Some Positive Approaches to Combating the Climate Crisis Over the Past Few Decades

This image lists some of the simple ways in which each individual can make a difference.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting some of the personal actions that we can incorporate into our daily routines to reduce our own carbon footprints, including suggestions like recycling, reducing plastic consumption, or even avoiding the use of herbicides and pesticides.

These past few decades have been filled with destruction and devastation, and the increasing severity of the climate crisis signals that what we are experiencing is just the beginning. The climate crisis will transform the way we live, whether we adopt to it or not, and it is crucial now more than ever to take all the necessary actions to slow down, and maybe even stop this growing existential threat to humanity. With that being said, there have been some attempts around the world at doing just this. In the midst of all this chaos, it is important to cherish and acknowledge some of the more innovative responses to alleviating the climate crisis. These are some of the sustainable ways other nations are attempting to address climate change, and the United States would do good to implement some of these ideas into its own society.

Planting Trees to Save the World

I wanted to include this image because it represents how any member of the community, including children, can get involved in their own way.
Source: Yahoo Images; Collectively planting trees can start to heal the environment, but also create a strong sense of community as well.

Countries all over the world are taking a simple approach to the climate crisis; they’re planting trees! Nations like India, China, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and the Philippines have planted hundreds of trees as part of their promise to the Paris Agreement. In July 2019, India planted over 220 million trees in a single day, while Ethiopia planted over 350,000 trees in one day! Students in the Philippines are expected to plant ten trees each before they are allowed to graduate, and in this way, a guaranteed number of trees are planted annually. All these nations are taking unique efforts to do their part in combating climate change. While planting trees alone won’t address some of the more serious environmental issues we face today, it does make a huge difference. For one, planting trees can help remove some of the carbon emissions and other greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere and release more oxygen into the air. This provides cleaner air for all living forms in the area. Planting trees can also encourage biodiversity, and depending on what type of trees are planted, can provide food sources that nourish the region’s species. In this way, biodiversity provides natural services, which are services built into nature that nourish and sustain the ecosystem for all life forms on Earth. These services include the food produced by the trees, the roots that guard the soil from erosion and flooding, and it even includes a natural filtration system that purifies water. In addition to this, biodiversity, (and the calculated, methodical planting of trees) can moderate temperatures, enrich the soil, and stabilize an ecosystem. As such, biodiversity is just as necessary for the continued existence of humans as it is for other forms of life. Of course, without stopping the use of nonrenewable resources and exploiting forest lands, any number of trees planted can only neutralize the carbon emissions. In order to fully benefit from the trees being planted, we have to shift to using renewable, sustainable forms of energy to rebuild our infrastructures and power our homes. The actions these countries have taken to combat climate change is one that ensures sustainability and inspires change, and it is with this mindset of sustainability that we, as a world, should proceed.

Europe’s Pollinator Highway

I included this image to show the pollinator bees and butterflies in action
Source: Yahoo Images; Bees and butterflies are an essential part of the pollination process.

Along this framework of sustainability, Europe seems to have taken a different approach in addressing some of the environmental issues we are facing today. One such environmental issue they have attempted to address is the decreasing number of pollinators in the world. Pollinators are insects, like bees, wasps, and butterflies, who play a vital function in our existence, by transferring pollen from the female part of a plant to the male part of the plant to being its reproductive process that later blooms into fruits, seeds, and flowers. Without the crucial role that pollinators play, there would be no nourishment for millions of species worldwide, including humans. These pollinators play a key role in the survival of any ecosystem, and without their services, the world would be plunged into a food famine. To address this issue, the city of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, has constructed an eight-mile walkway that connects six districts of the urban area. This was an attempt to encourage an increase in insect pollination, as well as provide city dwellers clean, green spaces to enjoy. Known as the Pollinator Highway, it is one example of how nature can co-exist in urban centers alongside humans. While the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has attempted to address the pollination issue, the use of pesticides and herbicides, which the United States continues to allow, leaves pollinators exposed to these harsh chemicals, resulting in their deaths. There has been more awareness about this issue, however, and many scientists have even suggested drones and robotics to mimic pollinator behaviors and artificially pollinate plants. These advanced technologies, however, can be very costly to produce and maintain, and their creation and upkeep only adds to the issues of depleting raw materials. As a result, it would be cheaper and more sustainable to protect our natural pollinators and appreciate their natural, free services, by promoting a safe environment for the pollinators to flourish.

Studies have also shown that greenery and time spent in nature can have positive impacts on an individual’s mental health, so Tallin’s Pollinator Highway would be mutually beneficial for both humans and pollinators alike. This walkway they created not only ensures the safety of bees, but also, through incentivizing citizens to walk and bike, has led to a decrease in emissions released by cars and other motor vehicles. This is also partly due to Tallin’s legislation which has made public transportation free since 2015, incentivizing citizens to switch from personal vehicles to public transport systems and making room in the urban center for cyclists and walkers to enjoy a breath of fresh air. The free public transportation system runs all day long, every day of the week, and Estonia was the first nation in the European Union to implement this system. Many European nations have included similar features since then, but the United States continues to fall behind its European counterparts. As one of the richest nations in the world, the United States has the ability to build more sustainable infrastructure and transform public transportation to better connect all parts of the nation. Then, American citizens too could incentivize the public to use free transportation provided by the state. Having a free public transportation system that runs 24/7 would also increase accessibility for many Americans living in rural areas and on the outskirts of urban centers. These are just some of the ways in which elements of climate change can be addressed.

Virtual/Hybrid Conferences and Climate Change

I wanted to include this image to showcase, for those who are unaware, what a zoom conference screen looks like
Source: Yahoo Images; Zoom has become a vital part of our post-pandemic lives, and among its many advantages, a decrease in carbon emissions and greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere seems to be one of them.

Along the same lines of promoting a safe and more sustainable environment, another interesting way to combat climate change is by simply continuing to use virtual spaces for conferences, meetings, and other such events. The pandemic has drastically forced people around the world to adapt to its contagious spread, and as a result, the entire world had to find new ways to keep functioning without meeting face to face. This is really when zoom became one of the most important tools for students, teachers, professionals, and artists alike. In the midst of all this trauma and loss, it is good to know that we accidentally discovered that hybrid and virtual conferences can actually help combat climate change in a significant way. The greenhouse emissions released so far from the conference industry worldwide are equivalent to the amounts released by the entire US; this is a significant amount of emissions, as the United States, in 2020 alone, released 13.5% of the global emissions. Virtual or hybrid conferences can help decrease those amounts significantly, and we can do this from the comforts of home. While people still use energy and electricity at home to attend these events virtually, it is nowhere near the amount used during in-person conferences. Additionally, this is a profitable development for businesses because it costs them less to host virtual conferences than in-person conferences where they have to pay for the attendees’ transportation, their housing, and for the actual conference hall where the event would be held. Also, virtual conferences increase the accessibility of the events to those who may not be able to travel the long distances due to other obligations in their lives. Virtual and hybrid conferences and meetings can also be timesaving for all those involved, from the attendees to the hosts themselves. Virtual and hybrid meetings should in no way replace face-to-face meetings because in-person meetings are more personable, and generally fosters more community among like-minded people. With that being said, this accidental victory we seem to have stumbled upon should not be dismissed or ignored. Rather, we should explore ways in which this newfound knowledge can benefit us as we begin to reshape our future.

Nature’s Right to Exist

I wanted to include this image to showcase one of the natural ways in which our ecosystem filters our waters for us
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting a rapidly flowing river surrounded by a canopy of trees. The rapid flowing water, combined with the many rocks and ridges it passes through, act as a natural water filtration system. This is just one of the many ecosystem services that nature provides us for free, yet we continue to take nature for granted and exploit its resources.

