Inequality in the Anthropocene

This post was inspired by an article on the possibility of increasing suicides because of climate change. What occurred to me is that all the social and psychological problems seen with climate change are also seen with inequality (as shown in decades of research), and to a lesser extent as seen with extreme poverty — although high poverty with low inequality isn’t necessarily problematic at all (e.g., the physically and psychologically healthy hunter-gatherers who are poor in terms of material wealth and private property).

Related to this, I noticed in one article that a study was mentioned about the chances of war increasing when detrimental weather events are combined with ethnic diversity. And that reminded me of the research that showed diversity only leads to lowered trust when combined with segregation. A major problem with climate-related refugee crises is that it increases segregation, such as refugee camps and immigrant ghettoization. That segregation will lead to further conflict and destruction of the social fabric, which in turn will promote further segregation — a vicious cycle that will be hard to pull out before the crash, especially as the environmental conditions lead to droughts, famines, and plagues.

As economic and environmental conditions worsen, there are some symptoms that will become increasingly apparent and problematic. Based on the inequality and climatology research, we should expect increased stress, anxiety, fear, xenophobia, bigotry, suicide, homicide, aggressive behavior, short-term thinking, reactionary politics, and generally crazy and bizarre behavior. This will likely result in civil unrest, violent conflict, race wars, genocides, terrorism, militarization, civil wars, revolutions, international conflict, resource-based wars, world wars, authoritarianism, ethno-nationalism, right-wing populism, etc.

The only defense against this will be a strong, courageous left-wing response. That would require eliminating not only the derangement of the GOP but also the corruption of the DNC by replacing both with a genuinely democratic and socialist movement. Otherwise, our society will descend into collective madness and our entire civilization will be under existential threat. There is no other option.

* * *

The Great Acceleration and the Great Divergence: Vulnerability in the Anthropocene
by Rob Nixon

Most Anthropocene scholars date the new epoch to the late-eighteenth-century beginnings of industrialization. But there is a second phase to the Anthropocene, the so-called great acceleration, beginning circa 1950: an exponential increase in human-induced changes to the carbon cycle and nitrogen cycle and in ocean acidification, global trade, and consumerism, as well as the rise of international forms of governance like the World Bank and the IMF.

However, most accounts of the great acceleration fail to position it in relation to neoliberalism’s recent ascent, although most of the great acceleration has occurred during the neoliberal era. One marker of neoliberalism has been a widening chasm of inequality between the superrich and the ultrapoor: since the late 1970s, we have been living through what Timothy Noah calls “the great divergence.” Noah’s subject is the economic fracturing of America, the new American gilded age, but the great divergence has scarred most societies, from China and India to Indonesia, South Africa, Nigeria, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Australia, and Bangladesh.

My central problem with the dominant mode of Anthropocene storytelling is its failure to articulate the great acceleration to the great divergence. We need to acknowledge that the grand species narrative of the Anthropocene—this geomorphic “age of the human”—is gaining credence at a time when, in society after society, the idea of the human is breaking apart economically, as the distance between affluence and abandonment is increasing. It is time to remold the Anthropocene as a shared story about unshared resources. When we examine the geology of the human, let us also pay attention to the geopolitics of the new stratigraphy’s layered assumptions.

Neoliberalism loves watery metaphors: the trickle-down effect, global flows, how a rising tide lifts all boats. But talk of a rising tide raises other specters: the coastal poor, who will never get storm-surge barriers; Pacific Islanders in the front lines of inundation; Arctic peoples, whose livelihoods are melting away—all of them exposed to the fallout from Anthropocene histories of carbon extraction and consumption in which they played virtually no part.

We are not all in this together
by Ian Angus

So the 21st century is being defined by a combination of record-breaking inequality with record-breaking climate change. That combination is already having disastrous impacts on the majority of the world’s people. The line is not only between rich and poor, or comfort and poverty: it is a line between survival and death.

Climate change and extreme weather events are not devastating a random selection of human beings from all walks of life. There are no billionaires among the dead, no corporate executives living in shelters, no stockbrokers watching their children die of malnutrition. Overwhelmingly, the victims are poor and disadvantaged. Globally, 99 percent of weather disaster casualties are in developing countries, and 75 percent of them are women.

The pattern repeats at every scale. Globally, the South suffers far more than the North. Within the South, the very poorest countries, mostly in Africa south of the Sahara, are hit hardest. Within each country, the poorest people—women, children, and the elderly—are most likely to lose their homes and livelihoods from climate change, and most likely to die.

