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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Fossil Fuels and the American Way of Death

Our country’s fixation on fossil fuels is killing us in new ways every day. And it’s up to us to stall it.

Our fossil fuel-addicted way of life in the United States is killing us. Sometimes it’s obvious and jarring, as when vehicles smash into each other or slam pedestrians or cyclists. Other times it’s subtler, taking the form of heart failure or a prolonged death from lung cancer due to decades of breathing in toxins in polluted air. Worst yet are the ways that we are selling out our future and hollowing out our country by failing to address climate change in any meaningful way. As important as it is to mourn the missteps and injustices that brought us here, though, it’s even more vital to see the opportunities of our time: we can all have a hand in restoring our communities, and nurturing a far more beautiful and responsible civilization.    

Highway to Hell, Lined with Coal Plants

For one in 100 residents in our automobile-obsessed society, the end of life comes very shockingly, in a terrifying crush of metal and shattering glass. No one intends to kill others with a vehicle (aside from small numbers of religious extremists and anti-Black Lives Matter terrorists). But car accidents kill unpredictably, frequently claiming the lives of young people and traumatizing entire families and communities. Crashes kill 40,000 Americans annually, and an additional 3 to 4.5 million sustain injuries serious enough to require medical attention; half of these injuries are serious and frequently permanent. Remarkably, these statistics indicate that the typical American in the general population annually faces a roughly similar risk of serious injury or death from a vehicle accident that U.S. soldiers faced from all causes while fighting World War II (granted, with a far higher proportion of deaths to injuries in the war, though this was partly due to differences in the availability and quality of medical care). 

The results are tragic and avoidable. Millions of Americans carry trauma throughout their lives after having accidentally killed or maimed others, or carry survivor’s guilt after being in a vehicle with others who died. I’ve already known six people who died in car accidents, most of them in their teens or 20s, and I know a couple people who were permanently injured. In my own 20s, I made occasional, somewhat questionable choices while driving that could have easily led to my death and/or the deaths of others. When regular driving is a part of your life, you are not only accepting that you may be part of the 1 percent of Americans who die in an accident, but also that you may kill other people. And you probably have to just accept that risk, because many or most Americans need to drive in day-to-day life to meet basic needs, and shouldn’t be shamed for it. Vehicle accidents are a principal cause of early death, especially for the young (and especially for low-income young people), and per capita death and serious injury are vastly higher in the United States than in other wealthy countries, where public transit, dense urban planning, and cycling and walking are better developed. Similarly to how we simply become accustomed to shootings, too many Americans seem to view a continuous stream of deaths in vehicle accidents as normal and assume that nothing can be done. In fact, these deaths are the abnormal result of completely alterable political transit policy decisions and cultural preferences. 

Our fossil fuel-oriented policy decisions lead to other unnecessary loss of life. For tens or even hundreds of thousands of other Americans annually, death comes early due to breathing in toxins in the air. Precise measurement is difficult because of the many factors involved, but the particulate matter that fossil fuel-powered vehicles, agriculture, and buildings pump into our air is linked to death by cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, dementia, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, lung cancer and pneumonia. Depending on the study, anywhere between 30,000 and 200,000 early deaths result each year in the United States, as well as millions of disruptive asthma attacks and problems related to resulting inactivity. Whenever a coal plant closes, the statistical likelihood of death by any cause falls by just shy of 1 percent in the local area—lengthening lives and improving quality of life.  

While most Americans are subjected to some air pollution risk, the burden falls along racialized lines, with power plants and highways often placed near minority communities. It seems highly likely that the majority of human-affecting pollutants from our energy matrix find their way into the air breathed mostly by poor, Black, and Brown people. This is particularly cruel considering that people of color consume less electricity, take fewer flights and buy fewer cars, and hold far fewer stocks (thus profiting less from energy companies). Communities of color—who generally have America’s best rates of public transit use and compact living patterns—often come closer to ecological sustainability than any other American racial demographic group, and yet are made to bear most of the costs (domestically; of course global climate change mainly falls on people of color in other nations as well).