Another innovative approach to reshaping our future might include the securing of rights to the environment itself. This is exactly what Panama, in league with other nations like Italy and Mexico, has decided to do. Panama has passed a new legislation that declares nature’s right to exist. This law forces Panama’s legislations to consider its impacts on the natural world, and whether the existing laws on the books violate nature’s right to exist. This applies to its national policies, but also extends to its foreign policies as well, meaning that Panama cannot take any foreign policy actions that might endanger the environment’s right to survive.  Some of the other nations which have passed similar legislations aim to protect the entire environment, while others have given specific protections to rivers, enabling human representatives to sue on the behalf of rivers that have been harmed or polluted. This is an important piece of legislation for environmental justice, as grievances against the environment can be heard in a court of law, and violations against the environment can be addressed and held accountable. This would be especially significant in the US, because corporations already have a voice through the Citizens United ruling, which equated money with speech, allowing corporations to exercise their “freedom of speech” through campaign contributions to potential and elected officials. Passing such a law that protects the environment’s right to exist in the US would provide a voice for the environment, to fight against some of the harmful injustices caused by environmental racism and exploitative behavior from corporations, and would serve as a check on the power and influence of multinational corporations on US policy, both in domestic and international affairs. If the United States were to do what Panama did, issues such as the Flint water crisis, or the countless instances of exploitation of indigenous lands by big industries, could be stopped, and the perpetrators of such damages caused to the environment can be legally held accountable. Nature, with its many ecosystem services, and resources it provides to all life forms on Earth, deserves to be protected, and using such a rights-based language to call for environmental justice is another way to reduce our dependency on non-renewables. Ensuring the smooth functionality of these ecosystem services (which are free to everyone), is an essential aspect of fighting the climate crisis and without protection, these services would otherwise be jeopardized, costing us money, time, and lives as we try to mimic these services to simply survive.

The Fight for Humanity’s Future

Source: Yahoo Images; Fridays for Future is a movement created by the younger generation to bring awareness to the climate crisis and demand the transition of the global dependence on nonrenewable resources, to more sustainable, renewable ones.

So, what more can be done? For one, we should continue to support green initiatives and pressure our representatives to propose legislations such as the Green New Deal, or pass our own version of Panama’s “Nature’s Right to Exist” legislation. When proposing policies, we should consider the many ways in which climate change impacts different communities, and craft our policies through a rights-based approach. While ethical consumption under a capitalistic world can be challenging, we as consumers should be more aware of the brands we consume and the products we consume, to incentivize businesses to be more aware of their impact on climate change and actively try to address it through their operations. We also should start publicly questioning some of the corporations that exploit the nature and its resources, and hold them accountable for their actions. This tactic is known as “naming and shaming”, where we publicly challenge some of the exploitative practices these companies may use, and as a result, enforcing them to be more conscious of their operations. We also need to educate others about the reality in which we live in, and how each individual can make an impact on the climate crisis through changes in habits and lifestyles. We need to bring attention to the growing climate crisis through healthy civil agitation and educate others on their carbon footprint. Ask friends and family members to be mindful of their purchases, and boycott businesses that exploit the Earth and its vulnerable populations. This is exactly what the Fridays for Future movement is attempting to do. Created by a young generation of climate activists, this global phenomenon centers around awareness and action against the climate crisis. Students sacrifice their Fridays to fight for the protection of the Earth and their own future existence. We too, as students passionate about environmental justice, can support their initiative by hosting our own climate protests here on campus, or by simply boosting the movement in our own communities. Or, as India, Ethiopia, and many other nations around the world has proven, we can simply plant more trees. Whatever it is we do, the environment depends on the actions of everyone, and how we respond to this crisis will determine whether the human species, (and many other organisms with it), will be able to exist in the future.

 

A Wonderful World Withering Away: The Malignant Industry of Mining for Minerals

I wanted to include this image to show just how massive mining projects can be.
Source:Yahoo Images; An image depicting some of the equipment used for mining minerals.

Over the past few weeks, we have been examining, in this environmental series, the various ways in which our over-consumption, coupled with the negligent practices of industry, have led to the deterioration and devastation that climate change has yet to fully unleash upon us. We have observed the intersectionality between fast fashion, human rights violations within the industry, and how the fashion industry perpetuates colonialism and imperialism while simultaneously amplifying the climate crisis. We have also studied in detail the process of oil development, and the very real consequences that carelessness from industry can have on communities and ecosystems alike. We have further focused on the lasting implications of these industries, and how environmental racism and exploitation, both of resources and people, have led to global inequities in quality of life. Now, we shift our focus to the mining industry, which encompasses so many raw materials that are transformed into the products we consume on a regular basis around the world. These products include materials for constructing infrastructure like roads and buildings, raw materials used to build and support the electric grid, and even materials used in today’s newest laptops and smartphones. One can even argue that mining is a vital part of an advanced industrial society.

The Mining Industry

I wanted to showcase how mining can cause water pollution
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of a water source that has been polluted due to mining operations in the area.

The mining industry can be categorized into many different groups, but some of the most popular categories include, coal and Uranium mining, metal mining and industrial mining. Coal mining, and the mining for Uranium are largely used for energy purposes, such as generating electricity or using the mined Uranium for nuclear power. Metal mining consists of mining for metals such as zinc, gold, copper, iron, silver, and other such precious materials. These metals can be sold for use in technological devices, but, in cases like iron and zinc, can be turned into various products, from tools to jewelry. Finally, industrial mining digs up raw materials for manufacturing and industrial consumption, including raw materials and chemicals used in construction jobs. These three areas of mining alone impact so many aspects of our society, from our energy consumption to our smart gadgets and our stylish accessories, down to the buildings we work out of, and to the homes we live and grow up in. This is just an introduction to just how crucial a part mining plays in our lives, and why it is necessary for us as a world to begin to ween off of this dependency on mining and shift our focus toward sustainability and renewable resources. In order to fully comprehend the need for this shift, we must look closer at some of the mining techniques and the dramatic impacts their operations have on the environment.

Surface Mining Techniques and their Environmental Impacts

Strip Mining

I wanted to include an example what strip mining looks like
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting how destructive mining operations can be. This is only one of the methods used to mine for minerals.

A commonly used surface mining technique, strip mining is used to remove the surface layers of soil until the desired resource is exposed. Especially used for coal extraction, this process includes drilling and blasting portions of the earth to reveal the minable resource. These blasted off pieces of “overburden” are cleared and removed from the site, and chunks of coal, (or other resources), are extracted from the blasted site and loaded up onto trucks that transport them away for use. This method greatly impacts the environment in the surrounding areas. The earth is made up of many layers of minerals. These minerals are made up of decomposed organic matter that have been compressed over time into materials we extract today, such as fossil fuels and sand. One of these layers consist of topsoil, a rich layer of naturally composed, nutrient-rich soil that is crucial to the land’s ability to grow food or herbs. The strip mining method, along with some of the other techniques of mining, leaves the topsoil exposed to the natural elements, and the soil can begin to erode, leaving the land barren and jeopardizing its ability to support life. Strip mining can also pollute nearby sources of water by releasing certain acidic minerals that are dug out of the ground during mining operations and spill into the waterways, react to the water and oxygen, expose the marine life to toxic waters and pollute water sources used for domestic and agricultural consumption. These practices impact the biodiversity of the regions in which they take place, transforming more than just aesthetic beauty for us to enjoy. Biodiversity serves varying purposes, as each organism is part of a larger food chain, and having a rich, vibrant, biodiverse environment comes with its own benefits to the planet and its life forms. Certain keystone species play crucial roles in the survival of an ecosystem, and these mining practices endanger their existence, further deteriorating the conditions of survival for many species living in these areas, including humans.

