It is undeniably horrific that more than 2.8 million people have died of Covid-19 in the past 15 months. In roughly the same period, however, more than three times as many likely died of air pollution. This should disturb us for two reasons. One is the sheer number of air pollution deaths – 8.7 million a year, according to a recent study – and another is how invisible those deaths are, how accepted, how unquestioned. The coronavirus was a terrifying and novel threat, which made its dangers something much of the world rallied to try to limit. It was unacceptable – though by shades and degrees, many places came to accept it, by deciding to let the poor and marginalized take the brunt of sickness and death and displacement and to let medical workers get crushed by the workload.
We have learned to ignore other forms of death and destruction, by which I mean we have normalized them as a kind of moral background noise. This is, as much as anything, the obstacle to addressing chronic problems, from gender violence to climate change. What if we treated those 8.7 million annual deaths from air pollution as an emergency and a crisis – and recognized that respiratory impact from particulates is only a small part of the devastating impact of burning fossil fuels? For the pandemic we succeeded in immobilizing large populations, radically reducing air traffic, and changing the way many of us live, as well as releasing vast sums of money as aid to people financially devastated by the crisis. We could do that for climate change, and we must – but the first obstacle is the lack of a sense of urgency, the second making people understand that things could be different.
I have devoted much of my writing over the past 15 years to trying to foreground two normalized phenomena, violence against women and climate change. For all of us working to bring public attention to these crises, a major part of the problem is trying to get people engaged with something that is part of the status quo. We are designed to respond with alarm to something that just happened, that breaches norms, but not to things that have been going on for decades or centuries. The first task of most human rights and environmental movements is to make the invisible visible and to make what has long been accepted unacceptable. This has of course been done to some extent, with coal-burning power plants and with fracking in some places, but not with the overall causes of climate chaos. [Continue reading…]