The same pattern occurs in the North. Despite the rich countries’ overall wealth, when hurricanes and heatwaves hit, the poorest neighborhoods are hit hardest, and within those neighborhoods the primary victims are the poorest people.

Chronic hunger, already a severe problem in much of the world, will be made worse by climate change. As Oxfam reports: “The world’s most food-insecure regions will be hit hardest of all.”

Unchecked climate change will lock the world’s poorest people in a downward spiral, leaving hundreds of millions facing malnutrition, water scarcity, ecological threats, and loss of livelihood. Children will be among the primary victims, and the effects will last for lifetimes: studies in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Niger show that being born in a drought year increases a child’s chances of being irreversibly stunted by 41 to 72 percent.

Environmental racism has left black Americans three times more likely to die from pollution
By Bartees Cox

Without a touch of irony, the EPA celebrated Black History Month by publishing a report that finds black communities face dangerously high levels of pollution. African Americans are more likely to live near landfills and industrial plants that pollute water and air and erode quality of life. Because of this, more than half of the 9 million people living near hazardous waste sites are people of color, and black Americans are three times more likely to die from exposure to air pollutants than their white counterparts.

The statistics provide evidence for what advocates call “environmental racism.” Communities of color aren’t suffering by chance, they say. Rather, these conditions are the result of decades of indifference from people in power.

Environmental racism is dangerous. Trump’s EPA doesn’t seem to care.
by P.R. Lockhart

Studies have shown that black and Hispanic children are more likely to develop asthma than their white peers, as are poor children, with research suggesting that higher levels of smog and air pollution in communities of color being a factor. A 2014 study found that people of color live in communities that have more nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant that exacerbates asthma.

The EPA’s own research further supported this. Earlier this year, a paper from the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment found that when it comes to air pollutants that contribute to issues like heart and lung disease, black people are exposed to 1.5 times more of the pollutant than white people, while Hispanic people were exposed to about 1.2 times the amount of non-Hispanic whites. People in poverty had 1.3 times the exposure of those not in poverty.

Trump’s EPA Concludes Environmental Racism Is Real
by Vann R. Newkirk II

Late last week, even as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Trump administration continued a plan to dismantle many of the institutions built to address those disproportionate risks, researchers embedded in the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment released a study indicating that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air. Specifically, the study finds that people in poverty are exposed to more fine particulate matter than people living above poverty. According to the study’s authors, “results at national, state, and county scales all indicate that non-Whites tend to be burdened disproportionately to Whites.”

The study focuses on particulate matter, a group of both natural and manmade microscopic suspensions of solids and liquids in the air that serve as air pollutants. Anthropogenic particulates include automobile fumes, smog, soot, oil smoke, ash, and construction dust, all of which have been linked to serious health problems. Particulate matter was named a known definite carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and it’s been named by the EPA as a contributor to several lung conditions, heart attacks, and possible premature deaths. The pollutant has been implicated in both asthma prevalence and severitylow birth weights, and high blood pressure.

As the study details, previous works have also linked disproportionate exposure to particulate matter and America’s racial geography. A 2016 study in Environment International found that long-term exposure to the pollutant is associated with racial segregation, with more highly segregated areas suffering higher levels of exposure. A 2012 article in Environmental Health Perspectives found that overall levels of particulate matter exposure for people of color were higher than those for white people. That article also provided a breakdown of just what kinds of particulate matter counts in the exposures. It found that while differences in overall particulate matter by race were significant, differences for some key particles were immense. For example, Hispanics faced rates of chlorine exposure that are more than double those of whites. Chronic chlorine inhalation is known for degrading cardiac function.

The conclusions from scientists at the National Center for Environmental Assessment not only confirm that body of research, but advance it in a top-rate public-health journal. They find that black people are exposed to about 1.5 times more particulate matter than white people, and that Hispanics had about 1.2 times the exposure of non-Hispanic whites. The study found that people in poverty had about 1.3 times more exposure than people above poverty. Interestingly, it also finds that for black people, the proportion of exposure is only partly explained by the disproportionate geographic burden of polluting facilities, meaning the magnitude of emissions from individual factories appears to be higher in minority neighborhoods.