I wanted to showcase the different layers of the soil
Source: Yahoo Images; The different layers of the soil

Open-Pit Mining

I wanted to showcase an example of an open-pit mining operation
Source: Yahoo Images; An open-pit mining operation that has carved out the sides of mountains and formed a concave pit.

Another surface method of mining is the open-pit mining technique. This process is similar to the strip-mining method, in the sense that it also requires the blasting of mining zones. It does differ however, in that these explosions are used to create large craters, and then machines are used to extract precious materials from these concave, open pits. Materials extracted from this process are also transported away via trucks, similar to the strip-mining method. This method is commonly used for both coal mining, as well as mining metals such as copper, gold, or iron. This method, just like the strip-mining method, causes severe degradation and destruction of the natural environment. Some of these impacts include polluted waterways, air pollution, soil erosion, and a destruction of habitats that support and promote biodiversity. The process of open-pit mining, during the blasting and drilling of the earth, release metals and radioactivity into the dust clouds. Anyone breathing this air is at risk of developing serious respiratory illnesses. In addition to the dust clouds, the emissions released by the heavy machinery also add to the polluted air of which mining workers as well as local residents have to breathe regularly. As if that was not dangerous enough, open-pit mining also causes water pollution, in similar ways to strip-mining. The release of sulfur into the local waterways, and its reaction to the oxygen turns the water acidic, endangering the aquatic life, and poisoning the local communities’ waterways. Similar to other surface mining techniques, the open-pit technique also requires massive amounts of ground water and freshwater for its operations, further threatening the local communities’ access to water.

Mountaintop Removal

I wanted to showcase how mountaintop mining can change the entire landscape of a region
Source: Yahoo Images; A mining operation that used the mountaintop removal method, where the crowns of mountains are removed to expose the minerals below.

One of the most landscape-altering surface mining methods, mountaintop removal is a technique used to mine coal by blasting off the tops of mountains (which are filled with biodiverse forests), tapping directly into the resources they want to mine. Like the other surface mining methods discussed above, this method also has similar environmental impacts to the air, the water, and the area’s biodiversity. The waters are polluted with the toxins released from the mining process, killing off marine life, while entire forests are blasted out of existence. This method of mining is especially harmful for climate change because it permanently alters the topography of an area, releases tons of carbon emissions and other pollutants into the air, while destroying the many trees and plants that could have helped store some of the carbon emissions being released from these operations. This method also leads to soil erosion which can cause an increase in natural disasters such as flooding, forest fires, and landslides, and leave the land barren, making it difficult for local residents to grow crops on it.

These surface mining techniques are some of many methods that are used to extract minerals and valuable resources out of the earth. We discussed in detail the process of oil and natural gas extraction, using drilling and fracking techniques, and many of us are also familiar with the underground coal mines and tunnels that go on for miles beneath the surface. Those extraction methods come with their own risks and hazards to both the environment and its people. While we will not be covering those mining methods in this blog, we will be focusing more on the mining industry more generally, and its impact on human lives.

Human Rights Violations in the Mining Industry

I wanted to include this image to showcase how the mining industry, similar to other industries like Big Oil and fashion, use child labor as a cheaper labor force
Source: Yahoo Images; A depiction of children working in an aboveground mining operation. Similar to Fast Fashion and Big Oil, the mining industry has exploited children and vulnerable communities in order to find cheaper labor forces.

One of the most horrendous violations of human lives comes from the mining industry’s use of child labor in their mines, especially in poorer nations of the global south. While this certainly has to do with issues of environmental racism and avaricious profit motives, child labor has also become an increasingly preferred labor force used in multinational industries like fashion, oil, and mining, to name a few. The use of child labor in mining practices denies these children their entire childhood, and instead exposes them to dangerous working conditions that end up impacting their health for the rest of their lives. These children are exposed to toxic chemicals and micro metals and radioactivity released from the blasting process that they end up breathing in. These are especially harmful for developing children, whose growth can be stunted because of constant exposure to toxins like sulfur, mercury, and uranium. They are also required to work in contaminated waters, leading to skin infections and other issues that can impact their hormone levels and their overall growth. In addition to these dangers, children working at these mining sites are also in constant danger of physical harm from heavy machinery and the possibility of landslides due to weakened landscapes caused by the explosions and other disruptive practices.

Due to the profit-centered nature of these multinational industries, children and adults are exposed to some harrowing working conditions to meet the profit margins. These conditions have serious health implications, including lung disease, hearing issues, exposure to radioactive materials, mental health issues, and even back injuries. Respiratory illnesses and risks of developing chronic lung problems such as black lung disease, are very real consequences of breathing in the polluted air around these mining zones. Workers can develop issues with their hearing due to the loud and constant blasts from the mining operations, as well as the noisy machinery used in the mining areas. The blasts themselves, as discussed above, add metals into the air, and release radioactive gas into the surrounding air. Although some miners are given protective gear against these dangerous gases, miners are frequently required to breathe in this polluted air, which has large amounts of radon, a cancer-causing gas, while simply trying to just do their job. Due to the physically straining work that miners are expected to perform, mining can induce incredible amounts of stress. Miners also are required to work long hours, expend a lot of physical energy, and as a result, are more likely to injure themselves on the job. Although miners in the United States and other industrialized nations have workplace protections that shield the miners from obtaining injuries at the job site (or holding their employers accountable should such workplace injury occur), those working in areas without these regulations are more vulnerable to being injured and receiving little to no compensation or assistance through these injuries.

I wanted to showcase just how much dust and other particles are released from these practices, resulting in air pollution for the entire region
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting an aerial view of a mining operation and the massive amounts of dust and other particles that are being released into the air. This is the same air that workers and locals living and working in these areas have to breathe into their lungs.

Why Should We Care and What Can Be Done About It?

Upon reflection, the mining industry seems to be damaging to the environment and, because of its harmful practices, a threat to the future of humanity. Even as we continue to extract more and more minerals from the earth, we are slowly running out of resources to mine. Some experts invested in the mining industry argue that the next step is to switch gears and expand our technological advancements to be able to mine asteroids and other elements in space. While this suggestion might address the issue of resource availability, it does not address the fact that these practices, (along with other industries), are adding to the climate crisis. Until anthropogenic actions are not regulated in industry, climate change is going to continue to be an existential threat to this Earth.

On an international level, therefore, regulations need to be passed on mining practices, and the working conditions of miners. Along with these regulations, multinational corporations that fund this industry should be stopped from exploiting vulnerable nations for their cheap labor and loose regulations. Just like with other natural resources, many of the economies of nations that are exploited for their resources and labor are heavily dependent on the sale of these resources. It is important, therefore, to ensure that they can shift their economies into stable ones that depend on renewable resources before abandoning these already vulnerable nations to deal with the consequences of the exploitation of the mining industry. On a more domestic level, the United States needs to transition into a greener, more sustainable economy so that there is no pressure for constant exploitation of these nonrenewable resources such as coal, oil and gas, and other such minerals. Stopping mining practices can allow the earth to heal and grow back some of the biodiversity that has been lost from centuries of exploitative mining practices. In addition to transitioning into a greener society, we should provide some sort of relief for communities that have been impacted by these careless practices and ensure that remediation attempts take place to restore the impacted lands to conditions that existed before the mining practices took place. On a more personal level, we as consumers have some power over the industries we incentivize. This is still true when it comes to stopping some forms of mining, (such as mining for gems), but largely out of our individual hands when it comes to stopping the use of certain resources that are a crucial part of our infrastructure, such as coal. Even with this in mind, one thing that each person can do is educate one another about the various impacts these mining practices have on the environment and on human lives as a whole. Bringing awareness to issues such as this can help alter the public opinions about using such resources, and in turn can lead to a much-needed paradigm shift in our approach to ending climate change.

