Heat is the human rights issue of the 21st century

Heat is the human rights issue of the 21st century

Vann R. Newkirk II writes:

Consider the cantaloupe. It’s a decent melon. If you, like me, are the sort who constantly mixes them up, cantaloupes are the orange ones, and honeydews are green. If you, like me, are old enough to remember vacations, you might have had them along with their cousin, watermelon, at a hotel’s breakfast buffet. Those spreads are not as bad as you remember, especially when it’s hot out; add a couple of cold bagels and a pat of unmelted butter and it’s a party.

Maybe you want the cool, refreshing mildness of a melon cup at home. Unless there’s a good fruit stand nearby and cantaloupe is in season, that means taking a trip to the grocery store. Maybe you’ll stroll down aisles kept just cool enough to make the skin on your arms prickle. You’ll browse refrigerated produce shelves doused in cold water every so often. Then you’ll find it: the perfect cantaloupe. It’s round and rough, with no dimples or spots. When you thump it, there’s a satisfying, muffled thud. It’s a sweet one.

Consider how the cantaloupe got there. It likely took a long ride to the supermarket or the hotel kitchen in a truck cooled to just above freezing. Maybe, like many melons, it was planted, picked, and packed on a plantation in the town of Choluteca, in southern Honduras, before it began its careful ballet of climate control.

Workers told me they aren’t allowed phones in the fields in Choluteca, so they don’t always know exactly how hot it is. But during the growing season on the Fyffes melon plantation, temperatures hover in the mid-30s in Celsius—the mid-to-upper 90s in Fahrenheit. The sun broils the open spaces where workers chop the melons from their stems. The heat is overwhelming and omnipresent, an overseer whose hand is always heavy, and whose eye is never distracted.

Workers have told me of conditions that push the human body to its limits—sometimes, past them. Protective gloves are prohibited, they say, so their hands bleed from the rough work handling plants that are doused in corrosive chemicals. Pickers say they are hesitant to show any signs of weakness or illness, fearing that taking time off or even appearing to be sick while working will result in termination. (A Fyffes spokesperson told me that gloves are always provided upon request, and are mandatory in certain parts of the packhouse where workers handle chemicals, and that unwell workers receive sick days and are required to see a doctor.)

But the most common complaint is the most elemental: It’s damn hot in the fields. “El calor es bien fuerte,” one woman, 25, told me. She didn’t want to reveal her name for fear of retaliation, but she said she’d worked on a farm in Choluteca for four years, shuffling through almost every job available, from cleaning the facilities to picking the fruit. Many people who have worked for decades are marked by skin blemishes that, even if they’re not yet cancerous, aren’t all benign: hives, rashes, and chocolate-colored splotches. The spokesperson for Fyffes told me that the workers start very early in the morning to avoid the heat as much as possible, and are provided cold water and hats to shield them from the sun. But even for workers who begin in the dark, when sun and heat and exertion act together over long periods of time, the effects can be worrisome. “Varias mujeres se desmayan,” the same worker said. “Se les sube la presión … todo eso.” They faint. Their blood pressure spikes. And they keep working.

Thousands of miles separate the fields of Honduras and the continental breakfasts in the States. But these are terminals of a single, continuous system. Heat bears down most on the global working poor and developing countries, while their wealthier planetmates are able to evade the worst of the warming. What’s more, consumption by those wealthier folks helps create the warming, which in turn robs the poor of opportunity and walls off economic mobility. Garment workers in Cambodia and Bangladesh toil in sweatshops to sew the moisture-wicking fabrics that make summer in Phoenix or Miami or Washington, D.C., bearable. In Qatar, itinerant workers labor at the outer edge of human survivability to fabricate air-conditioned hotels, malls, and arenas for the rich. And thousands of families flee environmental pressures in Central America only to find themselves suffering from the heat in the United States.

Scientists and people with good sense around the world recognize the manifold perils of a climate crisis: an onslaught of tropical systems in the Atlantic Ocean, the relentless burn of wildfires in California and Oregon, the hundred-year floods that now encroach annually. Less appreciated, perhaps, are the direct effects of that increasing warmth on human bodies and communities. Heat is already often deadly, and even below fatal thresholds it is a grinding attrition that saps personal and economic vitality a little more each day. In the coming century, when wealth inequality will likely increase and the spaces where humans can live comfortably will shrink, the heat gap between rich and poor might be the world’s most daunting challenge. It will reflect existing wealth disparities, but will also deepen them. It will destroy some bodies, while others are spared. It will spark uprisings and set the stage for conflict, both between and within nations. In a hot world, the heat gap will be a defining manifestation of inequality. [Continue reading…]

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