Flint and other signs of the great unraveling

Posted February 17th, 2016 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Flint and other signs of the great unraveling

Could anything be more obvious at this point than that the political culture of the U.S. is unraveling, that cohesive government is unraveling, that all the fissures and fractures of the body politic that have long been with us are now so wide that nothing is able to hold them together any longer?

Did you know that the Flint water crisis has turned out to be merely a manifestation of a nationwide crisis of lead in our water systems – some of which are even worse?

There’s a lead crisis for children in Baltimore, Md.Herculaneum, Miss.; Sebring, Ohio; and even the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.; and that’s just to begin a list. State reports suggest, for instance, that “18 cities in Pennsylvania and 11 in New Jersey may have an even higher share of children with dangerously elevated levels of lead than does Flint.” Today, scientists agree that there is no safe level of lead for children and at least half of American children have some of this neurotoxin in their blood. The CDC is especially concerned about the more than 500,000 American children who have substantial amounts of lead in their bodies. Over the past century, an untold number have had their IQs reduced, their school performances limited, their behaviors altered, and their neurological development undermined. From coast to coast, from the Sun Belt to the Rust Belt, children have been and continue to be imperiled by a century of industrial production, commercial gluttony, and abandonment by the local, state, and federal governments that should have protected them. Unlike in Flint, the “crisis” seldom comes to public attention.

That’s from a Grist article, Flint isn’t alone: America has a coast-to-coast toxic crisis, b

And this one, from The New Yorker, by William Finnegan: Flint and the Long Struggle Against Lead Poisoning.  This one will tell you about the long awful human history of ingesting lead, from ancient times to now, and how long humans have known what it does to the brain, most especially children’s brains. “Exposure can cause stunted growth, permanent mental retardation, speech impairment, hearing loss, reproductive problems, and kidney damage.” To repeat: there is no safe level.

Video: Flint Water Crisis: How We Got Here

You read in these articles what begins to sounds like a broken record when it comes to these toxins – corporations and their government enablers that have allowed, and continue to allow, toxins of all kinds to get into our environment and into our bodies. We are saturated with neurotoxins and carcinogens, and yet we have corporations that by deliberation and conscious profit-making intention, continue to fight, actually resist, any action to take these things out of our environment by getting them out of their products. They intend to make profit by inserting them into our bodies.

That sounds extreme, I know. But friends, it’s what they do. From the tobacco industry that knew the dangers of tobacco in the 1950s, to Monsanto and their glyphosate products like Roundup, the most widely used herbicide in the world (the World Health Organization now lists it as a “probable carcinogen”), to fossil fuel companies (we now know they were aware of the connections between carbon emissions and climate change 30-40 years ago and funded organizations to deny it), to chemical companies that insert untested chemical inputs into products we use every single day (more than 80,000 untested chemicals have been introduced into the environment), and on and on – this is what they do.

Because once you’ve made the product and introduced it into the economic system, it is in the interest of your stockholders to keep making and selling more because it hurts your business, and your profits, to stop doing so. It really is that simple.

“Keep it in the ground” makes no business sense at all when your profits are in the very reserves that you intend to bring out of the ground!

BP refinery in Whiting IN, expanding to process Canadian tar sands. Photo: M Swedish

BP refinery in Whiting IN, expanding to process Canadian tar sands. Photo: M Swedish

This is the logic of a corporate global capitalist system that is driving this planet into a state of ecological crisis, climate change being only one factor in that crisis. That system includes mining parts of our planet to death for metals and fuels and the stuff to make chemicals. It has already blown up hundreds and hundreds of Appalachian Mountains for coal that we burn to keep the lights on, and while that industry is in demise because of the havoc it has wreaked on our air, climate, and living communities, one thing we cannot replace is a mountain range, nor remove from valleys and streams and watersheds the toxic waste dumped from those mountains. This is environmental death that is forever. Hard to say what the Earth will do with those places over the next tens of thousands of years.

Now, part of what all this has done is to drive exponential growth in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. Cancer centers are being opened everywhere and huge money can be found to develop cancer treatments and get them to market (even when they don’t really do much good) where huge profits can be made in a for-profit health industry that has become one of the key drivers of economic growth. As autism, Parkinsens, and Alzheimers diseases increase, and more research looks at neurotoxins as causes of the increase, medical research, treatment, and expensive prescription drugs become growth industries.

You see, if they took those chemicals out of the environment, if we focused on prevention, if we would force testing of any new chemical and drug BEFORE they were introduced into our bodies and into the environment, the health industry would go into crisis. It is driven by profit, and there is more profit in our getting cancer than in preventing it. There is more profit to be made in our using this profit-driven system than in being healthy and not needing it.

They can’t make profits over what we don’t buy and consume.

Why is our natural world deteriorating so rapidly? This is why.