A Wonderful World Withering Away: Crude Oil, Cruelty, and the Climate Crisis

I wanted to include a visual image of how much impact oil spills can have.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting an oil spill over a body of water that caused a fire to break out.

As gas prices continue to skyrocket in response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, many people are feeling the impacts of our global reliance on nonrenewable resources and reconsidering the pros and cons of our collective consumption of these natural resources. Many nations are worried about how their access to natural resources is closely related to the foreign relations and policies they support. Others, like Germany, see this as an opportunity to relieve their dependency on nonrenewable resources as a whole, and to transform their societies to use greener, more sustainable, renewable resources, such as solar and wind energy. As climate change continues to be a growing threat to the future of humanity, transitioning our societies and our infrastructure to support and even incentivize the use of renewable resources can serve the purpose of not only combating climate change but can also create new job opportunities worldwide. To comprehend the need to shift to a more sustainable society, we need to focus on the details of the oil development process. This includes the development, transportation, and distribution of the oil products, and how oil wastes are managed. Examining these issues more carefully can help us better understand how these processes impact the environment around us. The oil and gas industry is responsible for countless environmental and human rights violations, and their practices and international influence have horrifying consequences. It is crucial, now more than ever, to realize just how dependent we are on this resource, how that dependency can lead us to make flawed foreign policy decisions, and why that can have irreversible consequences on the future of mankind.

Crude Oil and the Environment

Crude Oil Extraction and Development

I wanted to provide an image of some of the technology used in oil extraction
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting some of the oil development infrastructures, like the oil rig in this image.

The process of developing and refining oil is a complex one, in which the crude oil is separated into many different products throughout the process. Crude oil is separated into gasoline, diesel, petroleum, jet fuel, and even propane gas, to name a few. To explain a complex process simply, oil development infrastructures are built near sites rich with natural oil and gas, and this infrastructure drills the resources out of the ground in an extraction process. The extraction process, after the initial extraction of the resources, also includes the practice of fracking. The process of fracking includes the use of fracking fluid, made up of water, sand, and chemicals, which are injected back down the drilled site forcefully, in order to extract any remaining amounts of oil and gas hidden inside of rocks. The extracted oil, known as crude oil, is then processed in various ways to refine the crude oil into petroleum products. Crude oil goes under a distillation process, where it is heated up in a furnace and distilled in a tower that separates the various products based on varying temperatures and density and is treated in special vacuum units and cracking units to deliver the final set of products. The special vacuums help separate the various products based on temperature and density, and the cracking units alter the molecular weight of hydrogen atoms to form the final products. Each barrel of crude oil can produce about half a barrel of gasoline, a quarter of a barrel of diesel fuel, a tenth of a barrel of jet fuel, and the rest can be refined to be used as other petroleum products.

In this part of the oil development process, one of the most environmentally impactful practices is the process of fracking. This process has harmed both the environment and its residents, and in this way, can have long-term consequences. It includes the possibility of fracking fluids leaking into groundwater, or surface water, and polluting these sources with cancer-causing chemicals. Also, the process of fracking alone requires tremendous amounts of water to extract the last bits of oil and gas trapped inside rocks. In this way, fracking is not only polluting the underground and above water sources, it is also using the remaining clean water for the fracking itself. Since the rise of fracking practices over the past few decades, even American residents who live in places such as Flint, Michigan, have been struggling with health concerns and having access to clean water due to fracking practices in their community. These are all consequences of simply one part of the oil development process. Once the oil is developed, how is the waste from the process managed?

Managing the Waste from the Oil Development Process

I wanted to visually portray some of the real consequences of irresponsible disposal of waste.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of an unlined sludge pit, where the wastes from the oil development process are being stored without a barrier between the waste and the soil. This can lead to polluted groundwaters and aquifers, as well as cause soil pollution.

Following the extraction and refinement of the crude oil, the wastes that are derived from this process, which is a mixture of water, minerals, chemicals, oil waste, and the toxins released from the process, are required to be treated, stored, and disposed of in specified ways outlined by regulatory legislations. These requirements maintain that the oil waste referred to as sludge, is to be treated so that hazardous chemicals are removed from the sludge, stored in safe areas, (such as above-ground pits that are lined to prevent the wastes from seeping into the soil or the groundwater), and disposed of in secure, underground landfills with specific disposal instructions.

Failure to adhere to the safe disposal of these hazardous wastes can cause environmental, physical, and social harm. Even during the disposal process, including treatment of hazardous waste, storage of the sludge, and safe disposal of this waste, pose incredible risks to both the environment and the health of both the employees and the local residents exposed to this waste. Hazardous waste is generally treated through various methods, like incinerating the waste, which leads to greater air pollution in nearby areas. These chemicals in the air can then be breathed in by employees, or can even be carried to nearby civilian populations, increasing the risks of respiratory illnesses among its citizens. As with the case in Ecuador, (explained below), some oil and gas companies have been reported to store these wastes in unlined pits, and incinerate them in the open, instead of in an enclosed, controlled environment. These corrupt practices further cause respiratory issues for local residents in the area.

Water is also used throughout the oil development process, and because it contains chemicals and toxins that have mixed in with these products, the leftover sludge is supposed to be treated and disposed of with extreme caution at the end of the process. In order to do this, massive pits are dug up and lined in the ground, where the sludge is stored until it can be treated and disposed of. Not doing so can endanger the surrounding environment, as the sludge can leak into the ground, polluting the soil and rendering it infertile for plant growth. It can also seep into nearby streams and rivers, polluting drinking water used by local populations and the area’s species alike. Similarly, although many nations have strict laws on the books requiring oil companies to store waste in lined pits, many wind up storing the sludge in unlined pits, polluting the nearby waters, and leaking oil sludge into the soil. This not only impacts the ecosystem that depends on the soil and the nearby water sources but also prevents the polluted soil from being used for agriculture, impacting the local food security.

I wanted to showcase how oil spills impact wildlife and marine life.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of a pelican covered in oil. This is an example of what happens to the wildlife that encounters oil spills.

Additionally, people who use those streams for recreational purposes, end up developing skin rashes, cancer, and other health issues. When disposing of hazardous waste, if it is not done properly, or if the waste begins to seep into the earth, it can continue to accumulate and pollute our lands and waters. Furthermore, because of the longevity of these hazardous chemicals, if they contaminate our groundwaters or aquifers, they can be very hard to treat, and the water can stay contaminated indefinitely. These chemicals can even accumulate in the species that use these waters for nourishment, and as a result, bioaccumulate inside humans through the web of consumption. Throughout the process of treating, storing, and disposing of the sludge, oil companies attempt to extract and reuse as much of the exploitable oil from the process, attempting to recycle as much of the resource as possible. Even though this process of recycling the resource is less wasteful, it still ends up adding pollutants into the atmosphere and environment and impacting the lives of all the organisms sharing the land and its resources. Although we have been exposed to the countless impacts oil development, and oil waste treatment have on the environment and its life forms,   the transportation of oil poses risks that are equally horrifying.

