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The Crisis of Normalization

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Human beings have an incredible capacity to normalize changes in our environment.  On May 27, 2020 the New York Times lead headline was “An Incalculable Loss” about how the United States had lost 100,000 people to Covid-19.  Only 2 years later the entire country has moved on – despite there currently being about 500 deaths per day – which averages out at 182,000 every year.  Many epidemiologists and virologists are now arguing that it looks like we can expect at least 100,000 deaths from Covid per year moving forward.

What was an “incalculable loss” is now just normal living.  When my grandparents sunk the well for the home they built in New Hampshire in 1934, it would not have occurred to them to test that well for chemicals because the water that came from aquifers was ALWAYS clean and safe.  But since 1945 we have developed over 87,000 chemicals, and have allowed almost all of them to be regularly dumped into the environment.  Today, the water in the town where I was born is poisoned from a gas leak, the next town over from lead coming from a gun factory, my current hometown by PFAs and PFOAs from teflon manufacturing. We normalize this by buying our Brita pitchers, installing water filters, and just ignoring stories of brain damage from lead poisoning in towns all over America.

The same has happened with the health impacts of burning fossil fuels.  As David Wallace Wells put it so brilliantly last year in a piece in the London Review of Books:

“As many as 8.7 million deaths every year are attributable just to the outdoor particulate matter produced from burning fossil fuels. Add on indoor pollution, and you get an annual toll of more than ten million. That’s more than four times the official worldwide death toll from Covid last year. It’s about twenty times as many as the current annual deaths from war, murder and terrorism combined. Put another way, air pollution kills twenty thousand on an average day, more than have died in the aftermath of all the meltdowns in the history of nuclear power: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima and all the others put together.”

In total about 350,000 Americans die every year just from the particulate matter from fossil fuels impacting their lungs, heart, brain, pregnancies, and more.  But we have normalized it so much that almost no one even knows this, and certainly no one talks about it.  If they did, they might be more upset about the Supreme Court’s recent decision to limit the EPA’s enforcement of the Clean Air Act.  As Wallace Wells points out, “According to the National Resources Defence Council, the US Clean Air Act of 1970 is still saving 370,000 American lives every year – more than would have been saved last year had the pandemic never arrived.“

Thank goodness that in 1970 air and water pollution was not quite as normalized as it is now.

I worry that we will also normalize the impacts of climate change.  There are 4 times as many wildfires in California as there were a decade ago.  The Colorado river has been shrinking for 20 years, and Lake Mead is now so low that it has reduced the electricity production of the Hoover Dam by 40%, and next year it is expected to lower to the point where the Hoover Dam plant will need to shut down.  The world gets hotter every year, and thousands are dying just from the heat.

But it is all just becoming the way it is.  “Yep. It’s hot. Lots of homes lost in that fire. Too bad we can’t go to any of the parks cause of fire.  Did you hear about all those beach houses lost on Plum Island cause of the rising seas……”

Oddly, we don’t normalize breast cancer.  In October we set aside an entire month for breast cancer awareness. In the US about 45,000 people die each year from breast cancer. In the last two years the US has had 20 times that number die of Covid, and 15 times that number die from breathing in particulates from fossil fuels. I am not arguing that we should not have breast cancer awareness, or major cancer funding, or campaigns to stop breast cancer.  I only note that for some reason we have not normalized breast cancer.

Maybe that is because breast cancer is not the result of the work of a major industry like oil and gas.  It is not the result of a critical compound like lead, that for decades was used to keep the knock out of engines, improve the flow of paints, and is still used to make bullets. To be against breast cancer does not require us to stop putting fuel in our cars, or a mask on our face.

So I guess normalization, or indifference to death and suffering, happens when our own personal convenience will be disrupted in order for fewer people to suffer and die. It makes me worry about the fight against climate change.  As we watch droughts and fires in the west and in Europe, and thousands of heat deaths in India and Pakistan, and witness entire countries in the Pacific go under water from sea level rising – will we simply normalize it so that we can continue to burn burgers on our propane grills, fire up our gas fireplaces, take flights to Orlando, and enjoy cruises in the Caribbean? Will health systems normalize it so that they do not need to reduce energy intensity, switch away from burning oil and gas, and embrace renewables? Maybe we already have.


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