These findings join an ever-growing body of literature that has found that both polluters and pollution are often disproportionately located in communities of color. In some places, hydraulic-fracturing oil wells are more likely to be sited in those neighborhoods. Researchers have found the presence of benzene and other dangerous aromatic chemicals to be linked to race. Strong racial disparities are suspected in the prevalence of lead poisoning.

It seems that almost anywhere researchers look, there is more evidence of deep racial disparities in exposure to environmental hazards. In fact, the idea of environmental justice—or the degree to which people are treated equally and meaningfully involved in the creation of the human environment—was crystallized in the 1980s with the aid of a landmark study illustrating wide disparities in the siting of facilities for the disposal of hazardous waste. Leaders in the environmental-justice movement have posited—in places as prestigious and rigorous as United Nations publications and numerous peer-reviewed journals—that environmental racism exists as the inverse of environmental justice, when environmental risks are allocated disproportionately along the lines of race, often without the input of the affected communities of color.

The idea of environmental racism is, like all mentions of racism in America, controversial. Even in the age of climate change, many people still view the environment mostly as a set of forces of nature, one that cannot favor or disfavor one group or another. And even those who recognize that the human sphere of influence shapes almost every molecule of the places in which humans live, from the climate to the weather to the air they breathe, are often loathe to concede that racism is a factor. To many people, racism often connotes purposeful decisions by a master hand, and many see existing segregation as a self-sorting or poverty problem. Couldn’t the presence of landfills and factories in disproportionately black neighborhoods have more to do with the fact that black people tend to be disproportionately poor and thus live in less desirable neighborhoods?

But last week’s study throws more water on that increasingly tenuous line of thinking. While it lacks the kind of complex multivariate design that can really disentangle the exact effects of poverty and race, the finding that race has a stronger effect on exposure to pollutants than poverty indicates that something beyond just the concentration of poverty among black people and Latinos is at play. As the study’s authors write: “A focus on poverty to the exclusion of race may be insufficient to meet the needs of all burdened populations.” Their finding that the magnitude of pollution seems to be higher in communities of color than the number of polluters suggests, indicates that regulations and business decisions are strongly dependent on whether people of color are around. In other words, they might be discriminatory.

This is a remarkable finding, and not only because it could provide one more policy linkage to any number of health disparities, from heart disease to asthma rates in black children that are double those of white children. But the study also stands as an implicit rebuke to the very administration that allowed its release.

Violence: Categories & Data, Causes & Demographics

Most violent crime correlates to social problems in general. Most social problems in general correlate to economic factors such as poverty but even moreso inequality. And in a country like the US, most economic factors correlate to social disadvantage and racial oppression, from economic segregation (redlining, sundown towns, etc) to environmental racism (ghettos located in polluted urban areas, high toxicity rates among minorities, etc) — consider how areas of historically high rates of slavery at present have higher levels of poverty and inequality, impacting not just blacks but also whites living in those communities.

Socialized Medicine & Externalized Costs

About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases, which the World Health Organization has recently reported. Both factors contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 billion people, he says.

Percentages of Suffering and Death

Even accepting the data that Pinker uses, it must be noted that he isn’t including all violent deaths. Consider economic sanctions and neoliberal exploitation, vast poverty and inequality forcing people to work long hours in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, covert operations to overthrow governments and destabilize regions, anthropogenic climate change with its disasters, environmental destruction and ecosystem collapse, loss of arable land and food sources, pollution and toxic dumps, etc. All of this would involve food scarcity, malnutrition, starvation, droughts, rampant disease, refugee crises, diseases related to toxicity and stress, etc; along with all kinds of other consequences to people living in desperation and squalor.

This has all been intentionally caused through governments, corporations, and other organizations seeking power and profit while externalizing costs and harm. In my lifetime, the fatalities to this large scale often slow violence and intergenerational trauma could add up to hundreds of millions or maybe billions of lives cut short. Plus, as neoliberal globalization worsens inequality, there is a direct link to higher rates of homicides, suicides, and stress-related diseases for the most impacted populations. Yet none of these deaths would be counted as violent, no matter how horrific it was for the victims. And those like Pinker adding up the numbers would never have to acknowledge this overwhelming reality of suffering. It can’t be seen in the official data on violence, as the causes are disconnected from the effects. But why should only a small part of the harm and suffering get counted as violence?