Oil Transportation and Distribution

I wanted to include this image to show how dangerous it can be for the local residents if there are leaking pipelines. The massive lengths of these pipelines increase the damage their leaks can do.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image showcasing how long and disruptive pipelines can be to the environment, and some of the potential hazards from defective pipelines

The dangers that come from the irresponsible handling of oil and gas do not only pertain to the development of the oil products, or the disposal of their waste. The oil can pose grave dangers to the environment through the process of transporting refined goods, either by land or across the seas. Pipelines have been constructed to transport oil domestically and they run along hundreds of miles of populated land putting the residents near these pipelines at risk. Many protests have broken out against the building of new pipelines. One such example is the protests that broke out against the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, which was proposed to be built over the Ogalala Aquifer, a source of water for residential and agricultural use that serves millions of Americans living in nearby states. Many people opposed the pipeline being built because of the danger of oil spills polluting one of the main sources of drinking water for people in this area. These pipelines can also cut across the migration routes used by many species that reside in those areas, injuring, or even killing many organisms that travel these routes and further jeopardizing the biodiversity of the impacted areas. Biodiversity is an essential element to the survival of all life forms on Earth. Each organism plays an important role, (no matter how small or insignificant it may seem to us), to maintain the functionality of various ecosystems. Part of the dangers posed by this threat to biodiversity comes from the fear of losing keystone species, ones that play a fundamental role in the existence of certain ecosystems. Without these players, the entire ecosystem can be altered in disastrous ways, and this would in turn lead to more loss of biodiversity, feeding into a positive feedback loop that helps accelerate the climate crisis.

Furthermore, there are many dangers posed by shipments of oil across large bodies of water, including the possibility of oil spills occurring in the middle of the ocean or large bodies of water, destroying marine biodiversity. Oil spills are not only damaging marine life but are also tremendously difficult to clean up on large bodies of water. This has been a constant issue that the oil industry has struggled with. Some of these massive spills, such as the Exxon Valdez spill, or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, have left the impacted communities with immense consequences. The Exxon Valdez spill was responsible for spilling 11 million gallons of oil into the waters of the Gulf of Alaska, destroying countless species of fish and marine wildlife, and polluting the waters, impacting the livelihood of the local communities whose economies depended on the marine wildlife. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which occurred off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, was caused by the fracturing of a weak core inside the oil rig. This fracture released natural gas into the rig, and caused an explosion, allowing for the leakage of oil into the gulf. Approximately 134 million gallons of oil spilled into the waters, marking this event as one of the biggest oil spills in American history. Along with the environmental impacts that both these spills brought about, the process used to clean up the oil spill also uses many chemicals that can lead to a number of health issues, including cancer, developmental and reproductive issues, respiratory issues, and even food poisoning from consuming contaminated seafood and wildlife. These health issues impact not only the people that live near these spill sites but also the workers who are part of the clean-up team, inhaling the fumes and toxins from the cleanup process.

I wanted to include this image to showcase just how intense the clean-up process can be after encountering an oil spill.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting a clean-up crew, dealing with the aftermath of an oil spill

Environmental Racism and Big Oil

Environmental Racism

After learning about how oil is produced, distributed, and the ways in which oil waste is disposed of, it is equally important to examine who is largely impacted by these practices. As with many other industries that have practices that cause pollution, oil companies have long been accused of being negligent and careless when operating in disenfranchised areas, whether it be domestic, or international. In America, oil infrastructures and waste disposal sites are generally located in impoverished areas, and these areas are largely occupied by people of color, especially African Americans, and Native Americans. African Americans have historically been forced into impoverished and polluted spaces, and forced to work the most dangerous or strenuous jobs. The targeting of Native Americans by these industries is especially cruel due to their spiritual bond with the environment and its many wonders, and their cultural dependence on the environment as a whole. In a similar fashion, on the international stage, the disproportionate exposure from the oil infrastructures seems to be more prominent in poverty-stricken nations, and because the oil companies operating in poor nations have a greater political and economic influence over the governments and their people, they are able to evade the strict environmental regulation policies, endangering the planet, and its people in the process.

The reality of environmental racism in the oil industry, and its negligent practices, may be influenced by historical tones of colonialism and imperialism. Ecuador is one such nation that has been exposed to environmental racism, and one that has been fighting for environmental justice from the recklessness of the oil industry for over twenty years. Ecuadorians have been struggling to hold Chevron accountable for its faulty oil infrastructure, and the consequences to the environment and the local residents as a result of its operations. Commonly referred to as the “Amazon Chernobyl,” the oil development process in Ecuador has had environmental and health impacts that are magnificently larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. During its operation in Ecuador, Texaco, (and Chevron, through its ownership), has been responsible for spilling over 17 billion gallons of oil into Ecuadorian lands, and over 16 billion gallons of toxic waste into the local sources of water. The Ecuadorians addressed many of the health issues that were caused by the operation of the oil infrastructure and brought attention to the corrupt practices of Chevron. The Ecuadorians argued that Texaco, (which was bought by Chevron in 2001), had dumped their toxic wastes into unlined landfills and water sources both above and below the surface. Over 900 unlined pits were discovered through the investigation process of the class-action lawsuit filed against Chevron. At times, when the pits were overflowing, the oil company would just spread excess amounts of crude oil wastes onto the roads traversed by locals. Additionally, they argued that Texaco had violated their right to live on their ancestral lands, forcing them to migrate away from the water sources that were crucial for their survival. Furthermore, Texaco’s practices polluted their soils and waterways, endangering their food sources, and destroying the biodiversity of the environment. The Ecuadorians filed a class lawsuit against Chevron, arguing that Chevron had lied about its remediation attempts, (where the environmental damages are addressed and reversed), insisting that Chevron had just covered over large unlined pits with mounds of soil instead of properly treating the wastes. This lawsuit as investigated and processed in Ecuador recognized the pain and suffering of its Ecuadorian plaintiffs and rewarded them with a $9.5 billion settlement from Chevron. Instead of paying this settlement, Chevron has continually tried to downplay its egregious acts and has been attempting to shift the attention from the Ecuadorian lawsuit, to propose unfounded claims of corruption during the trial process in Ecuadorian courts. Chevron’s response to this lawsuit has been a massive overreach of corporate influence over the judicial process, in which they have been attempting to control the outcome of the lawsuit against them. Chevron’s latest attempts at influencing this outcome have been to harass human rights lawyer Steven Donziger, who worked on the Ecuadorian case against Chevron.

The Ecuadorian case is just one example out of many that exist around the world. Poorer nations are exploited for their resources and their cheap labor, and exposed to harmful chemicals and the pollution of their air, waters, and lands, slowly killing off the inhabitants of the Global South, or leaving them behind with multiple health issues and contaminated resources. These negligent actions are impacting the immediate areas of oil development but also wrecking the livelihood of its inhabitants nearby. Although the impacts of the oil industry’s practices are so widespread, because of its scope and political influence on the global stage, Big Oil continues to exploit vulnerable populations without much regulation or accountability.

I wanted to include this image to showcase how easily freshwater sources and groundwater sources can be polluted by the process of extracting, transporting, and irresponsibly disposing of oil sludge.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a river polluted from an oil spill

Big Oil and its Impact on International Affairs

Big Oil, referring to the massive influence the oil and gas industry has worldwide, is largely responsible for the public belief that oil and gas are necessary resources for human survival, and as a result, holds a great deal of influence over policies both domestic and abroad. There are many reasons behind Big Oil’s power, and its massive wealth (and its access to resources as a result), allow the industry access to political leaders (and policy decisions) throughout the world. Some of these oil companies have more money than the financial capabilities of entire nations. For example, according to Business Insider, Chevron, alone, has enough wealth to rank as the 46th largest nation in the world. They have more wealth than the GDP of the Czech Republic.

