We’re not all culpable, but we can all take responsibility—here’s how.
Humans have left a trace on Earth, and scientists are taking notice.Early last month, Science and the London Guardian reported on a 24-author study of humans’ impact on Earth. The findings: our species has had such an influence on the planet’s geology, climate, and other life forms that we’ve entered a new era, the Anthropocene.
The proposed label won’t be official until an international committee adds it to the International Geologic Time Scale, but it reflects researchers’ belief that humans have left our mark on our planet’s rock, glacial ice, and species: plastic, concrete, nuclear isotopes, and above-average extinction rates.
They might decide the era started with the shift from nomadic gathering to static agriculture, European colonization of the Western Hemisphere, 18th Century mass industrialization, or the 20th Century’s Cold War. The experts will figure out where to draw the lines. It matters more that we understand what the findings mean.
Flint, MI: What Happens When Only Some People Matter
I’ve been following the story of Flint, MI: a community whose elected and appointed government left it to drink, bathe, run hospitals, and build cars with water that corrodes metal, burns skin, and contains unbelievable concentrations of lead and bacteria. That’s the water Flint residents have had for nearly two years. Now that their story has hit national and international papers, private organizations are providing free bottled water for them to use, and Michigan officials are scrambling to explain.
At least one senator, a presidential candidate, provided safe water only to groups who share his beliefs about women’s health. A week later, we learned that city groups had been offering poison testing and treatment or water only to people who can produce legal identification: an announcement from last October asked residents to “bring valid ID” to get water filters, and only after mass outrage did the policy change.
During the last week of January, the Detroit Free Press reported that Michigan state employees received bottled water while working in the same offices where they assured the public that they’d be just fine using tap water. In each of these cases, people with power calculated that other categories of people didn’t merit safe drinking water or basic medical care. The system declared some people disposable.
In Flint and other states across the U.S., we see how a crisis can inspire not only people to act humanely —mitigating harm by offering filters or bottled water, but also to be inconsistent and discriminatory—serving only residents with current identification or people who believe abortion should be illegal.
People who’ve never visited Flint before, me included, are now talking about the city’s troubles and taking concrete actions to intervene. At the same time, other people, including people with a lot of political influence—have chosen to redraw artificial boundaries between their political club and other people. Ordinary people have suffered.
We don’t pour our attention, care, or resources into all of the people until we’ve first accepted that all of the people are ours.
And all of the people on this planet are ours.
All The People are Ours, and Climate Change Affects All of Us
I’ve committed to exploring climate change and climate action this year because I’ve noticed that it amplifies every pre-existing social crisis. Climate change intersects with involuntary migration and how nations respond to the needs of refugees. More extreme storms and floods highlight just how inconsistent national infrastructures can be and which populations in a country aren’t well served when the power goes out. As climate change heightens drought and makes resources like fresh, clean water more precious, even the U.S. Department of Defense and the World Economic Forum are taking notice and trying to help communities to bounce back from disasters.
Climate change influences all of the threats that the DOD and WEF cite in their own studies, so geologists like those who named the Anthropocene aren’t the only specialists who tell us that we’re responsible. We aren’t all culpable for Flint’s water supply in the ways that Michigan’s Gov. Snyder and state workers are. We aren’t equally affected by corruption, classism, or racism. But we’re all responsible for how we live in a social system that’s based on our consumption, taxes, votes, attention, and imagination.
The slogan “The whole damn system is guilty as hell!” doesn’t just implicate Those People in official roles. It also implicates each of us as members of our countries and as residents of the only planet that is home. Everyone in and beyond Flint who has spoken up, taken photos, tested water, told their story, and lobbied the media and the law until they were heard has taken responsibility for change.
So all those who’ve harmed our people need to face the consequences, and I hope they do. We’ll still have work ahead regardless. The sooner we accept that we’re part of Earth’s “system” and are responsible for our impact on it, the sooner we’ll figure out our part in the Anthropocene and the sooner we can start living better futures than those we saw in Mad Max or Quantum of Solace.
Climate Action is about Taking Responsibility
I encourage hopeful, realistic climate action with a group of ordinary people—artists, researchers, and after-work podcasters. This action isn’t about fearing the future. It’s about taking responsibility for the present. It’s about trusting in the fact that whatever we have chosen collectively in the past, we still have the chance and choice to choose again, right here, right now.
Speaking about inequitable public education and the current movement for comprehensive social justice, Pastor Traci Blackmon recently said, “I have long given up the idea that the glass is half empty or half full. I’m just glad the glass is refillable.”
We don’t have many options for which planets we can call home, but we do have options for preserving the quality of life our species can enjoy. We have a refillable glass of optimism rooted in constructive action. And we can start refilling that glass by participating deeply in all of the levels of governance that we can, including our local communities and cities: “opening the door,” as Pastor Blackmon puts it, “so that everyone can be at the table.”
Deep participation and equal partnership are basic principles of the environmental justice tradition and would’ve stopped the Flint crisis before it began. We can use them now in Flint, in other cities, and on other critical issues to redeem our impact on our planet, other species, and each other in the new geological age we’ve created.
Take Action Today
1. Read about the systemic inequities in water delivery and exposure to pollutants and toxic waste across the United States:
(a) AlterNet shares a Texas professor’s history studying and working to end environmental racism—“Flint is part of a pattern: 7 toxic assaults on communities of color”; and a historian in New York writes the history of water pipes made from lead—“Piping as poison: the Flint water crisis and America’s toxic infrastructure”
(b) A non-profit that focuses on water explains how the water supply and public administration issues in Flint, MI, connects to similar system-wide problems in Brazil, China, and South Africa—“Flint’s contaminated drinking water is third water threat for Michigan governor”
2. Learn about your own rights to clean water:
(a) The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) hosts information about the revised Clean Water Act rules (rev. June 2015), which protects streams and other water sources that impact farming and agriculture, but does not apply to groundwater including well water.
(b) If you live in the U.S., you should be getting a consumer confidence report on local water quality every summer. If you aren’t, you have a federal right to that information. Call your city or county office to request a copy. If the report is poorly designed and hard to interpret, talk to your neighbors about how comprehensible reports would benefit your families, and write to your state legislators with suggested improvements.
If your city doesn’t yet provide an accessible Right-to-Know report, talk to your neighbors about how having that assurance would benefit your families, and write to your state representative to ask for legislation requiring one.
3. Donate to water supply and testing efforts in Flint:
(b) The Flint Water Study is an independent multidisciplinary research team that has been sampling and analyzing tap water around Flint and providing data to inform Flint residents. Contribute to the fund, which is managed by the Virginia Tech Foundation.
Keisha E. McKenzie is an independent communicator and non-profit development strategist. She helps organizations to engage their communities more deeply and edits individual writers from time to time. Find her on Twitter at @mackenzian retweeting smart people and sharing the most perfect gifs in the universe.
Featured image: Angels (Dusk) oil over masks on canvas by Greg Parma Smith at MOMA PS1 (credit P. Toscano)