The coronavirus, as many people have pointed out, is aggravating these already grievous social inequalities. Air pollution compounds the harm of COVID-19 because already-damaged lungs are more vulnerable. Studies suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution increases the risk of death from coronavirus by 6 to 16 percent. This is no doubt part of why the death rate in Black communities is twice the death rate in white communities. And why Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous young people comprise only 41 percent of the U.S.’s under-21 population, but account for 75 percent of that population´s death toll. These are not so much Covid deaths as deaths from systemic racism, partly due to environmental conditions (and, of course, largely due to other inequities). Unfortunately, the necessary research on this may never be possible; a large portion, perhaps as much as 30 percent of coronavirus deaths are not diagnosed as such. One might suspect that these deaths—largely those of poorer people who didn’t have access to testing in cities with hopelessly overstrained health sectors—may be disproportionately people of color and that many might have suffered from air pollution exposure, but we will never have a full account.  

Frustratingly, fossil fuel industries don’t pay for the unnecessary deaths, injuries, and air pollution-related health catastrophes resulting from their products, which would be far more expensive if they incorporated even these localized consequences. The car industry doesn’t pay for roads and—like the coal, oil, and gas industries—carries on with impunity. And this is all outside of climate change, which has and will continue to do terrible damage to Americans and impose yet more serious harm on very poor people in the Global South. We need an energy transition to answer this moral catastrophe.

War and Hard-Right Politics

Our fossil fuel industry doesn’t stop its destructive behavior at our borders. The oil industry helped take us to war in Iraq; the Bush administration was full of officials with oil industry connections and backgrounds, and a web of lobbyists from Halliburton and other companies helped sell the war. Perhaps as important as the direct involvement of fossil fuel interests in prompting the war is the complicated pattern of resource conflict, authoritarianism, military intervention, and corporate influence that the oil industry has generated in the Middle East. Only a few thousand Americans were killed in Iraq, though tens of thousands of veterans have committed suicide in the years since and many more live a much-altered life with physical and emotional wounds. And of course, half a million to a million Iraqis have died due to the war, casualties of the insatiable American lust to exploit poisonous resources.

Fossil fuel interests poison U.S. politics in domains far beyond energy and foreign policy. The U.S.’s failing system generates an endless variety of outrages across partisan divides and at local, state, and national levels. But whatever particular thing you are angriest about today, you can be sure that the fossil fuel lobby probably has a hand in funding it. A glance at the Open Secrets pages for the oil and gas, utilities, and coal industries is a horror show of hundreds millions of dollars of support for right-wing candidates. Don’t forget to click on the “lobbying” tab and see the small recorded slice of the bribery that these people do in between election years. In the 2000 election, these lobbies contributed about $60 million, overwhelmingly to Republicans (with reverberating consequences, considering how narrow the 2000 election outcome was). In 2016, the contributions were about $150 million, also plausibly with decisive impact on the election outcome, and $140 million in contributions have been documented for 2020. And don’t forget that the industry’s employees—about 78 percent male and making an average of $118,903 in the oil and gas sectors—have a pretty strong vested interest in maintaining the status quo with their own advocacy, organizing, and voting.

Even though exactly one of 20 largest corporate oil/gas donors seems to mostly support Democrats and the coal industry only gives about 4 percent of its contributions to Democrats, Democrats continuously work to expand fossil fuels and their power. Oil production grew by 80 to 88 percent and gas production by 35 percent during Obama’s presidency. Obama used his administration’s regulatory power to expand and enable these abusive industries and in fact has claimed credit for it, many times, pointedly. This was a profound betrayal of the young people and the environmental movement who propelled him to office with a senate supermajority. In 2008, 75 percent of Obama-leaning voters indicated that global warming is an important issue influencing their vote, with the decisive youth vote expressing overwhelming opposition to offshore drilling. This remained an important theme all the way to the 2020 election, as 74 percent of Biden voters said that climate change was a very important factor in their choice. Centrist Democratic voters—who, along with most Americans, generally care about the environment and want to pass a livable world to future generations—are not often told this, and the New York Times and mainstream media spent much of the Trump administration decrying Trump’s terrible environmental policies after having generally passed over much of the comparably destructive climate policies enacted by Democrats. No one (except apparently Obama?) wants to take responsibility for Democrats almost doubling oil extraction over eight years in power. And of course the oil industry didn’t even thank Democrats with its political giving, but rather grabbed for even more, directly funding Trumpism. The Democrats are in an abusive relationship with fossil fuels, as are we all.