Along with this massive wealth, comes an immense amount of political power, especially since these oil companies have access to markets worldwide, and rely on the vulnerabilities of Global South nations as a cheap labor source. Big Oil companies are usually multi-national companies, where they have access to global markets, and due to the sale of highly valued resources such as oil and gas, these companies also have immense influence over how regulatory laws are created in economically vulnerable nations. In exchange for the host nation’s connection to the global market and an increase in job opportunities, these companies, like other multi-national companies, employ locals for a cheaper labor force, under loosely regulated conditions, to maximize profits. In this way, nations with harsher environmental regulations, predominantly Western nations, and even within them, communities with more environmental oversight (predominantly wealthier communities), are less vulnerable to the predatory ways of Big Oil.

To maintain this global influence, Big Oil has helped launch and has funded campaigns against climate change. Many of the think tanks that propose “evidence” to debunk climate science is funded by Big Oil. These climate deniers have transformed the climate issue from an existential crisis that requires global cooperation to a controversial issue, delaying the much-needed global actions to stop climate change from destroying the planet. In this way, big oil controls the geopolitical policies among nations, and because of the global dependence on these resources, Big Oil has immense control over the climate discourse and the global struggle against climate change.

What Can We Do?: Releasing Big Oil’s Global Stronghold

There are various levels at which this issue can be addressed. Globally, all nations need to shift from an economy that depends on nonrenewable energy sources, to one that is more sustainable and greener. This means transforming our infrastructure to support renewable sources of energy, preserving what little biodiversity we have left, and engaging in a global remediation project to possibly reverse some of the effects of climate change. On the international stage, the United Nations needs to establish a system that is in charge of regulating multi-national corporations and holding them accountable for instances of human rights violations, such as exploitation and environmental racism, and propose an environmental rights charter in the same way we have charters on civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), like Amazon Watch, are bringing attention to the exploitations and environmental degradations of the Amazonian Rainforest, and its impact on the local residents. Supporting such organizations can be a start. We can also pressure our representatives and political leaders to vote on greener legislation and denounce subsidizing oil companies. Additionally, we can urge our lawmakers to help shift the society and economy to support a more sustainable future. This can only be done by holding policymakers accountable for their campaign donations, urging them to refuse campaign funding from Big Oil companies, which can influence their loyalties on policy positions. We also need to be in favor of bettering our infrastructure and public transportation systems. Doing so would allow us to be less reliant on oil and gas for private consumption while improving our public transportation systems to provide better access to all those living on the outskirts. On the state and local levels, we can pressure our school boards to include teaching environmental science in the core curriculums. Doing so would introduce younger generations to living more sustainable lives, and in the process, establish the global realities and consequences of anthropogenic climate change. There also needs to be more discussion about instances of environmental racism and how best to combat it with social policies. Finally, if you want to make personal changes to your lifestyle instead, you can do your part by paying attention to what’s going on around you. You can stand up for the plight of those who are being forced to deal with environmental racism by educating your friends and family. Also, you can make incremental changes to your behavior to transition your lifestyle into a greener, sustainable one.

 

America: The Land of the Hungry

To portray what food security means to those experiencing food insecurity
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a caregiver and child surrounded with sunflowers, standing in a garden. There are words that run along the image describing what food security means to the people in this community.

As an immigrant from India who has become an American citizen, food insecurity is something that I have witnessed a lot in my short lifetime. As a kid, I remember seeing people on the streets of India, both young and old, begging for mere scraps, and felt guilty for not being able to do anything to help. Yet, little did I know that I would come to experience similar food insecurities, but in America, a land supposedly filled with life, liberty, and happiness. It was in America that I first became aware of the realities of being poor, and it was here that I learned how to live off of $20 a week.

Among other things that have come into the limelight due to the pandemic, people are starting to pay more attention to the growing food insecurities in America. The United States is one of the most affluent nations in the entire world, yet it is also home to some of the largest food deserts in the world. This phenomenon, which is an incomprehensible reality in one of the richest nations in the world, has only become worse over the past few years, mainly due to the increasing inflation coupled with stagnant wages, which have only been exacerbated due to the pandemic. Food insecurity has become a reality to many Americans who live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to make ends meet, even with working multiple jobs.

Food Deserts

I included this image to showcase the precooked meals that are frozen and a convenient meal choice for hard working Americans.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting the frozen foods aisle in a grocery store

So, what are food deserts and why should we care about them? Well, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food deserts are areas in which access to healthy food and groceries is limited due to a number of reasons, including distance, individual abilities, and even the location of the neighborhood someone resides in. Distance becomes an issue for those who live far away from stores that sell fresh produce, including those who live in rural areas as well as those who live on the outskirts of urban areas.

Distance can be an even greater challenge if the person or family does not have reliable transportation. This is especially true in rural areas where public transportation does not extend to. Even with public transportation being available, the bus routes in most cities run on scheduled times and have limited hours of service. This means that anyone that works odd hours may not have access to the public transportation system. Furthermore, people that live farther away from grocery stores and that don’t have reliable transportation may have to be able to walk home, meaning that they can only purchase the amount of food they can carry in their hands. This also means that they have to make frequent trips to the grocery store to be able to have their nutritional needs met.

Similarly, individual abilities, such as family income, can greatly impact the food choices a person has access to. Purchasing healthy food is expensive, and if you want something that is free of pesticides or harmful chemicals (organic produce), it’s going to cost you even more money, money that you may not have. Additionally, eating healthy is not always a choice that people with low income have; the choices they are usually presented with are eating something (even if it is unhealthy) or starving for the next few days. You still have to have the energy to go to work and make money to pay your other bills. Roughly half of the American population made less than $35,000 annually, according to the Social Security Administration’s wage reports from 2019. These statistics have only increased as a consequence of the ongoing pandemic.

The neighborhood that a person lives in has a direct impact on their access to fresh food as well. Due to racist policies such as gerrymandering and gentrification, neighborhoods are separated based on the average income of their residents, and this usually means that the poor, (which are made up disproportionately of Black and Brown people), are pushed into underdeveloped areas and away from the up-and-coming neighborhoods in the urban centers. As a result, businesses are more reluctant to open up in impoverished areas, fearing that they won’t make much profit, and this extends to stores that sell fresh produce.

Food Insecurity: Some Hard Facts

I wanted to showcase how prevalent food insecurity is, and how it is concentrated a lot more in the South.
Source: Yahoo Images; A map of the United States from a 2017 analysis of food insecurity in America

If the USDA definition of food deserts is applied in the United States, at least 19 million people live in food deserts. Looking closer to home, in Alabama, as of 2017, over 16% of its residents are facing food insecurities. Even right here in our own backyard, Birmingham Times reported in 2019 that around 69% of Birmingham residents live in food deserts. That is over half of the Birmingham population! As I have learned as recently as this semester during a Social Justice Café event, (a weekly event sponsored by the Institute of Human Rights at UAB that focuses on social justice issues), around 25% of UAB students are cutting meals, close to half of our UAB student population can’t afford to eat healthily, and over 35% of UAB students experience chronic food insecurity! I am one of these students; I am not ashamed to admit it. Despite how much I conserve and try to budget, I still cut meals constantly, I continue to not be able to afford to eat healthily, and I have been experiencing chronic food insecurity since before the pandemic. The reasons behind my struggles are no fault of my own; they are a domino effect of the various systemic failures that continue to plunge millions of hard-working Americans into poverty and as a result, food insecurity.