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization
by Roy Scranton
Kindle Locations 860-888 (see here)

Consider: Once among the most modern, Westernized nations in the Middle East, with a robust, highly educated middle class, Iraq has been blighted for decades by imperialist aggression, criminal gangs, interference in its domestic politics, economic liberalization, and sectarian feuding. Today it is being torn apart between a corrupt petrocracy, a breakaway Kurdish enclave, and a self-declared Islamic fundamentalist caliphate, while a civil war in neighboring Syria spills across its borders. These conflicts have likely been caused in part and exacerbated by the worst drought the Middle East has seen in modern history. Since 2006, Syria has been suffering crippling water shortages that have, in some areas, caused 75 percent crop failure and wiped out 85 percent of livestock, left more than 800,000 Syrians without a livelihood, and sent hundreds of thousands of impoverished young men streaming into Syria’s cities. 90 This drought is part of long-term warming and drying trends that are transforming the Middle East. 91 Not just water but oil, too, is elemental to these conflicts. Iraq sits on the fifth-largest proven oil reserves in the world. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has been able to survive only because it has taken control of most of Syria’s oil and gas production. We tend to think of climate change and violent religious fundamentalism as isolated phenomena, but as Retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley argues, “you can draw a very credible climate connection to this disaster we call ISIS right now.” 92

A few hundred miles away, Israeli soldiers spent the summer of 2014 killing Palestinians in Gaza. Israel has also been suffering drought, while Gaza has been in the midst of a critical water crisis exacerbated by Israel’s military aggression. The International Committee for the Red Cross reported that during summer 2014, Israeli bombers targeted Palestinian wells and water infrastructure. 93 It’s not water and oil this time, but water and gas: some observers argue that Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” was intended to establish firmer control over the massive Leviathan natural gas field, discovered off the coast of Gaza in the eastern Mediterranean in 2010.94

Meanwhile, thousands of miles to the north, Russian-backed separatists fought fascist paramilitary forces defending the elected government of Ukraine, which was also suffering drought. 95 Russia’s role as an oil and gas exporter in the region and the natural gas pipelines running through Ukraine from Russia to Europe cannot but be key issues in the conflict. Elsewhere, droughts in 2014 sent refugees from Guatemala and Honduras north to the US border, devastated crops in California and Australia, and threatened millions of lives in Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Afghanistan, India, Morocco, Pakistan, and parts of China. Across the world, massive protests and riots have swept Bosnia and Herzegovina, Venezuela, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, and Thailand, while conflicts rage on in Colombia, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen, and India. And while the world burns, the United States has been playing chicken with Russia over control of Eastern Europe and the melting Arctic, and with China over control of Southeast Asia and the South China Sea, threatening global war on a scale not seen in seventy years. This is our present and future: droughts and hurricanes, refugees and border guards, war for oil, water, gas, and food.

Donald Trump Is the First Demagogue of the Anthropocene
by Robinson Meyer

First, climate change could easily worsen the inequality that has already hollowed out the Western middle class. A recent analysis in Nature projected that the effects of climate change will reduce the average person’s income by 23 percent by the end of the century. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency predicts that unmitigated global warming could cost the American economy $200 billion this century. (Some climate researchers think the EPA undercounts these estimates.)

Future consumers will not register these costs so cleanly, though—there will not be a single climate-change debit exacted on everyone’s budgets at year’s end. Instead, the costs will seep in through many sources: storm damage, higher power rates, real-estate depreciation, unreliable and expensive food. Climate change could get laundered, in other words, becoming just one more symptom of a stagnant and unequal economy. As quality of life declines, and insurance premiums rise, people could feel that they’re being robbed by an aloof elite.

They won’t even be wrong. It’s just that due to the chemistry of climate change, many members of that elite will have died 30 or 50 years prior. […]

Malin Mobjörk, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, recently described a “growing consensus” in the literature that climate change can raise the risk of violence. And the U.S. Department of Defense already considers global warming a “threat multiplier” for national security. It expects hotter temperatures and acidified oceans to destabilize governments and worsen infectious pandemics.

Indeed, climate change may already be driving mass migrations. Last year, the Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley was mocked for suggesting that a climate-change-intensified drought in the Levant—the worst drought in 900 years—helped incite the Syrian Civil War, thus kickstarting the Islamic State. The evidence tentatively supports him. Since the outbreak of the conflict, some scholars have recognized that this drought pushed once-prosperous farmers into Syria’s cities. Many became unemployed and destitute, aggravating internal divisions in the run-up to the war. […]

They were not disappointed. Heatwaves, droughts, and other climate-related exogenous shocks do correlate to conflict outbreak—but only in countries primed for conflict by ethnic division. In the 30-year period, nearly a quarter of all ethnic-fueled armed conflict coincided with a climate-related calamity. By contrast, in the set of all countries, war only correlated to climatic disaster about 9 percent of the time.