Pipelines being buried in Alberta. This was once unbroken boreal forest. Photo: M Swedish

Pipelines being buried in Alberta. This was once unbroken boreal forest. Photo: M Swedish

When Joanna Macy and many others write of The Great Unraveling, this is what they mean. Our economic system, this industrial growth model, is shredding the ecological whole, tearing into ecosystems with such ruthlessness that many of them can no longer function to keep the balance of life, well, balanced. It’s not just the amount of carbon in the atmosphere that is causing climate change, it is also our accelerating destruction of carbon sinks, the forests and oceans and prairie grasses and muskeg that are under assault and in some cases disappearing rapidly. The rainforests of Indonesia, the Amazon, the Pacific Northwest, northern Alberta are all shrinking. We pour more carbon into the atmosphere than the biosphere can absorb at the same time as we are saturating oceans and shrinking land masses that comprise those essential sinks.

The worst part of this for me is that, while before we could plead ignorance, now this is being done knowingly. And even a lot of the mainstream environmental organizations are reluctant to acknowledge how bad this crisis really is.

Now, back to Flint. It is in microcosm an example of a nation that has lost its way. The lead crisis described in the articles linked above is about a nation built on an economy in which profits are driven by ever-new technologies, innovations constantly developed, and new products put on the market. Highways, airways, railroads, ships and ports – all of this was created to develop and drive markets, to get products to the consumer, whether a mining company needing hydraulic scoops and big dozers or kids wanting new video games for Christmas. Over time, that dreaded word, infrastructure, was neglected. As we all know, things are falling apart. And the more we let them fall apart, the more expensive it will be to rebuild them and the more people will be harmed by the deterioration – whether old corroded lead pipes, bursting water mains, leaking or exploding gas lines, cracked oil pipelines, crumbling roads and highways, poisoned and/or eroded soils, polluted waterways, and on and on.

A polluted waterway in Alberta, the Athabasca River. Photo: Margaret Swedish

A polluted waterway in Alberta, the Athabasca River. Photo: Margaret Swedish

We don’t fix because “fixing” is not lucrative. Try to find someone to fix an appliance anymore when you can buy a new one, say a new washing machine for $250, made by cheap labor in another country. The Flint water crisis could have been lessened by adding an anti-corrosive chemical to the Flint river water when the switch was made (of course, I’ve wondered how safe that chemical is). It could have been avoided by not switching off the Detroit system to begin with. But the other thing corporations want now is government on the cheap, lower taxes, more privatization of the public sector. That public sector is being neglected. It merely contains millions of people who are not important in the financials of big corporations.

There is no choice for Flint other than to replace the pipes, at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Will they do that, or just wait until the nation is no longer paying attention? And how much of the nation is facing these kinds of local crises because of simple neglect because the corporate capitalist system just sees no financial benefit in supporting the common good or the good of the commons? They buy elections now; they decide what government, or their sponsored politicians, are going to do.

You get the idea, yes? This economic system that is wrecking the planet is not necessary to have the things we need to live decent, fulfilling lives. But if it goes on, you can be sure that fewer and fewer of us will have either as climate change leads to extremes of heat, storms, drought, displaced populations, lost coastal cities, food and water shortages, to name a few minor impacts. It is the logic of corporate profit and the legal setup whereby corporations are bound by law to act in the interests of their shareholders – not the planet, not other humans, not other-than-human beings. As we move more deeply into the ecological unraveling, we begin to see how immoral this system is becoming.

This is a very, very dangerous time for the political culture to also be unraveling in the face of old historical animosities: racism, intolerance, refusal of the common good, states rights passions, the resurgence of a rampant form of individualism, heavily armed, perhaps best expressed in the takeover at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon this winter. Scapegoating has become a political strategy to keep many millions of people focused on suspicion of the other and projection of their fears and insecurities onto the other, rather than the truth of what is really going on, the true nature of the unraveling. If this rage, anger, hate, and refusal of even the most basic mutual respect toward one another continues to be fed a steady diet of ugly political discourse and ignorant cable news punditry (for the sake of grabbing audience for the purpose of selling lucrative TV ad time), how will we be able to come together to even see the unraveling and its causes, much less come up with ways to address it?

This political culture has been captured by corporate interests that are trying to do what Grover Norquist once famously said – “to reduce [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” His followers have done a good job of that, while leading a campaign to demonize government itself. Yet government, not corporations, is the socio-political “space” where people and communities can impact their own well-being and the health of the commons, where they have the tools and the power to protect, defend, dismantle where necessary, expand rights, develop new policies and programs in keeping with the exigencies of the time. Without popularly based government, we are left in the hands of corporate powers and wealthy donors who run it for their own interests, not ours.indigenous people protest in Paris

THIS is the kind of conversation this country needs to be having – not with the pols or the rich or the corporate leaders, but among ourselves to create the kinds of movements that can shake things up, that can make some new creation, bring down an economic order that has become highly destructive, and bring one into being at the service of the whole community of life before the unraveling reaches a point of no return.

 ~ Margaret Swedish

Featured Photo: U.S. Surgeon General visits Flint area homes with elevated lead levels –  mlive.com


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