern Mediterranean. “As the weather gets warmer,” there are spikes in the number of people willing to climb into rickety rafts and risk their lives crossing perilous seas. The story went on to describe the rescue efforts, the babies saved, and the hundreds of lives lost in a single day. The weather, however, was left hanging, naturalized like a rite of spring, buried in the kind of casual syntax used to signify the annual migration of birds, or of a wave of pensioners, after wintering in Florida or the South of France. The implication that the vagaries of weather had anything to do with flight, political asylum, or war melted quietly into the background.

But “warmer” doesn’t begin to describe the brutal, record-breaking heat that has afflicted certain parts of the world. For the last several summers, cities in nations throughout the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea region rarely saw temperatures below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and in some places they soared as high as 127 degrees.

I recently heard former vice president Al Gore speak at the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He made clear the ominous link between climate change and the current global diaspora. One of the underlying causes of the conflict in Syria, Gore noted, was “the worst drought ever measured in the eastern Mediterranean,” which lasted from 2006 until 2010. “That drought, long before the Syrian civil war started, destroyed 60 percent of their farms, killed 80 percent of their livestock, drove one and a half million climate refugees into their cities, where they collided with another one and a half million refugees from the Iraq war…. The wave of refugees from the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East and North Africa began to grow…and we’ve seen the European Union become destabilized.”

(As if to underscore that point, the National Academy of Sciences has explicitly connected the war in Syria to man-made climate change and the region’s savage drought.)

Gore’s speech was the antipode to Donald Trump’s recent announcement that he would withdraw the country from the Paris climate accord. Trump spoke using the monetized terms of exchange value: “economic burdens,” “industrial edge,” “trade policy.” He was consumed by competitiveness to the point of silliness: If India can burn coal, then we should do it too. Trump’s stated commitment to put “Pittsburgh…before Paris” was a narrow, exclusive, go-it-alone view of American interests in the face of impending and shared global disaster.

Gore speaks from a broader model of the human as enmeshed in a biome whose ability to recover from the traumatic insults of pollution and species extinction has an absolute limit. Gore’s attention is trained upon the long-term (if unintended) consequences of our technological revolution and the myriad externalities that market measures exclude.

Consider the case of Gene Cranick, an elderly, wheelchair-bound man who lived in one of the largely rural counties of Tennessee, where people have to subscribe to the services of the fire department on an individual basis—so-called “pay to spray.” Cranick forgot to pay the $75 annual fee. His house caught on fire; the fire department came but only hosed down the house and field of a neighbor, who had paid the $75. The firefighters watched Cranick’s farm burn to the ground, killing his pets and destroying his field and all of his other possessions. Cranick offered to pay the actual cost of putting out the fire, but the fire chief/department declined to accept his offer, because to do so would incentivize others to become “free riders” and not pay the annual fee.

From the narrow moral framework of the private market, this outcome makes “sense.” Much like Trump’s image of the climate, fire is imagined as a consequence that can be contained to a single rational actor, and payment is foregrounded as the central moral value. But in a larger moral framework like Gore’s—that of public health and environmental interest—fire is a shared threat, a public harm, whose potential for ignoring human boundaries poses risks that we must address by pooling our resources for the collective good. Community health and safety become the central moral values here.

This system of signification can be tracked as a form of knowledge production, an ideological lens through which we learn to see the world and ourselves—either as radical individualists, or as the cohabitants of a common home. Consider how the water supply of Flint, Michigan, was treated like Gene Cranick’s fire: The state’s adherence to “for-profit” governance dictated an agenda in which the long-term public costs were written out of a short-term, “value-added” metric for budgetary (but not human) health. Consider how Trump frames coal production only in terms of wealth production rather than disease production. Or how drought and flood and species extinction and food-chain collapse are framed less as holes in the planetary boat in which we’re all sinking, and more as winnable wars over unlimited resources. But that kind of wealth—whether Trump Inc.’s or Pittsburgh’s or Paris’s or China’s—is not what’s at stake in this battle. Instead, what’s at stake is our planet’s gorgeously resonant ecosystem, sustained by very fragile interconnections upon which all future life is inextricably interdependent.

If you wish to contribute to the effort to raise awareness about climate change and its very real and present dangers, you can make a donation to the Climate Reality Project or to the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. Al Gore’s new film about climate change, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, will be released in theaters on July 28 (when, as Wikipedia so helpfully notes, it will open against Atomic Blonde and The Emoji Movie).

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