“We cannot find any evidence for a generalizable trigger relationship, but we do find evidence for some risk enhancement,” Schleussner told me. In other words,  climate disaster will not cause a war, but it can influence whether one begins.

Why climate change is very bad for your health
by Geordan Dickinson Shannon


We don’t live in isolation from other ecosystems. From large-scale weather events, through to the food we eat daily, right down to the minute organisms colonising our skin and digestive systems, we live and breath in co-dependency with our environment.

A change in the delicate balance of micro-organisms has the potential to lead to disastrous effects. For example, microbial proliferation – which is predicted in warmer temperatures driven by climate change – may lead to more enteric infections (caused by viruses and bacteria that enter the body through the gastrointestinal tract), such as salmonella food poisoning and increased cholera outbreaks related to flooding and warmer coastal and estuarine water.

Changes in temperature, humidity, rainfall, soil moisture and sea-level rise, caused by climate change is also affecting the transmission of dangerous insect-borne infectious diseases. These include malaria, dengue, Japanese encephalitis, chikungunya and West Nile viruslymphatic filariasis, plague, tick-borne encephalitis, Lyme diseaserickettsioses, and schistosomiasis.

Through climate change, the pattern of human interaction will likely change and so will our interactions with disease-spreading insects, especially mosquitoes. The World Health Organisation has also stressed the impact of climate change on the reproductive, survival and bite rates of insects, as well as their geographic spread.

Climate refugees

Perhaps the most disastrous effect of climate change on human health is the emergence of large-scale forced migration from the loss of local livelihoods and weather events – something that is recognised by the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights. Sea-level rise, decreased crop yield, and extreme weather events will force many people from their lands and livelihoods, while refugees in vulnerable areas also face amplified conditions such as fewer food supplies and more insect-borne diseases. And those who are displaced put a significant health and economic burden on surrounding communities.

The International Red Cross estimates that there are more environmental refugees than political. Around 36m people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009; a figure that is predicted to rise to more than 50m by 2050. In one worst-case scenario, as many as 200m people could become environmental refugees.

Not a level playing field

Climate change has emerged as a major driver of global health inequalities. As J. Timmons Roberts, professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology at Brown University, put it:

Global warming is all about inequality, both in who will suffer most its effects and in who created the problem in the first place.

Global climate change further polarises the haves and the have-nots. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that climate change will hit poor countries hardest. For example, the loss of healthy life years in low-income African countries is predicted to be 500 times that in Europe. The number of people in the poorest countries most vulnerable to hunger is predicted by Oxfam International to increase by 20% in 2050. And many of the major killers affecting developing countries, such as malaria, diarrhoeal illnesses, malnutrition and dengue, are highly sensitive to climate change, which would place a further disproportionate burden on poorer nations.

Most disturbingly, countries with weaker health infrastructure – generally situated in the developing world – will be the least able to copewith the effects of climate change. The world’s poorest regions don’t yet have the technical, economic, or scientific capacity to prepare or adapt.

Predictably, those most vulnerable to climate change are not those who contribute most to it. China, the US, and the European Union combined have contributed more than half the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions in the last few centuries. By contrast, and unfairly, countries that contributed the least carbon emissions (measured in per capita emissions of carbon dioxide) include many African nations and small Pacific islands – exactly those countries which will be least prepared and most affected by climate change.

Here’s Why Climate Change Will Increase Deaths by Suicide
by Francis Vergunst, Helen Louise Berry & Massimiliano Orri

Suicide is already among the leading causes of death worldwide. For people aged 15-55 years, it is among the top five causes of death. Worldwide nearly one million people die by suicide each year — more than all deaths from war and murder combined.

Using historical temperature records from the United States and Mexico, the researchers showed that suicide rates increased by 0.7 per cent in the U.S. and by 2.1 per cent in Mexico when the average monthly temperatures rose by 1 C.

The researchers calculated that if global temperatures continue to rise at these rates, between now and 2050 there could be 9,000 to 40,000 additional suicides in the U.S. and Mexico alone. This is roughly equivalent to the number of additional suicides that follow an economic recession.

