Protecting the air we breathe, the land we live on and the water we drink was a worthy cause for the EPA.
Huge existential peril faces the United States and its 328 million citizens. My empathy for the plight of the American people could not be higher.
Yet at this very time, Donald Trump’s eye isn’t on the ball. Instead of focussing on the physical wellbeing of his people, the 45th president is enacting catastrophic rollbacks to environmental regulations from the Obama era.
I’ll be publishing about these in more detail another time, but here’s a summary.
The Washington-based Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled on 16 April that it was no longer ‘appropriate and necessary’ to regulate emissions of nasties such as mercury, arsenic and lead from coal- and oil-fired power plants.
These metals and metalloids travel a long way, by air and water, and do much harm to human and non-human health. Decades of environmental campaigning and enforcement were directed against this.
In the Obama era, protecting the air we breathe, the land we live on and the water we drink was a worthy cause for the EPA. It fired up enforcement officers and scientists who I met personally and talked to extensively.
It still is vital to the health of the USA and the planet to uphold this belief and enforce it. But the new EPA boss, Andrew Wheeler, isn’t interested.
Just a couple of weeks earlier, the EPA green-lighted a deregulation that cut fuel-efficiency standards for cars. This will contribute an additional billion US tons of carbon dioxide emissions, roughly an 18.5 percent increase.
At the time of writing, the USA hasn’t even begun to tot-up the economic, social and political costs of Coronavirus 19. Its death count from Covid-19 already exceeds US deaths in combat (47,434 ) during the long and terrible Vietnam War.
The final death count will be far higher.
The US debt burden is overwhelming: the federal budget deficit is forecast to triple to $3.7 trillion.
Unemployment is rising to levels not seen since the Great Depression. Protesters against lock-down, some armed with rifles – and remarkably – called to action by Donald Trump, are storming the legislative chamber in Michigan.
Scarcity-driven markets are more unpredictable than ever. Oil crashed to nearly negative $40 dollars for the first time in history on 20 April, as oil producers failed to cut production in line with demand.
There was no room for physical delivery and storage in Cushing; oil tankers and massive underground storage containers filled up fast.
Overall, the future for the United States looks unremittingly grim. Derek Rasmussen points out that 500,000 people already experience medical bankruptcy every year.
This figure looks to rise in lockstep with infections from Covid-19 requiring intensive care in hospital. Debt collections will mount up in proportion to the number of bodies buried.
I’m saying all this because I see clearly the scale of the challenge to any president. But this is no time to be separating the economy from the environment, as if they existed apart.
Here’s one immediate reason: reports that scientists at Harvard are correlating exposure to fine-particulates from cars and power plants with a 15 percent increase in Covid-19 deaths.
There’s a specific, immediate and palpable threat to the wellbeing of US citizens arising from power plants and car fuel-efficiency. President Donald Trump can’t put America first and ignore this fact in the same breath.
American writer David Abram’s theory of deep ecology can remind us that we are ‘inter-breathing’ as part of a ‘vast, spherical metabolism.’ It’s an apt image: the intentional act of social distancing invites us to observe that our breaths normally interweave, coalesce.
Of course, it has always happened like this, for 40,000 years of Homo Sapiens. But measures to combat the spread of Covid-19 bring this awareness into the field of human consciousness and experience, nearly all the time.
As we keep apart, so we realise all the more the nature of our interbeing. Just as we sense the way this affects us as human containers of stuff that can be sprayed out, it isn’t hard to take our imaginations further and consider the realm of what is greater than our bodies: the process of ‘inter-breathing’ at a national and global level.
The United States is not surrounded by an impermeable boundary. Although Donald Trump is palpably focussed on the porousness of the country to undocumented immigrants, he doesn’t consider the openness of its skies and the intricacies of transboundary pollution, including persistent organic pollutants (POPS), including dioxins.
Vulnerable indigenous communities take a huge hit when pollutants from the US land 2,000 miles away. As Derek Rasmussen has put it: ‘Nunavut’s and the US’s communities are tied together by the US invisible inhalation of death. The US breathes out, Inuit die.’
Given the extraordinary conditions prevailing, this presidency and its decisions could be a critical part of the vanguard keeping Earth habitable for living and future generations.
Yet Donald Trump chooses not to see how our breaths are tied together across national boundaries.
He insists on looking only inside. This policy will surely fail in time, but in the immediate now, we should be concerned about the mess that will be left behind.
Alistair Siddons is an activist, writer and researcher on biosphere consciousness. He is interested in finding peaceful ways to enter into dialogue with those who hold power. He is an advocate for truth-telling on ecocide. This article was first published on Stop Rollbacks of Environmental Regs Now.