It is no surprise to mention how growing up in poverty can greatly limit the quality of one’s future life. There are reduced opportunities to pursue education, jobs don’t pay as well, and the many systems and cycles that make life hard for your seem to be insurmountable. What we don’t often talk about, however, is how pollution is also something that disproportionately impacts the poor. This week’s author, Robin Lovett, talks about this in today’s post – at the end inviting everyone to contribute their energies to the cause of renewable foods in the United States. Read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
I spent the last summer as a hospital chaplain during one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. I provided spiritual and emotional care for patients and their families, and I was assigned to my hospital’s two pediatric units. As a chaplain for a pediatric intensive care unit in a non-trauma hospital, I gratefully did not see many of my patients die. I saw young people of all ages with a variety of grave illnesses, from the tiniest, premature babies recovering from open-heart surgery to twenty-something year-olds suffering from childhood cancers. In the three months I interned as a chaplain, I only witnessed the deaths of two children.
Both died of asthma attacks.
The first was a teenage boy named Alexander, but his family called him Xander. He suffered a major asthma attack, which led to cardiac arrest, which led to brain death. He was on my unit for nearly a week before life-sustaining care was ended. In the days leading up to his death, I learned so much about this boy. He was an athlete at a high-performing school in Chicago. He always had friends around him, and he was always making others smile and laugh. His mother proudly told me about how Xander would spend time with the kids no one else wanted to be around – the bullied kids or the new kids. Similarly, Xander would often bring home abandoned animals to take care of them, like baby birds or lost dogs. His heart, the same one that could not withstand his asthma attack, was big.
The second boy was only eight, and his name was Trey. He had special needs and was non-verbal at baseline. Though he didn’t use words, his parents told me Trey nonetheless would always make sure you knew how he felt – and he was generally happy and excited in his young life. He loved Sponge Bob; he loved to play with his sisters, who adored him. Trey was surrounded by love and tenderness and he returned love and tenderness to the world.
Xander and Trey were very different from each other in life, but their deaths have so much in common – both with each other’s and with thousands of Americans every year who die of asthma attacks. Both Trey and Xander were black and both were from the Chicagoland area, a fact which reflects that asthma rates are highly disparate between different ethnic and geographic communities. Namely, poor children are most likely to die from asthma, especially those children who live in monetarily impoverished areas or children of color, wherever they might live.
And while these two children remain foremost in my memory because of their deaths, I had dozens of children on my unit who were hospitalized because of their severe asthma, most of whom were black.
The disparate rates of asthma depending on where you live, your class, and your race reflect the reality that asthma is not a tragic happenstance – asthma is a man-made disease. Asthma, which kills more than three-thousand six hundred people every year, is created by our collective lack of regard for the natural environment. It is caused by our willingness to pollute the air we breathe. Xander and Trey didn’t die randomly and we, collectively, could have prevented their deaths.
So when I read the Trump administration’s analysis of its own proposed deregulations on coal-burning power-plants, in the so-called “Affordable Clean Energy rule,” my stomach sank. By their own estimates, these deregulations will cost 1,400 lives annually and result in up to 15,000 new cases of upper-respiratory disease. These numbers do not reflect the additional 48,000 cases of asthma caused by the Affordable Clean Energy rule, nor have I yet mentioned the additional deaths and illnesses which would be caused by other efforts of environmental deregulation by the Trump Administration. This was most assuredly predicted by the Trump Administration: coal plants are some of this nation’s largest emitters of mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide, so the fact that they’re deadly is no surprise. These efforts do not present a goodwill effort at reducing your home’s energy bill by the Trump Administration, but instead show a calculated effort to determine how many lives coal is worth.
It’s hard to imagine what those numbers mean when you read them from the comfort of your desk; it’s all too easy to imagine what they mean when you’ve met and mourned children like Xander and Trey.
This was not the first time I have encountered deaths resulting from pollution. As a native Tennessean who considers East Tennessee my home, I was already all too familiar with pollution-related deaths. While many Americans might see few connections between rural, (mostly) white Appalachia and urban, racially diverse Chicago, both areas suffer greatly from poor health as a direct result of environmental degradation. Progressive massive fibrosis (better known as “black lung disease”) is known as a coal miners’ disease; COPD, another lung disease, is far more common in Appalachia than anywhere else in the country, and the biggest contributing factor to this is air quality and exposure to coal dust. Finally, lung cancer is most deadly in Appalachia. Air pollution, caused significantly by coal, is literally killing the people of Appalachia.
Another similarity between my home in Appalachia and the black Chicagoan children I cared for?
Though across the US the poverty rate hovers at around 15%, it is 34% among black Chicagoans. In Appalachia, the poverty rate is about 20%, and many of the nation’s poorest counties are situated in these mountains. Nationally, the people living near coal plants have an average income of less than $19,000 a year, and many of them are people of color.
The deaths of black children in Chicagoland may seem like a far cry from the deaths of white coal miners and their families in Appalachia, but they point to the same truth: the true cost of polluting our air is the deaths of the most vulnerable people in our country, whether they be children of color in urban areas or workers in the hollers of the Smokey Mountains.
It’s impossible to say whether Xander and Trey died as a direct result of pollution, and even more difficult to say definitively if these deaths resulted from our use of coal. Climate scientists have been reticent to ascribe climate change or pollution as the cause of any one death. But, we do know that the actions of the Trump Administration will cause more deaths like Xander’s and Trey’s, and that these same deregulations will cause more intense suffering in Appalachia. When we fail to protect our natural environment, we inevitably fail to care for the least of these among us.
The cost of coal – the deaths of both the urban and rural poor – is far too high. We must move away from this deadly and dirty source of energy if we claim to care for the lives of the poor and disenfranchised in our midst. We must begin to care about climate change, pollution, and environmental degradation of any kind. Fighting back against the Trump Administration’s deregulation of the coal industry can be a first step, but it must be the first of many steps towards environmental justice.
(Written public comments on the “Afford Clean Energy Plan” can be submitted to the EPA until October 31st. Submit one online here.)
Robin Lovett is an M.Div. student and a Public Church Fellow at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Her sermons and writings can be found at robinlovettowen.com