Spikes during heat waves

It has been known for a long time that suicide rates spike during heat waves. Hotter weather has been linked with higher rates of hospital admissions for self-harmsuicide and violent suicides, as well as increases in population-level psychological distress, particularly in combination with high humidity.

Another recent study, which combined the results of previous research on heat and suicide, concluded there is “a significant and positive association between temperature rises and incidence of suicide.”

Why this is remains unclear. There is a well-documented link between rising temperatures and interpersonal violence and suicide could be understood as an act of violence directed at oneself. Lisa Page, a researcher in psychology at King’s College London, notes:

“While speculative, perhaps the most promising mechanism to link suicide with high temperatures is a psychological one. High temperatures have been found to lead individuals to behave in a more disinhibited, aggressive and violent manner, which might in turn result in an increased propensity for suicidal acts.”

Hotter temperatures are taxing on the body. They cause an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, reduce sleep quality and disrupt people’s physical activity routines. These changes can reduce well-being and increase psychological distress.

Disease, water shortages, conflict and war

The effects of hotter temperatures on suicides are symptomatic of a much broader and more expansive problem: the impact of climate change on mental health.

Climate change will increase the frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, storms, floods and wildfires. It will extend the range of infectious diseases such as Zika virus, malaria and Lyme disease. It will contribute to food and water shortages and fuel forced migration, conflict and war.

These events can have devastating effects on people’s health, homes and livelihoods and directly impact psychological health and well-being.

But effects are not limited to people who suffer direct losses — for example, it has been estimated that up to half of Hurricane Katrina survivors developed post-traumatic stress disorder even when they had suffered no direct physical losses.

The feelings of loss that follow catastrophic events, including a sense of loss of safety, can erode community well-being and further undermine mental health resilience

The Broken Ladder
by Keith Payne
pp. 3-4 (see here)

[W]hen the level of inequality becomes too large to ignore, everyone starts acting strange.

But they do not act strange in just any old way. Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.

Picture a neighborhood full of people like the ones I’ve described above: shortsighted, irresponsible people making bad choices; mistrustful people segregated by race and by ideology; superstitious people who won’t listen to reason; people who turn to self-destructive habits as they cope with the stress and anxieties of their daily lives. These are the classic tropes of poverty and could serve as a stereotypical description of the population of any poor inner-city neighborhood or depressed rural trailer park. But as we will see in the chapters ahead, inequality can produce these tendencies even among the middle class and wealthy individuals.

PP. 119-120 (see here)

But how can something as abstract as inequality or social comparisons cause something as physical as health? Our emergency rooms are not filled with people dropping dead from acute cases of inequality. No, the pathways linking inequality to health can be traced through specific maladies, especially heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and health problems stemming from obesity. Abstract ideas that start as macroeconomic policies and social relationships somehow get expressed in the functioning of our cells.

To understand how that expression happens, we have to first realize that people from different walks of life die different kinds of deaths, in part because they live different kinds of lives. We saw in Chapter 2 that people in more unequal states and countries have poor outcomes on many health measures, including violence, infant mortality, obesity and diabetes, mental illness, and more. In Chapter 3 we learned that inequality leads people to take greater risks, and uncertain futures lead people to take an impulsive, live fast, die young approach to life. There are clear connections between the temptation to enjoy immediate pleasures versus denying oneself for the benefit of long-term health. We saw, for example, that inequality was linked to risky behaviors. In places with extreme inequality, people are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, more likely to have unsafe sex, and so on. Other research suggests that living in a high-inequality state increases people’s likelihood of smoking, eating too much, and exercising too little.

Learning to Die

I just finished Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton. It’s a quick read, only having taken me a couple days to slowly enjoy. For such a compact text, it still packs quite the punch.

To get an idea of where Scranton is coming from, consider him to be the love child of Peter Wessel Zapffe (“The Last Messiah”) and Morris Berman (The Twilight of American Culture) who was raised watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and then sent off to war with an anthology of ancient Greek literature stuffed in with his military gear. He actually doesn’t mention either Zappfe, Berman, or Sagan. But Zappfe in particular came to mind while reading, as he was the original inspiration of Deep Ecology.

Even though I doubt he is in the same intellectual tradition as Zappfe, Scranton with his stoical and cosmological attitude does capture the mood of philosophical pessimism. Still, there is an odd far-reaching optimism in his sympathetic view of humanity. He is no misanthrope.

