I Don’t Know How To Tell You This, But You’re Drowning

White-led organizations all across the United States are flailing. As I wrote previously, a lot of “listening” is suddenly happening. There’s also been an exhausting amount of newsletter writing. I’m reminded of an incident – that occurred a few years before my birth, but is emblematic of the toxic, post-Reaganite politics of the Idaho of my childhood – when then Representative (and now disgraced former Senator) Larry Craig – a “family values conservative” – “pre-emptively denied any connection to the [page] scandal before he’d been named publicly.” Umm, Larry, did anyone suggest you were involved?

It’s great that all these orgs are suddenly discovering their vocal “anti-racist” identities (just as it would have been great if Craig had come out as gay and stopped pursuing viciously anti-LGBTQIA+ agendas in Congress), but when the Guggenheim is sending me emails to let me know how committed the museum is to racial justice, well… Actions speak louder than words, so let’s see.

Great to see the rapidly evolving public dialogue around police brutality and what to do about it. As with the pandemic, and the mass crash course in epidemiology which it precipitated, the nationwide uprising has catalyzed previously almost unimaginable (or at least unimaginably rapid) shifts in our discourse around policing. Attending the CR 10 Conference in 2008 was an eye-opening experience for me; I’d read Angela Davis, Iceberg Slim, and others, so was at least familiar with the term “prison abolition” before that weekend, but can’t say I’d really grasped its significance or understood that it was rallying cry of a movement, and in the twelve years since, I’ve rarely heard it used outside of activist and academic contexts, so it’s been remarkable to see conversations about the difference between defunding and outright abolition of the police suddenly take center stage nationally. (This conversation between Mehdi Hasan and Patrisse Cullors is a helpful primer for readers looking to delve deeper into the distinction.) The emergence of a non-reformist (that is, radical) reform agenda is, in my view, encouraging, and represents a big step beyond the milquetoast liberalism of #8cantwait, though stops well short of the overthrow of the US Government which I know some on the Left are still working towards…

We know there have been crisis windfalls for corporations (most notably, in the form of the disaster capitalist bailouts undertaken by the Fed and Congress, but also for Amazon, Zoom, and other companies that have benefitted directly from pandemic-related shifts in the economy), but I’ve been interested to note – in tandem with the lightening quick reversals in public discourse mentioned above – the remarkable rises to prominence of previously obscure activists, academics, and journalists as their once marginal areas of specialty suddenly become focal points of national concern. (I’m impressed that Alex Vitale can still speak at this point, he’s given so many interviews in the past two weeks.) To that end, I’m featuring today a few excerpts from the work of Sonia Shah (with whom I’d not been familiar until my own stint in COVID University). What follows are images from her 2017 book, Pandemic (it’s about pandemics). Her examination of the emergence of novel vector-borne illnesses in the Northeast United States has particular resonance after this piece on Eastern Equine Encephalitis (entitled, “A Deadly Mosquito-Borne Illness Is Brewing in the Northeast”) spurred hysteria on Northeast Twitter last night. (Here’s a primer on the disease, also known as EEE – tl;dr: It’s like a very severe form of West Nile Virus, and seems to have been present in the US since the 1800s, although climate change and land-use patterns appear to be driving increased levels of human infection.)

Without further ado, Sonia Shah (from pages 30 to 32 and 38 and 39 of Pandemic):

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“The Enduring Phenomenon of Mosquito Biting”

Biodiversity and intact ecosystems tended to protect human populations from infection by West Nile Virus.

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Inexorable Spread

“[I]t spread inexorably” is not a phrase one ever likes to hear relative to a deadly disease, and yet, we do seem to be hearing just such usage of that phrase with ever greater frequency this century. Although Shah doesn’t explicitly make this point above, warmer temperatures in the Northeast (driven by anthropogenic climate disruption) are conducive to longer and more severe mosquito seasons.

