Our Summer Vacation: 20,000 Dead
Our Summer Vacation: 20,000 Dead
In July 1995, the administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley in
By the second day of the heat wave, overcrowded hospitals were closing their doors to the critically ill and paramedics were unable to respond to the deluge of emergency calls. Medical workers warned of a death epidemic and begged for help.
But the Daley Jr. machine bunkered itself in denial and inaction. Heat mortality among the forgotten poor received less attention than had winter snow days, which caused few deaths but greatly inconvenienced suburban commuters and
City hall stonewalled the media: "What disaster?" As bodies overflowed the morgue, the Mayor, complained to reporters. "It's hot. But let's not blow it out of proportionâ€¦ Every day people die of natural causes."
Klinenberg's approach is generally shared by public health analysts. Indeed, the lessons of
An Avoidable Massacre
These reports, whose findings have now been widely adopted in North American cities, advocate early warning systems, the immediate opening of neighborhood "cooling centers," door-to-door searches for ill seniors, adequate summer staffing of hospitals, and the subsidizing of air-conditioning in low-income apartments.
This literature is now scientifically canonical, easily accessible on the internet, and well known to European professionals. The lesson of the
Yet this August, the vulnerable poor were again massacred under analogous social conditions and by Chicago-like responses. In
The overall European death toll is probably the equivalent to five or more World Trade Centers: at least 20,000 victims and probably more. Official estimates are at least 11,400 in
While the Euro-right blames the 35-hour-week and the collapse of family values for these atrocities, the Left must be relentless in holding neo-liberal policies accountable. Socialists must demand the kind of 'social autopsy' -- of which Klinenberg's study provides an admirable model -- that lays bare the causative roles of poverty, unaffordable housing, and underfunded public services, as well as the collapse of intergenerational solidarity.
In face of this small mountain of corpses, moreover, it can no longer be taken for granted that European neo-liberalism is actually more 'compassionate' than its more raptor-like American cousin. After all, it takes a pretty big hole in the vaunted social safety net for 20,000 or more people to fall through.
Our Nonlinear Future
But what of the strange Augusts yet to come? How should we address the increasingly violent interaction between environmental change and the late-capitalist city?
First -- to stay within a public health framework -- there is growing evidence of a sinister synergy between heat stress, traffic, and air pollution. The post-Chicago studies generally focused on hyperthermia and dehydration, paying little attention to air quality per se. But French scientists now believe that high ozone levels were a key factor in as many as 3000 deaths. August holiday gridlock may now be deadly in a double sense. This is why groups like Greenpeace are renewing calls for temporary or permanent traffic moratoriums in major urban centers.
Second, August was a vivid illustration of the kind of "unnatural" history we must come to expect as the norm. This will not be a history slowly unreeling itself in tidy linear progression, as in biographies of Victorian liberals. More likely, the dialectic of global warming and neo-liberalism - especially the Bushite doctrine of "consuming all the good things of the earth in our lifetime" - will produce a non-linear roller-coaster ride between unpredictable disasters.
Let me share with you my summer nightmare. It is a much scarier story than any of those by Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King.
While the pavements were boiling in
The nightmare part is not rising sea levels since ice already displaces its water volume. Rather it is the radical change in "albedo," the amount of solar energy reflected from the surface. Right now Arctic ice is a huge mirror sending heat back to space; remove the ice, however, and the clear blue sea absorbs immense additional amounts of solar energy.
Warming, as a result, will suddenly accelerate. At least in geophysical terms, it could prove a far more drastic blow to Gaia than even nuclear winter.
Indeed, he points out that something like this actually happened 12,000 years ago: it was called the Younger Dryas event. Incredibly this shift of global climate regimes took less than a decade to occur. Indeed, abrupt climate change is one of the fundamental scientific discoveries of our lifetime.
Global capitalism is the runaway train on which we're all held hostage. And each extreme summer may be inching us closer to the precipice of catastrophic environmental change.
Copyright C2003 Mike Davis
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]