My Future as an Environmental Casualty
For the next two days, the Boston area is experiencing extremely high pollen levels - 11.8 on a 12 point scale. And the pollen levels will continue above 10 points all week until it finally rains next weekend. This is highly unusual. Even for a city like Boston that often has fairly high pollen levels between spring and fall. Climate experts say it’s the result of the second warmest winter on record hereabouts - and the warmest March on record. Plants are growing earlier than normal and pollinating earlier than normal. And different pollen seasons are overlapping more than they normally would. So huge amounts of pollen are being produced, and the drought we’re experiencing is causing dry conditions … which in turn allow any wind to blow pollen around more than it would if we were getting normal amounts of rain. For someone with environmental allergies and asthma like myself, these kinds of pollen levels - mostly for tree allergies which aren’t even my worst environmental allergies - make me feel ill. Sick enough, in fact, that I have to avoid going outdoors at all. Difficult for the urban journalist on the go, I can assure you. And for any working adult.
But it’s not just allergies that pin me down in my apartment for over a dozen days a year like the proverbial “bubble boy” (that people love to joke about with me). It’s the growing number of extreme weather days of all kinds that make life difficult for me, and millions of other people like me around the US and around the world. When the weather gets extremely cold - like 25 degrees Fahrenheit or under - it’s not safe for me to go out much. Although climate change may or may not cause less extremely cold days to occur each winter, still hard to say. When the weather is 90 degrees Fahrenheit or over - which is happening more and more often, it’s also not safe for me to go out much. If it’s over 90 degrees and humid, it’s even worse. If it’s over 90 degrees and humid and we’re having an air quality alert day - largely from particulate matter blown here on prevailing winds from power plants and heavy industry in New York City and the Midwest - I have a good deal of trouble even when indoors with air conditioning running.
All this makes me worry quite a bit. I’m already middle aged. I’ve never had great health largely because of having chronic allergies and asthma. And it’s believed that I have these problems because of existing environmental crises in the industrial town north of Boston where I grew up that caused many kids to get environmental allergies and asthma. Namely, breathing the effluent from the dirty Salem power plant when the wind was right, and the fact that I grew up in a town with working factories. And that my family lived directly in front of an industrial park - meaning that diesel trucks drove by my house 24/7/365. And let’s not forget about all the interesting chemicals I was doubtless exposed to while running around polluted streams, fields and woods … and playing at the aforementioned industrial park. Or the junior high I attended for two years right next to a major chemical plant. Or the two major highways that converged right near my family’s place.
So with an already compromised immune system, I have to wonder how I’m going to be able to cope with more and more “bad days” as global warming accelerates. I’ve been following the science of global warming since the mid-1980s. For the last quarter century, I’ve been among the legion of environmental activists warning that global warming was going to really mess up the human civilization that created it by the early 21st century.
And now we’re in the second decade of that century, and global warming is definitely happening. And getting worse. And the US government isn’t doing a damned thing to stop it, but is instead working at the behest of polluting industries, energy conglomerates, and go-go capitalists of all stripes to accelerate it. And the same thing is happening in many other countries. And the few countries that have leadership that really understands the magnitude of the crisis are either too weak to sway world politics in the direction of sanity or find such leaders overthrown by corporate-backed candidates - or, as was recently the case for the environmentalist president of the Maldive Islands Mohamed Nasheed, corporate-backed military coups with the blessing of the US government. And the Maldives are high on the list of island nations to be entirely submerged by global warming induced rising sea levels sometime in the next few decades. If they can’t keep an environmentalist government in power, who can?
With all this in the background, I’m already kept inside by high heat and/or bad allergies and/or poor air quality (or sometimes cold air) for at least a couple of weeks a year. What if we have a month of days with 90 plus degree heat on average? I mean, here in Boston. A northern American city where that kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen. What about two months. What if a week or more of those days are over 100 degrees? What if weeks of allergy days top the 12 point allergy scale?
What am I and all the people like me going to do then? Forget all the even more major problems that global warming is going to produce … like global drought, and collapsing food production. Forget that we’re running out of easily available fossil fuels; so that the transport network our food distribution system relies on is highly vulnerable to failure in the absence of major initiatives for zero carbon energy solutions. Forget the destruction of the forests, the oceans, and the concomitant rise in CO2 levels (which in turn spurs plant growth and increases the global pollen load).
We’ve all heard a lot of promises about the wonders that advances in biology, genetics and medicine hold for people like me in the not-too-distant future. But that future never seems to arrive. Especially with most biologists and geneticists working for corporations on projects that have much more to do with increasing profits on existing product lines - and patenting life the better to make a profit off of privatizing nature - than they do with trying to expand human knowledge for the benefit of all. And with fewer medical doctors getting the public support they need to do basic research.
So I’m not holding my breath for a “cure” for asthma or allergies. Approaching a half century on this planet, there have been very few significant medical advances that make living with either condition easy. Current asthma meds can keep my lungs working pretty much like a normal person’s in normal conditions. But I’m still very sensitive to negative changes in my environment. And anyone who knows me can tell you that the asthma meds don’t stop me from coughing all the time. Day in, day out. Cough, cough, cough.
Some of which is caused by the allergies. And current allergy meds are really not much of an improvement on the allergy meds of my childhood at all. In fact, the medical regimen of last resort for bad environmental allergies remains allergy shots … which is basically warmed-over homeopathy. The shots themselves are risky to the patient, and their medical efficacy is debatable. For many patients there’s no improvement at all. For many others, there’s only a vague sense of improvement, but that can be hard to quantify. And any salutary effects of shots don't last forever. They have to be started afresh years down the line.
Even if cures were found to allergies, asthma and a host of related conditions, in an America where millions of people have been suckered into inveighing against any kind of serious national healthcare program, how are most people like me going to be able to afford them?
I really don’t know. So I can try to ignore the mounting number of days I have to hide from a world that’s making me sick as the years go by. And I'm glad that modern technology at least has advanced enough to allow me a decent level of productivity for work I can do digitally. But I can’t help wondering when it’s all going to become impossible to ignore, and I’m going to find myself an invalid and a shut-in. With no way of making a living - even at a keyboard. As the economy gets ever worse. As power outages become endemic. As food and water shortages become chronic. As systems of all kinds - including the healthcare system I need to live at all normally - simply break down for most people. And the government loses its way entirely. Because it’s serving the rich and powerful, rather than working families. And families with children, grandparents and sick people like me.
Maybe it won’t be that bad. Maybe humanity will get a lucky break. Maybe the political situation will improve after great struggle, and we’ll stave off the worst. Maybe there will be big scientific breakthroughs that will solve the energy crisis, food and water crises, and perhaps even the climate crisis itself. Maybe they’ll find cures for a bunch of environmentally related medical problems like asthma and allergies and thousands of others besides.
But either way, remember something.
People like me are canaries in the coal mine of humanity’s future. If we go, the rest of you are following not too long afterwards.
So keep that in mind. And when you see a chance to fight for a better future … then take it. And take your best shot.
And make it count.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston