As I write, a bomb cyclone has turned much of the continental United States into an ice palace. In Wyoming the temperature dropped 40°, from 43° to 3°, in a half an hour, breaking all records. NBC reports 55 dead in a “once-in-a-lifetime” blizzard. The New York Times reports 29 people died in western New York state. The dead included, “people found trapped in their cars and those who had “cardiac-related events” while removing snow from driveways outside their homes and businesses I email my 82-year-old retired doctor friend in Woods Hole, “How are you doing?” after I look up the temperature there and see that it’s 15°. He’s doing fine. He sends pictures of snow in his front yard. He’s got an insulated house, heat pumps, and radiant floor heating– the comforts money can buy. Others are not so lucky.
The article in the New York Times and NBC news report do not mention climate change. It’s hard to believe the subject never occurred to the reporters or their editors. So why not add a paragraph quoting a climate scientist on the subject. Were they concerned if they interviewed one saying, yes, these events are going to become more common, because of climate change they would need to interview another with an opposing opinion, and readers would lose interest. Or is there some other reason?
When a white man, Derek Chauvin, murdered a Black man, George Floyd in broad daylight before a chorus of witnesses it was hard not to think “racism.” But the word did not appear in news reports about the event, until streets around the world filled with crowds shouting in unison “Black Lives Matter.” Then the word was out, people were interviewed saying it, and by the saying and shouting and thinking of that word the murder of George Floyd was linked to every murder of a Black man by cops, every beating ever administered by cops to a Black body, every humiliation, every abuse ever heaped on Black person, because of the color of their skin. That word provided the concept, which encompasses all the myriad manifestations of a single malignancy; with the aid of that concept, we can follow links of causation that lead to their common poisoned root.
This “once-in-a-lifetime,” “record-breaking” event will not bring crowds into the streets, muffled and gloved, shouting, “Abolish Oil Companies!” “Abolish Capitalism!” “No to fossil fuels!” “Ban the Bomb Cyclone!” There will be no interviews with protesters standing in the snow saying “It can’t go on. It mustn’t go on. It is an abomination. It is an insult. It’s our death.” There will be no demonstrations, demanding climate justice for human beings and other species on the planet. Why? Because there is no obvious human perpetrator standing over the bodies of those 55 dead as Derek Chauvin stood over the body of George Floyd. There’s no one around to blame. The deadly force that killed them was not applied by any obvious human agent. There was no knee on the neck of the 55 who died in the blizzard, nor on the necks of the folks who keeled over shoveling their driveways. Or perhaps, since they, like all of us, spewed carbon into the atmosphere during their lifetime, everyone’s knee was on their neck, including their own. Their culpability can be measured in parts per million. As is true for all of us. Yes, the fossil fuel industry is on our neck. Yes, capitalism is on our neck. But when the storm hits, the fossil fuel industry and capitalism are nowhere near the scene of the crime. In fact there is no crime. The laws of thermodynamics do the dirty work. They don’t wear a badge, and they can’t be appealed. So people don’t protest at gas stations because the temperature drops precipitously and someone dies of the cold, as they do in front of the police precinct when a cop kills another Black man and a passerby captured the event on their cell phone.
So what is to be done? Provide more information? Many have tried and are trying. Bill McKibben, for one, has contributed a steady stream of books and articles. In 1989, he published The End of Nature; in 2010, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet; in 2019, Falter: Has the Human Game Began to Play Itself Out? The titles tell the tale. Eaatth carries a Barbara Kingsolver blurb on the cover. She writes: “What I have to say about this book is very simple. Read it, please. Straight through to the end. Whatever else you were planning to do next, nothing could be more important.” A Jane Meyer blurb is on the back cover of Falter: “It’s not an exaggeration to say that Bill McKibben has written a book so important, reading it might save your life, not to mention your home: Planet Earth.” McKibben’s books are bestsellers. Many people read them. And some who have read them have taken action. As usual, it’s mostly the young, who see the bigger picture, ask the deeper questions, and throw themselves into the struggle. They have a freedom to think and act easily lost as obligations pile up to earn a living, support a family, etc. But “young people” cannot make a revolution by themselves. The lack of attachment, which gives them the freedom to act is also their limitation. “Young people” need “the People”, or shall we say simply, they need people – lots of them, need them to get in their gut that their life depends on climate action, because their life is being turned to shit, and the fuckers are getting away with it. The young need to be joined by the families of the men who died shoveling snow in their driveways, and of all those who died trapped in their vehicles by a “once-in-a-lifetime” blizzard, and by their friends and everyone who gives a damn. Perhaps that day is coming. Perhaps not soon enough.