We place our most toxic businesses near poor neighborhoods, schools, and other areas where those who are most affected will raise the least protest because they are already so marginalized. We are constantly deciding, as if it is our right, which species of animals and plants can live or die based on how their needs intersect with ours–our needs, of course, taking priority. Like many aspects of systemic or institutional injustice, the list is overwhelming.
Meanwhile, in her age and wisdom, the earth continues to deliver beauty, allowing us to rationalize that the damage being done is negligible or reversible. It is not, and we don’t have to seek out toxic waste sites or oil-slicked seas to discover that. We just need to listen to the most vulnerable among us.
Recently, as I sat in a windowless conference room with about thirty women, we heard a loud noise, like a vacuum cleaner running in an adjoining room. Suddenly, one woman went running out of the room, gasping, “I can’t breathe in here!” Another woman followed, then another. Gradually, the smell of gasoline permeated the room and we discovered that the emissions of a leaf-blower being used outside were being vented directly into our room.
The first woman suffers from a myriad of environmental sensitivities, so she registered the toxins far sooner than the rest of us. She stood outside vomiting and trying to catch her breath. Finally, drained, she said, “Now you understand why I don’t feel safe in this world.”
There we stood, surrounded by the trees and a gentle breeze of a balmy autumn afternoon, struggling for air. We were lucky to have had an early sign of the danger, a canary in our coal mine, but to benefit from it, we had to be willing not to dismiss our sister’s experience or deem her reaction as too sensitive or too weak. We had to be willing to see that what is “wrong” with her is really what is “wrong” with the world around her. We had to be willing to acknowledge that she was not the problem, and to look beyond her for the true problem.
When I returned home from the conference, I discovered that I was in the midst of a week-long asthma attack that I had mistaken for a cold. Suddenly sensitive to dust, strange scents, and any exertion that affected my breathing, I felt like my sister–unsafe in the world. My doctor admits that, even as asthma drugs become more sophisticated, the condition is claiming more and more lives each year.
But we are not losing people at random–we are losing children, women, people who are poor, people who work or live in industrial areas, people who work in the fields. We are losing the vulnerable “canaries in the coal mines” all around us–and we refuse to heed their warnings. In the dominant cultural ethos, we dismiss them as not being strong enough to survive.
As our voracious first-world consumerism grows unabated, our use of pesticides, engineered food, noxious chemicals, and fossil fuels increases exponentially. When we test for the safety levels of these various known toxins, we determine “safe” levels by testing men. Because women menstruate and bear children, they are rarely used in such experiments. Neither are children. Yet the bodies and systems of women and children are very different from those of men. We don’t really know whether something that is deemed “safe” for an adult man is also “safe” for the other two-thirds of the planet’s inhabitants. Add in other factors affecting certain women and children–environmental racism, economic inequality, and limited access to political and social power–and their corresponding suffering of disease and disorders is compounded.
In the face of increasing medical disorders–asthma, environmental sensitivities, immune system disorders, allergies, and even many forms of cancer–the apparent confusion and denial of the medical community is troubling. Their response to the questions about these increases in disease seems to be, “We don’t know.”
I believe we do know. We just aren’t willing to see–or respond. It is easier to continue treating symptoms and developing new, revenue-generating drugs than it is to name these complex and controversial causes. It is even more difficult to begin dismantling the systems that keep the most vulnerable among us hostage to our survival-of-the-fittest mentality.
I have always marveled at bumper stickers that say “Save the Earth.” Perhaps they would be more effective if they said instead “Save Yourself.” For ultimately, we are all more vulnerable than the earth, dependent on this planet and on one another. When the canary died, the miners fled the coal mine. Where would we flee?