Unfortunately we seem to be set up for another four precious years of wasted time in the transition to sustainable energy. Although Biden voters say that climate change is a very important factor in their choice and although the significantly climate-motivated youth vote was decisive probably in all or almost all swing states, Biden’s transition suggests we’re in for stagnation (which is to say, catastrophe). Oil stocks are booming. Biden is appointing advisor after advisor after advisor with dangerous histories in energy issues. Too many environmental advocates are using their platforms to naively suggest Biden will bring about significant progress, and too many Democrats are entertaining the fantasy that re-entering the Paris Accords on paper generates results. As Greta Thunberg is continuously telling us, reducing fossil fuel production consumption to protect humans is what we need, not empty words. Democrats aren’t listening.

America Astray: the Opportunity Costs of Fossil Fuels

It’s time to look at the political infrastructure of fossil fuels, and what is to be done. The greatest fossil fuel-related cost for Americans may not be the visible death and sickness that these industries cause. We are also paying an “opportunity cost.” This means we’re suffering for what
we’re missing out on by taking this path rather than alternative, sustainable ways of living. In addition to crashed cars, toxic lungs, a burning Middle East, climate catastrophe, and entrenched fossil fuel interests poisoning our politics, we’re missing out on the positive things we would have if we pursued an alternative course. What could we have spent the trillions that we’ve sunk into oil wars and direct fossil fuel subsidies on instead? What New Deal-style benefits would a clean energy agenda bring to currently struggling American heartland regions? 

Large stretches of rural and small-town America are dying. For tens of millions of Americans, recent decades have brought continuously declining real local property values, the flight of young people, the decline of community institutions, and few new economic engines. The consequences are clear: two million Americans struggle with opioid addiction, and around 70,000 die of drug overdoses each year. Americans commit suicide at a rate higher than that of almost any other wealthy country. Most successful suicides are with firearms, largely lonely white middle-aged and older men, and largely in rural areas. Millions of other Americans are essentially dying of loneliness, driven into physical and emotional decline by the atrophy of their communities and society. Like air pollution-wracked Black and Latino communities, largely white, rural, small-town “Middle America” deserves better.

The funds that we pour into fossil fuel subsidies and oil wars could do a lot of good if invested elsewhere. Direct U.S. subsidies for fossil fuels amount to about $20 billion, with indirect and international subsidies adding up to a mind-boggling $649 billion, according to the IMF. Notably, this does not include government spending on roads, which totaled $181 billion in 2017, well over two-thirds of which is effectively fossil fuel subsidies. To what extent our $6.5 trillion of spending on war in the Middle East since 2001 should be attributed to the oil industry is debatable, but it wouldn’t need to be a large share to be significant. Cutting direct subsidies, imposing taxes to mitigate even some of the externalized costs, and shifting transit spending toward cheaper and more efficient public options with a particular mind to helping people in poverty and reducing the damage that cars do could save quite a lot of money. This could go toward our education and health infrastructure and to fund sustainable development. The Biden campaign had a pledge to end fossil fuel subsidies—but, just before the election, Democrats removed it from their platform. 

Another Way of Life is Possible

Americans can do so much better. By staying latched to dangerous, toxic industries run by far-right oil, gas, and coal enthusiasts, we’re suffering and dying. But insofar as we do change our approach—and we don’t have to shift completely to see benefits—we can prosper.

Fortunately for rural areas, they have what America needs for energy transformation. Germans have almost achieved 56 percent renewable electricity with far less wind and sun than the United States enjoys, and our wind, water, and solar resources are almost unmatched in the developed world for their suitability to developing a clean economy. Harnessing these resources is several times more job-intensive than burning fossil fuels, and the jobs created are sustainable and overwhelmingly middle-class (neoliberal gas advocates gush over “job creation” in projects like Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Line, which seem to have created about 35 to 50 permanent jobs each). Our interior regions also already have endless miles of deteriorated rail lines that could be updated to accommodate high-speed trains, and aging housing stock that could be replaced with denser and more sustainable construction.

Most importantly, rural and small-town America have tens of millions of hard-working, resilient, politically powerful, ingenious residents who are eager for renewal in their lives, communities, and, indeed, civilization. Most of these residents already at least generally support sustainable policies and energy sources, even in very conservative states like Indiana and Kansas and including strong majorities of Republicans nationally. The dangerous coal jobs that Appalachian politicians so fiercely defend pale in comparison to the energy economy we could have. Many young people in rural areas—a demographic that might otherwise leave—would be able and eager to take good paying jobs installing solar and wind power. Pursuing this energy economy can lead these communities—among others—out of decline.