Eating Healthy: Why it’s a problem especially if you are poor

I wanted to include this image to portray how expensive buying fresh produce can really be.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture showcasing the various produce selections at a grocery store with prices depicted next to each item

If a person has access to $20 for a week’s worth of groceries, spending it all on a couple of fruits and vegetables will not ensure that they can feed themselves and their loved ones for the next few days. What will help them make it through the week are spending on canned goods and processed food items that have a longer shelf life and cut down the time of food preparation. This means buying dollar menu items at fast-food restaurants or shopping at dollar stores for cheap snacks and pre-cooked meals. Low-income families who have experienced food insecurity for generations may not have acquired the knowledge to cook healthy food in a timely manner. They may not have had the resources to learn how to cook, or never had anyone to learn from.

Additionally, eating healthy requires that people cook with fresh, raw ingredients to avoid the preservatives and chemicals used in processed foods for a longer shelf-life. This also means cooking with items that may go to waste if not cooked in a timely manner. Most Americans struggling with food insecurity work low-income jobs, sometimes multiple jobs at a time, and the last thing they want to do is go home after a hard day of work and prepare meals for their family. Fast food is an easy, convenient alternative, and it is this convenience that has made them successful despite the unhealthy, low-nutritious food they sell.

Furthermore, this consumption of unhealthy foods with little nutritional value leads to chronic health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease. Even eating fruits and vegetables that have been grown with the use of pesticides and herbicides has been proven to expose those consuming them to toxic chemicals known to cause cancer. Therefore, to truly enjoy healthy produce, people have to purchase organic foods, which doubles the costs of groceries. Additionally, having adequate access to healthcare is another major challenge for those that live below the poverty line, and generally targets households that are already marginalized. These disparities have only been exacerbated due to the pandemic. As a consequence of the way that American healthcare is set up, most people living in poverty tend to avoid going to the doctor unless they absolutely have to, which further perpetuates the cycle of reactionary medical care rather than a precautionary one. Food insecurity is also surrounded by stigmatization, blaming the starving people for failing to put food on the table for themselves and their families instead of focusing on why this trend is common amongst almost half of the country’s hard-working citizens.

Non-Government Food Aid and Government Food Aid

I included this image to bring attention to the existence of food pantries and their part in combatting food insecurity
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture outside of a food pantry in Baltimore

Well, what about the government? Doesn’t it help those that are facing food insecurities? Government food aid comes in the form of SNAP/EBT benefits, commonly known as “food stamps,” and while it has helped many people struggling with food insecurity, this program has a lot of issues with it (too many to discuss in this blog). For today, however, let’s just examine some of the eligibility requirements to even qualify for food assistance. For one, Congress sets a threshold, requiring that people applying for the program must prove to the government that their income and expenses together show that they are living over 100% below the poverty line.

Furthermore, states can also add additional requirements such as passing a drug test or passing a background check. Some states disqualify applicants that have a criminal history from receiving assistance. If you’ve read my previous blogs about the realities of re-entering society after being imprisoned, you know why this is problematic.

Additionally, if the applicant is an immigrant, legal or illegal, qualifying for food assistance is almost impossible. Those who think that citizenship should be a requirement for food assistance don’t understand what human rights are. Food is a necessary resource that ALL humans have to have, and any person struggling to eat deserves to be helped, regardless of their citizenship status. There is also a requirement that people applying for assistance should have a job working at least 20 hours a week. This means that if you are unemployed, you cannot qualify for food assistance. That is exactly when you need the most help when you have no income or are transitioning from one job to another. On top of all these extensive eligibility requirements, if you are on strike, expressing your right to protest, something secured to you by the Constitution of the United States of America, you will not be able to qualify for food assistance. These conditions that require the people struggling with poverty to prove they are poor enough to receive assistance are demeaning, insulting, and undignifying to those who require the aid.

There are local non-profit groups and state institutions that provide food banks and food pantries where people can go to access food, but these places are usually located in more populated areas, meaning that people who live in rural areas or on the outskirts of cities face additional struggles accessing these food aid institutions. Transportation again becomes an issue for people living far from food banks and further limits their accessibility. Additionally, due to the stigma that surrounds food insecurity, people are made to feel guilty about their situation, and as a result, many avoid going to the food banks altogether.

How COVID has Made Food Insecurity Worse

The recent pandemic has changed many aspects of day-to-day life for people around the world. It has intensified the struggles of many Americans who were barely making it through life before the virus took hold. This same trend holds true when analyzing the pandemic’s impact on people experiencing food insecurity in America. The number of people struggling to feed themselves and their families has increased from 19 million in 2017 to over 50 million people in 2020. This is understandable, as many Americans lost their jobs during the shutdown of the economy, and many did not qualify for unemployment benefits.

Furthermore, due to the unhealthy nature of cheap foods, many Americans are experiencing malnutrition, dealing with obesity, diabetes, and heart problems, among other health issues. These health conditions have made them more vulnerable to catching the virus, and without an income, paying for healthcare becomes a major issue. Additionally, health insurance in America is tied to employment, and many Americans lost their jobs due to the economic shutdown, and as a result, also lost their health insurance coverage. All these factors have collectively worsened the lives of the poor and marginalized communities, adding to the growing financial instability and food insecurities these families face.

What Can We Do About It?

I decided to include this image to showcase how community gardens can help in the fight against food insecurity
Source: Yahoo Images; A man standing with a shovel inside of a community garden filled with growing vegetables and plants.

There are a lot of systemic issues to unpack that either leads to or exacerbates food insecurities. These issues need to be addressed through public policies that would help those struggling to eat by putting more money back into their pockets. These measures include pressuring our local policymakers to support legislation that would increase wages, lower eligibility requirements to access federal food aid, make healthy food more affordable and accessible, provide better public transportation, make healthcare affordable and accessible, and regulate businesses that exploit people to meet profit margins. All these things could help destigmatize food insecurity in our society and empower people to help themselves.

While food insecurity is a systemic issue that needs greater attention from our policymakers, there are still things that we can do ourselves. First, for those who are experiencing food insecurity here on campus, a resource called Blazer Kitchen is available for students and staff members, and their families to take advantage of. Blazer Kitchen is an onsite food pantry for those experiencing food insecurity. I’ve used Blazer Kitchen before, and while it is still a newly growing program, I have been grateful to have this resource at hand.

Second, for those who want to help reduce food waste, those who wish to shop at home, or those that have transportation limitations, Imperfect Foods is an online delivery service that has partnered with Feeding America (an organization aimed at ending food insecurity) to find a sustainable way to cut down food waste while simultaneously providing access to healthy foods for people who are food insecure. So much food gets wasted due to issues of over-harvested crops, changes in packaging, or even due to cosmetic imperfections that don’t always pass the scrutiny of the retail buyers. Instead of letting all this food go to waste, imperfect foods, and other such companies, strive to make use of these goods. This service also addresses the issue of transportation by having these imperfect goods delivered to your house.

Finally, only people who live on properties with land can have access to personal produce gardens right now. Sponsoring local community gardens around the country can help educate people on how to grow their own food, can provide jobs for people to maintain these gardens, and provide access to healthy food options within walking distance. Localized community gardens can also decrease the carbon footprint left behind by massive corporate grocery stores that have to transport goods across states and can cut down on food waste as well. Also, share your experiences with food insecurity; let others know that you are experiencing it too. This helps start the process of destigmatizing this issue while educating others about the realities and complexities tied into your experiences. If you have the means to, donate to food banks and other such nonprofit organizations that provide help for those who desperately need it. Even if you never get to meet the people you are helping, know that they still greatly appreciate it. I know I do.

