Our Summer Vacation: 20,000 Dead

Europe's long, hot, tragic summer begs a little North American background.

In July 1995, the administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley in Chicago was an accomplice in the murder of more than 700 of its senior citizens. As temperatures climbed above 40C (104F), the city's airless tenements and skid-row hotels became charnel houses. Thousands of the poor and elderly, mainly blacks, were mortally stricken.

By the second day of the heat wave, overcrowded hospitals were closing their doors to the critically ill and paramedics were unable to respond to the deluge of emergency calls. Medical workers warned of a death epidemic and begged for help.

But the Daley Jr. machine bunkered itself in denial and inaction. Heat mortality among the forgotten poor received less attention than had winter snow days, which caused few deaths but greatly inconvenienced suburban commuters and Loop businesses. Thus, the fire department refused to call in more staff or ambulances, while the police ignored requests to canvass the tenements for isolated seniors.

City hall stonewalled the media: "What disaster?" As bodies overflowed the morgue, the Mayor complained to reporters. "It's hot. But let's not blow it out of proportion... Every day people die of natural causes."

The Chicago "heat catastrophe," as it is now officially called, was of course anything but a "natural" disaster. As radical sociologist Eric Klinenberg explains in a brilliant book published last year (Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago), "These deaths were not an act of God." He demonstrates instead that they were the preventable consequences of poverty, racism, social isolation, and criminal civic negligence.

Klinenberg's approach is generally shared by public health analysts. Indeed, the lessons of Chicago 1995 were enshrined in authoritative studies published by the Centers for Disease Control and the New England Journal of Medicine .

An Avoidable Massacre

These reports, whose findings have now been widely adopted in North American cities, advocate early warning systems, the immediate opening of neighborhood "cooling centers," door-to-door searches for ill seniors, adequate summer staffing of hospitals, and the subsidizing of air-conditioning in low-income apartments.

This literature is now scientifically canonical, easily accessible on the internet, and well known to European professionals. The lesson of the Chicago heat wave, in other words, screams from the bookshelf. There was no excuse for not heeding it.

Yet this August, the vulnerable poor were again massacred under analogous social conditions by Chicago-like responses. In France, for example, the rightwing health minister Jean-Francois Mattei continued his vacation -- 'tennis, anyone?' -- while thousands of his fellow citizens perished. Heroic lethargy was also the response of the Berlusconi government in Italy, which lied to the press and suppressed heat-death statistics.

The overall European death toll is probably the equivalent to five or more World Trade Centers: at least 20,000 victims and probably more. Official estimates are at least 11,400 in France; more than 4000 in Italy; 1400 in the Netherlands; 1300 in Portugal; and some 900 in the United Kingdom. The Spanish figure of only 100 is hardly credible and should be the stuff of scandal.

While the Euro-right blames the 35-hour-week and the collapse of family values for these atrocities, the Left must be relentless in holding neo-liberal policies accountable. Socialists must demand the kind of 'social autopsy' -- of which Klinenberg's study provides an admirable model -- that lays bare the causative roles of poverty, unaffordable housing, and underfunded public services, as well as the collapse of intergenerational solidarity.

In face of this small mountain of corpses, moreover, it can no longer be taken for granted that European neo-liberalism is actually more 'compassionate' than its more raptor-like American cousin. After all, it takes a pretty big hole in the vaunted social safety net for 20,000 or more people to fall through.

Our Nonlinear Future

But what of the strange Augusts yet to come? How should we address the increasingly violent interaction between environmental change and the late-capitalist city?

First -- to stay within a public health framework -- there is growing evidence of a sinister synergy between heat stress, traffic, and air pollution. The post-Chicago studies generally focused on hyperthermia and dehydration, paying little attention to air quality per se. But French scientists now believe that high ozone levels were a key factor in as many as 3000 deaths. August holiday gridlock may now be deadly in a double sense. This is why groups like Greenpeace are renewing calls for temporary or permanent traffic moratoria in major urban centers.

Second, August was a vivid illustration of the kind of "unnatural" history we must come to expect as the norm. This will not be a history slowly unreeling itself in tidy linear progression, as in biographies of Victorian liberals. More likely, the dialectic of global warming and neo-liberalism -- especially the Bushite doctrine of "consuming all the good things of the earth in our lifetime" -- will produce a non-linear roller-coaster ride between unpredictable disasters.

Let me share with you my summer nightmare. It is a much scarier story than any by Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King.

While the pavements were boiling in Paris this summer, the French newspaper Le Monde ran a cover story about the melting sea ice in the Arctic. The gist was simply that Norwegian polar researchers, tops in the field, were predicting that the Arctic Ocean's ice cover would completely disappear by the middle of this century.

The nightmare part is not rising sea levels since ice already displaces its water volume. Rather it is the radical change in "albedo," the amount of solar energy reflected from the surface. Right now Arctic ice is a huge mirror sending heat back to space; remove the ice, however, and the clear blue sea absorbs immense additional amounts of solar energy.

Warming, as a result, will suddenly accelerate. At least in geophysical terms, it could prove a far more drastic blow to Gaia than even nuclear winter.

Paradoxically, this Arctic warming, by eventually melting icecaps and increasing river flows, might actually shut down the circulation of the Gulf Stream and turn northwestern Europe into an icebox. This is the worst case scenario that one of the world's most famous climate researchers, Wallace Broecker of Columbia University, recently warned about in the pages of Science magazine.

Indeed, he points out that something like this actually happened 12,000 years ago: It was called the Younger Dryas event. Incredibly this shift of global climate regimes took less than a decade to occur. Indeed, abrupt climate change is one of the fundamental scientific discoveries of our lifetime.

Global capitalism is the runaway train on which we're all held hostage. And each extreme summer may be inching us closer to the precipice of catastrophic environmental change.

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