Food production, which is hugely dependent on fossil fuels, is also critically important. If fossil fuels were made prohibitively expensive and if agricultural policy were directed to protect insect, animal, and human populations, a boom in farming jobs would ensue. Sustainable agriculture is much more labor-intensive and healthier for farmers and the natural world than our current fossil-fueled variant, and could offer a good living to many rural people. American food would become more expensive, but in the more socialized economies of Europe, food is already more expensive and this has not prevented Western Europe from sustaining a stronger and healthier middle class than in the United States. Food would also become healthier, as fossil fuel agriculture specializes in monocrop high-carbohydrate starches such as corn and soybeans. Heart disease and cancer kill a million Americans each year, and a shift towards organic fruit and vegetables in our food production could do a lot to help.

America’s cities are ready for change, and the most vulnerable are the ones that would benefit the most. Depending on the report, 15 to 26 million Americans have participated in Black Lives Matter protests; many of those people could likely be persuaded that our racist energy system should be replaced by a cleaner one. Non-white Americans are two to three times more likely to depend on public transit than whites, and the obvious methods of building cleaner cities (denser housing, strengthened public transit, fewer resources devoted to cars) would all also have positive racial justice implications; as Black Lives Matter activists have been pointing out for years, across continents, the racial justice implications of both current environmental injustices and the practical solutions are clear. And like people in small-town America, urban Americans from all backgrounds would see significant financial savings from large-scale energy initiatives that cut our absurd level of energy waste.

We cannot expect rapid positive change from our decrepit political system or our current leaders. Insofar as we can work toward sustainable solutions, though, we’ll still see benefits. Securing higher renewable energy and efficiency goals and improving market conditions for sustainable energy does improve air quality and employ people in a healthy sector. Boosting public transit makes people’s lives better and safer, even if we fail to create as robust a system as we could. Stopping a pipeline improves things for the next 30 years or more. Mitigation is better than nothing and is necessary along the path to success. 

How do we get there?

As we work to escape our national death spiral, it’s important that we do it together. As an individual, it’s well worth conserving energy, eating sustainably, and avoiding cars, if possible. These choices are healthy and safe, save money, and protect others. But energy problems demand collective solutions at every level. And as a society, we don’t just face a climate crisis, but also crises of racial and sexual justice, staggering economic inequality, and many other issues. Environmental justice work should complement other social movements, and local, state, and national answers should fit in, too.

Environmentally speaking, the 2020 election was a catastrophe; Trump was defeated, yes, but fossil fuel interests still won a colossal victory. How many more four-year terms of climate inaction can our world suffer? Hopefully at least a few more. Liberals have not broadly reckoned with the disastrous consequences of Obama’s environmental policies, and the massive increases of oil and gas production that locked in our energy model for at least a generation. Nor have liberals accepted responsibility for the failure to use a Senate supermajority and enormous power at the local level across the nation in 2009 to meaningfully change our unsustainable model. Nor, sadly, do political commentators hold Democrats to account when they use purely symbolic steps as substitutes for real justice. Nearly doubling oil production between 2009 and 2016 was a grave, concrete blow to the future of our species and many others. Under Biden, we can no doubt look forward to more reckless oil and gas extraction while the media celebrates our “historic” re-entry into the Paris Accords and the appointments of people of color and women to positions of importance in environmental regulation. These are of course positive steps, but if they are offered as substitutes for real policy change that actually protect the lives of disproportionately poor and non-white people who suffer death and injury from our energy policy, then that will be a travesty. The hypocrisy must be named, everywhere possible. And the notions that we should “wait and see” and “reserve judgement” need to be firmly contradicted. Biden’s record is so poor, his advisors so inadequate, the environmental crisis is so severe, and the time left so short. 

The certainty that American federal policy will continue to push fossil fuels is discouraging. Nevertheless there are many reasons for hope that we can influence things for the better, concretely and quickly. Transit, zoning, housing, and power generation decisions are largely made by local and state governments, which activists can more easily influence. Much of the work of fighting natural gas projects and coal plants falls to the grassroots regardless. The underlying market conditions that determine which energy sources are developed and installed are responsive to consumer action and advocacy. There is so much we can do!

