The news has been pretty unrelenting lately. I don't have to tell you. I'm sure you've been listening.
Friday, May 28, 2010
A large part of the U.S. southern coastline is dying. A great sea may be dying. The country's second largest fishery is closed, for the foreseeable future, because all the fish are clogged with oil, dying, and fatal to consume. A not-inconsequential slice of the world's biodiversity is being lost, now - right now - choking on heavy crude, poisoned by toxic sludge. If I think too long about the suffering - about each individual uncomprehending animal becoming sick and then dying in pain, I start to cry.
An entire industry - a major industry - has been utterly destroyed. No-one will make a living fishing in Louisiana for a generation. If Prince William Sound is any guide, the coastline will not recover in thirty years. The effects of the massive loads of chemical dispersant used are totally unknown - but it is known that while oil is toxic at 11 ppm, the dispersant is toxic at 2 ppm. Russian scientists felt compelled to issue a report detailing the possibility - albeit remote - of the dispersant being taken up via evaporation and rained down on the entire east coast in toxic concentrations.
Where the hell are all the people who depend on the gulf going to go? Would you stay, if your home had been ruined - yes, ruined? Would you want to raise your children in a place where you had no livelihood and where it was very likely that the water they drink and the dirt they play in is poison? If there were no chance that they could enjoy the way of life you grew up with and loved?
I sure as hell wouldn't, not if I had anywhere else to go.
My husband just spent a few days in Oaxaca, Mexico, his hometown. Oaxaca is a medium sized city, about a half million people, and fifteen years ago was about as idyllic a place as you'd find anywhere in a developing nation. Sure, there was the usual grinding poverty and shocking living conditions; the corruption and the lack of law enforcement and social services that Mexicans everywhere endure, but even so, it was a beautiful city. American and European tourists flocked there to see the colonial architecture and the pre-Columbian cities, the world-class museums, and to enjoy the shady tree-lined avenues and visit the fantastic open air markets.
Homero hadn't been home in more than four years. He says he didn't recognize the place. There have of course been some changes specific to Oaxaca - political upheavals - but for the most part, the changes are those that are numbingly typical in nearly every sizable city in Mexico, our southern neighbor and ally.
Drought. Municipal water used to be delivered for an hour or two every day (imagine that, already, fellow Americans! Imagine you have to stay home and wait for the water to come on so you can be there to run the hose and fill up all your barrels. Imagine those are the good times), but now service is much more irregular. My mother-in-law hasn't received any tap-water for more than two weeks. Water in ten-gallon jars can be bought for drinking and cooking, but it's expensive and no-one can afford to use it for showering or washing clothes. The water situation is so bad that when my husband arrived, after five days driving, there was not enough water for him to take a shower. He and his mother walked to his grandmother's house to see if they had water there. She had some stored, but only very reluctantly parted with a bucket-full for Homero to bathe with.
Imagine, when water is so scarce that you can't offer your own son a bucket full to wash off the road-grime. In Mexico City - no-one knows how many people live there but estimates range from 11 to 20 million - water has been rationed for years. In the past, rationing was inconvenient. Now, it may be a matter of life and death for the very poor. When Homero was telling me about going to his brother-in-law's house, where the municipal water had recently been flowing, to fill a few barrels and return them to his mother's house in a pick-up truck, I asked him "what do the poor do?"
"God knows," he said.
Beg, I suppose. Beg for water.
Poor is relative, of course. You might guess from what I have described that my husband's family is poor. But they aren't - they are solidly middle class. In the immediate family are two physicians, an accountant, and an engineer. In Oaxaca, doctors can't afford water. In Mexico City, college professors can't afford water.
What would you do?
Yeah, me too.
I don't care how many troops Obama sends to the border - I don't care what kind of hideous, unjust laws we pass (I'm talking to you, Arizona), people are going to come here. From Mexico, from China, from the Gulf-freaking-Coast. If it were your children's life on the line, you'd come too, hell if you wouldn't. You'd break every law known to God and man to provide your children with clean water, not to mention a chance at a decent education, right? I would.
So get ready. If you live somewhere with abundant clean water, a mild climate (temperatures were over 100 degrees day and night in Oaxaca while my husband was there), and decent government services, people are going to come where you are.
What am I suggesting, razor wire and submachine guns?
No you twit, I'm not a fucking tea-party fascist. When I see people in desperate need headed my way, I don't think about how to head them off at the point of a gun, but instead about how I'm going to offer them succor. How am I going to prepare, how am I going to marshall my resources, how am I going to provide for my family while also providing hospitality?
If I, right now, rich as I am, were to show up at my mother-in-law's house - or most likely any other Oaxacan's house - she would do everything in her power to offer me a decent meal and a clean bed. The law of hospitality has been a cultural universal for thousands of years, and the harder the circumstances, the more uncompromising the commandment. Read the bible, if you are so inclined. Honor the stranger among you - that was written by a desert people who knew the value of a cup of clear water.
Alas, I don't have a lot of hope that we, as a society, are going to act ethically and charitably towards the hundreds of thousands of climate refugees who are headed our way over the next twenty or so years. I do not believe (and it pains me more than I can say to have to express this) that our government will extend the hand of welcome - or even the palm of tolerance - towards the needy families who will be asking for help. Current events and current opinion polls show me the very opposite: that freedom-loving American people are in favor of arresting and imprisoning people on suspicion alone.
That being the case - before I slide into bitterness and despair - what can I, or anyone else who wants to be part of a loving solution, do? Admitting that few people give except out of largesse, I suggest we start redefining largesse in a resource-poor world, and planning to produce it.
I'm not a saint - if it's a choice between feeding someone else's kids and feeding my own (or even my own mouth), I know what I'm choosing. So how do I avoid making that choice? Or other, harder choices that I do not want to have to live with? Do you think I am being overly-dramatic? Don't you remember the small-town policemen drawing their service guns on the Katrina refugees who were trying to cross that bridge? I remember. I was horrified - but I wasn't there. The news these days is forcing me to contemplate what I would do - specifically, honestly - if I find myself there.
What will being "rich" look like in the brave new world? I hope it looks a little brighter than simply having enough water to stay clean. I hope it means having enough to share. Enough water, enough food, enough space, enough love.
I plan to be among the rich.
I plan to have enough to share.
I plan to be able to help.