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“Tick Populations Exploded”

Here’s an amazing sentence not pictured above: “These [now largely vanished chipmunks, weasels, and opossums] imposed a limit on the local tick population, for a single opossum, through grooming, destroyed nearly six thousand ticks per week.” Six thousand per week! That’s hard to fathom. That’s nearly 1,000 ticks per day, so nearly 50 per hour on average, assuming opossums only sleep four hours daily. Anyway, that built-in ecological check on tick populations no longer functions because humans gutted the ecological integrity of the forests of the Northeast. It wasn’t all humans who did this, of course, though, and as we look back at post-World War II history, it should be clear that racism – in the form of White Flight, and Federal highway and housing policies, that incentivized urban sprawl – actual played an instrumental role in this environmental destruction.

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“First Erupt […] Then Randomly Skip”
I include this only because the hypothetical description of the spread of “a modern pandemic of influenza” reflects, more or less exactly, how COVID-19 actually spread from December through March of this year.

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“A Series of Waves, Radiating Outward”

“A Series of Waves, Radiating Outward” is a beautiful phrase with frightening consequences that we’re now living through.

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When Simulation Becomes Reality

As we now know, New York did serve as a sort of second epicenter for the global spread of COVID-19. Speaking of which, friendly reminder that even as New York seems, now, to be doing a much better job than many other US states in containing the disease, 425 people still tested positive for COVID-19 yesterday in NYC, and for Wednesday, June 3rd – the day when many major news outlets reported there were no confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the City – the City’s official data portal now shows 28 deaths. That’s a lot more than zero, but I’ve yet to see any corrections or retractions.

Ross Barkan Tweets: “As New York reopens, beware the Andrew Cuomo victory narrative. He will say he saved New York from the worst of COVID-19. Nearly 30,000 people died. He failed tragically and miserably to avert catastrophe.” The Intercept slams Bill de Blasio’s broken promises and failed courage regarding police reform. “Satellite data suggests coronavirus may have hit China earlier” than previously believed, according to Harvard researchers. (Here’s the actual study.) “Widespread mask-wearing could prevent COVID-19 second waves” in tandem with social distancing and more limited lockdown measures, according to British researchers. (Study doesn’t seem to be widely available yet.) Zoom collaborated with the Chinese Government to silence activists commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre. Natural gas is not, and never was, a bridge fuel, and natural gas stoves are probably much worse for our health than we previously realized. And “A Drop in Sulfate Emissions During the Coronavirus Lockdown Could Intensify Arctic Heatwaves” according a new paper in Nature Climate Change. (This related piece from February outlines how certain forms of air pollution actually serve to mitigate global heating and hence reduce wealth disparities between rich and poor nations.)

Here’s a funny picture to take the edge off.

We live in a complex world, subject to non-linear dynamics and interactions that are hard to map and even harder to foresee. In thinking about the emergence of novel infectious diseases in the US, I think we have a perfect example of how climate crisis, contagion (though not the COVID-19 pandemic in particular), and white supremacy/structural racism intersect in toxic and deadly fashion. Ecological devastation and warming temperatures set the stage for explosions in populations of insect vectors (that now enjoy longer breeding seasons and expanded geographical ranges) just as the land-use changes (read: Sub/exurbanization) which drove much of the recent ecological devastation in the Northeast United States in the first place further serve to bring human populations into more regular proximity with the vector insects and their non-human animal hosts, while at the level of human politics, ideologies and policies – rooted in 400+ years of white supremacist, settler-colonial, hetero-patriarchal capitalism (its a mouthful, I know, but is there a better way to put it?) – continue to fuel patterns of extractivist dispossession through real estate speculation and resource plunder.

What’s to be done? Yesterday, I wrote about a new orientation in politics that invites a unification, not just of the Left, but of all people who are committed to life on earth. What remains to be seen, in the near term, is how the millions of previously apolitical/moderate/centrist individuals – who, in this country, have been participating in or supporting the nationwide uprising against police brutality spurred by the murder of George Floyd – will respond as they begin to grasp the broader ramifications of the movement of which they’ve nominally become a part. At a time of great, justified, popular anger (see: The pandemic, etc.), it’s easy to get behind police reform and increased spending on social welfare, but a truly life-affirming politics, in my view, necessitates confrontations with both capitalism and colonization, and, in the United States, those will be much harder conversations.

2 thoughts on “I Don’t Know How To Tell You This, But You’re Drowning

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