And hope for a Green New Deal does not have to rest on the federal level (although of course that would be best). U.S. states are able to take on debt. If California, with a debt of less than $4,000 per citizen, were to take on enough debt to equal the state of Massachusetts on a per capita basis (around $11,000), it could finance a roughly $280 billion Green New Deal—many times the current worth of annual investment in wind and solar throughout the entire United States. Obviously this would be a radical policy that has not been widely explored. But if state action is the best tool we have to generate huge energy transitions in the next decade—a vital window for our global climate—it is worth pushing for.

One exciting part of the energy transition is that everyone can take part in leading. We hear often about how we should consume and live responsibly, and about how we should vote or even organize for progressive candidates. There is also a vital middle level of engagement, though, and we have many other opportunities to act, concretely empowering sustainable work in our communities. Here are just a few ways you might be able to engage at a local level, in future years or right now:

  1. Volunteer for local progressive candidates who will fight for public transit, for renters, for public housing, and for responsible and dense building practices. There are grassroots leaders running for office all over America, every year or so, and engaging in local elections is crucial. Online advocacy and phone calls are valuable in campaigning. In off-years, one can always engage in the Sunrise Movement or other longer-term groups that build momentum.
  2. Advocate for and use public transit, particularly at public meetings on the topic or through local organizing.
  3. Support pipeline protests financially and by sharing information about them (or, after the coronavirus, volunteer). The Standing Rock protests were ultimately unsuccessful, but they probably cost the fossil fuel industrial complex $7.5 billion, the equivalent of 4 percent of the value of the current U.S. oil and gas industries. Perhaps the largest current projects facing resistance not too far away are the Enbridge Pipeline in Minnesota, as well as the Trans Mountain and Coastal Gaslink lines in Canada (links connect to indigenous Land Protectors). Environmental justice and indigenous safety and sovereignty frequently go hand-in-hand.
  4. Advocate for solar and other energy efficiency projects. Solar power should be deployed at far more homes, businesses, schools, and offices throughout the United States. If your local schools or other institutions could go solar, let them know that you’d like that! And the state of energy efficiency in the United States is dismal. Business owners, city council members, school principals, non-profit and educational administrators, and homeowners may not have given much thought to energy efficiency. With a little research, many would find investments in efficiency that would be stronger and more reliable than the stock market. 
  5. Help protect local parks, streams and rivers, and other natural areas. These initiatives conserve and also educate and inform conscientious people.
  6. If you live in a city, look for chances to push for cycling and walking options and car-free streets.
  7. Help others understand how dangerous fossil fuels are to them.
  8. Talk and share information about the intersections of racial and environmental justice.

In the long term, for an energy transition to be truly sustainable and for it to positively impact other social injustices, the energy transition ought to be socialized, whether through direct, broad-based citizen ownership, through heavy regulation of independent utilities or transit entities, or by simply belonging to local, state, or national government entities. This would effectively block the energy sector from the profiteering and unaccountability we see today. Clean energy sectors can also produce aggravating, coup-supporting billionaires who abuse their workers, as Elon Musk loves to remind us on Twitter daily. Like Germany’s 853 energy cooperatives, the United States should have sustainable energy producers that are owned by the broad base of its people. Public transit—which has not fared well in privatized for-profit models—can easily become a viable, beautiful, cheap, fast, and safe resource for all citizens. Policies which support public transit put relatively low-income and racially excluded communities first, as well as the environment. Energy-efficient practices should become the default, based on both social norms and strong government incentives and disincentives. Energy waste should be costly and frowned upon. We are a long way from such policies. But in small ways, we can build toward them. 

Fossil fuel industries are politically, culturally, and economically interlocked, and while they kill different people in different ways, they are all threats to our future. Americans have been taught to accept a very dangerous status quo, with transit and energy models that kill and poison us. When we read obituaries that mention lung cancer (or the coronavirus in polluted areas) or lose family and friends to vehicle accidents, it doesn’t usually occur to us to put these in their political context, just as pro-gun advocates tend to write off gun murder or suicide as an individual issue. And when we think of sustainability, many Americans think about the expense and the things that they wouldn’t be able to do anymore, rather than envisioning a cleaner, safer, healthier life and a rejuvenated heartland. These associations need to change. And we can change them, starting in our local communities, and building upwards.

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