The idea that most captured my attention came from another book, Carbon Democracy by Timothy Mitchell. I haven’t read Mitchell’s book. All I know of it is from what Scranton wrote. But from that little taste it was satisfying. It seems a potentially compelling explanation of how the modern world came to be and what changed.

The basic idea is that coal made democracy possible. Coal mining and transportation required large numbers of workers. It was also very localized, both in terms of the communities of workers and in terms of infrastructure. It gave citizens great power and leverage to demand their rights. This is what the very essence of democratization.

Oil changed all of that. Fewer people were needed. And the infrastructure was no longer as limited, pipes and ships could be redirected to avoid conflicts and disruptions. The oil giants swept the legs of democracy, as Johnny Lawrence did to Daniel LaRusso in “Karate Kid.” It was inevitable and predictable.

This is why no one in power is going to do anything about climate change. Their power is dependent on oil. And this is why the general public is so complacent. It’s not just that they feel powerless. It goes deeper than that. Our entire society is dependent on oil. We traded democracy for consumerism, comfort, and convenience.

Governments, politics, and activism won’t solve this problem. Our world is determined by our dominant energy source, what fuels it all and makes it all possible. Unless we find new energy sources and new ways of using that energy, we will continue on this path to wherever it leads.

Considering the hard data of the options before us, it is hard to imagine what that new world might look like. At this point, we are hoping for a technological miracle to save us. For those like Scranton who are staring down stark reality, this leads to a philosophical view of humanity, a stepping back to see the big picture. I think that is a good thing, better than our present state of being driven by the dynamics of fear and hope, denial and desperation.

We need to stop, take a breath, and look with clear eyes.

More Words

I’ve written so often about knowledge and ignorance, truth and denialism. My mind ever returns to the topic, because it is impossible to ignore in this media-saturated modern world. There are worthy things to debate and criticize, but it is rare to come across much of worth amidst all the noise, all the opinionating and outrage.

I don’t want to just dismiss it all. I don’t want to ignore it and live blissfully in my own private reality or my own narrow media bubble. I feel compelled to understand the world around me. I actually do care about what makes people tick, not just to better persuade them to my own view, but more importantly to understand humanity itself.

Still, noble aspirations aside, it can be frustrating and I often let it show. Why do we make everything so hard? Why do we fight tooth and nail against being forced to face reality? Humans are strange creatures.

At some point, yet more argument seems pointless. No amount of data and evidence will change anything. We can’t deal with even relatively minor problems. Hope seems like an act of desperation in face of the more immense global challenges. Humanity will change when we are forced to change, when maintaining the status quo becomes impossible.

It is irrational to expect most humans to be rational about almost anything of significance. But that doesn’t mean speaking out doesn’t matter.

I considered offering some detailed thoughts and observations, but I already expressed my self a bit in another post. Instead, I’ll just point to a somewhat random selection of what others have already written, a few books and articles I’ve come across recently—my main focus has been climate change:

Apocalypse Soon: Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return?
By Madhusree Mukerjee

It’s the End of the World as We Know It . . . and He Feels Fine
By Daniel Smith

Learning to Die in the Antrhopocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization
By Roy Scranton

Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed – And What it Means for Our Future
By Dale Jamieson

Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World
By Timothy Morton

Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor
By Rob Nixon

The Culture of Make Believe
By Derrick Jensen

The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life
By Eviatar Zerubavel

States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering
By Stanley Cohen

Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life
By Kari Marie Norgaard

Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change
By George Marshall

What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action
by Per EspenStoknes

How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate
By Andrew Hoffman

The Republican War on Science
By Chris Mooney

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future
By Donald R. Prothero

Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand
By Haydn Washington

Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming
By James Hoggan

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
By Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway

The man who studies the spread of ignorance
By Georgina Kenyon

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate
By Naomi Klein

Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations: Process of Creative Self-Destruction
By Christopher Wright & Daniel Nyberg

Exxon: The Road Not Taken
By Neela Banerjee

Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA
By E.G. Vallianatos

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil
By Timothy Mitchell

Democracy Inc.: How Members Of Congress Have Cashed In On Their Jobs
By The Washington Post, David S. Fallis, Scott Higham (Author), Dan Keating, & Kimberly Kindy

Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism
By Sheldon S. Wolin