COVID-19 and the Native American Population

In retaliation to a day celebrating the world’s best-known colonizer, the infamous Christopher Columbus, on October 11th, Indigenous People’s Day highlights the culture, struggles, and history of America’s indigenous population. A silent struggle, however, persists: disease.

Native Health Disparities in COVID

The early 1600s brought to America the infamous two Gs—guns and germs—the latter proving the most deadly as bouts of influenza took a toll on Native American populations across what is now the United States. In the age of modern medicine, it comes as a surprise that disease still wreaks havoc on America’s indigenous population. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is no exception.

While COVID-19 holds a dizzying death count as its trophy, the disproportionate difference between white people and minorities, including Native Americans, is staggering. In fact, Native Americans can experience anywhere from 3 to 4 times the risk of dying from COVID-19 as compared to their white counterparts.

An animation of what COVID-19 looks like at the viral level
Unsplash

Funding the Indian Health Service

This vast gap is a reflection of poor medical and public health services for Native Americans. Health disparities that plague the Native population include diabetes, heart disease, and rates of addiction to harmful substances. These follow a similar pattern of COVID-19 with Natives being more likely to experience these chronic conditions compared to all other racial categories. These disparities could potentially be alleviated by greater equity in access to medical and public health services, but a fundamental issue in providing this care lies in Native sovereignty. As determined by Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515, Native American land, or reservations, are considered sovereign land. While at face value this seems to be a win empowering Natives and acknowledging their right to the land that was once theirs, it creates a vacuum of public services.

Encapsulated by possessors of what was once their land, Native health and well-being are bound by the constraints of the state. A lack of widespread taxes, natural resources, and human resources leaves the reservations reliant upon the ‘external’ state of America for support and sustenance. Most money generated on reservations largely consists of gambling and casino money—practices usually outlawed in the surrounding states. This money only goes so far in providing for the tribe as money often stays within certain families, leaving the rest of the reservation in high rates of poverty.  Thus, the main provider of health care for nearly 2.2 million members of the tribal communities, the Indian Health Service, is funded by American tax dollars. And yet, the IHS’s hospital system is severely underfunded and understaffed. The main mechanism created to fight disease seems designed to fail. In this sense, disease continues to persist as a remnant of colonialism, which directly violates the fundamental human rights to accessible health care and to acceptable standards of living.

Canyon landscape in the American Southwest.
Unsplash

Vaccination Rates on the Reservation

The only light at the end of the tunnel is the rapid rate of Native American vaccination against COVID-19. While co-morbidities and co-mortalities make it such that if COVID is contracted, Natives will be more susceptible to death, the COVID-19 vaccine acts as an equalizer. Once vaccinated, the likelihood of death by COVID-19 significantly decreases.

Native American tribes have been able to boast proud levels of herd immunity with large tribes like the Navajo Nation at roughly 70% fully vaccinated as of May 2021. This commendable statistic is a result of rallied community effort. Cultural values of supporting the elderly and a strong sense of family and allegiance to the tribe—values typically highlighted in Indigenous People’s Day—worked in favor of creating a climate in strong support of vaccination and vaccine acquisition.

Gloved hand pulling the liquid of a bottle labeled COVID Vaccine into a syringe meant to vaccinate people.
Unsplash

Looking Ahead

While the tide has turned in favor of Native Americans, preventing them from being labelled as  another health disparity statistic in COVID-19, it is important to remember and to look towards long-term health care equity and solutions for Natives. While increasing funding for the IHS is certainly a good starting point, robust public health interventions and funding for community programs is necessary. Funding dollars from the top could in theory trickle down, but grassroot rallying and support for public health interventions in a community where cultural values of togetherness and unity already exist could prove to be the needed impetus for transforming not only health care access and quality for the Native American population but also general standard of living that leads to health baselines which are robust to disease.

Afghanistan’s Deteriorating Healthcare System

Afghanistan’s healthcare infrastructure is crumbling after its foreign assets were frozen and donor organizations pulled funding after the Taliban takeover. The Taliban is a Pashtun Islamic extremist group that is known for imposing strict religious and conservative rule over their areas of operation including Afghanistan and Pakistan. The organization previously served as the government for southern Afghanistan in 1996-2001 during which the healthcare system had collapsed. The child mortality rate was 2x as high as it was in 2012 and polio was widespread. Safe drinking water and sanitation were also nonexistent.

Over the past two decades, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have historically provided 75% of the funding and supplies to support the healthcare systems in 31 out of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan. As a result, the Middle Eastern country has seen enormous improvements in the healthcare system. As of 2018, with over 3,000 medical facilities staffed and supplied, about 87% of the population were able to receive services. Maternal and child mortality rates also plummeted and infectious disease treatment programs helped decrease mortality rates.  

International donor support started declining even before the Covid-19 pandemic, and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Health and other public health organizations were barely able to compensate. The economic decline at the onset of the pandemic made medical resources even more scarce. Hospitals began charging payment for supplies such as meals and scalpels previously free to patients, and patients were forced to use their own money to buy surgical equipment. In April 2021, President Biden announced that the United States would withdraw all of their 2,500 troops from the Afghanistan, triggering the entire NATO (North American Treaty Organization) alliance to withdraw a total of 7,000 troops. The process was completed in mid-September. Shortly thereafter, the Taliban rose to power once again in Afghanistan.

 A pile of international notes from the United States, Turkey, and Europe.
A pile of international notes from the United States, Turkey, and Europe. Source: Unsplash

The World Bank then froze $600 million in health care aid funded by the US Agency for International Development, the European Union, and others. The $600 million was part of the Sehatmandi project, a global initiative to increase health facilities in Afghanistan, which was a collaboration with the Afghanistan government. The withdrawal shut down 2000 of the 2800 facilities that the project previously funded, leaving healthcare workers and patients out in the wind. Currently, healthcare workers have not received payment in 6 months and do not know when they will receive payment. Many patients struggle to reach the remaining facilities because the trip there is either unaffordable, geographically dangerous, too far, or the route is lined with Taliban conflict. 

If provided now, donors feared that donations and allocations would be misused by the Taliban to generate income for the militant group instead of for healthcare problems. There is speculation that if the funds are released, wages will never reach workers and medical supplies will be bought then sold to the public at astronomical prices. All entities are waiting on instructions or action from other governments to search for a way to transfer donations in order to circumvent the regime’s administration.  

Healthcare for Children 

A toddler girl biting into her shirt sleeve next to her parent.
A toddler girl biting into her shirt sleeve next to her parent in Afghanistan. Source: Unsplash

Hunger is becoming more widespread as inflation rates climb and supply chains grow unsteady. The Integrated Food Insecurity Phase Classification (IPC) reported that half of Afghans will face acute food insecurity before winter arrives.  

Malnutrition and malnutrition-related illnesses are far more dangerous than any other disease for children. Specific types of malnutrition called acute severe malnutrition and child kwashiorkor, a severe protein deficiency, is prevalent in Afghanistan and are caused by eating too little food or not at all. It can be treated by administering Ready To Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) and oral hydration therapy. Over 2 million children under 5 years old do not have access to this life saving treatment in Afghanistan. At least half of the children in the country are victims of malnutrition and in light of the food scarcity, mothers unable to produce breastmilk have resorted to feeding infants water mixed with sugar. 

Staffing shortages are also insurmountable. Nurses and doctors fled the country fearing what the Taliban’s takeover could mean for their lives. In the main children’s hospital in Kabul, nurses previously caring for 4 babies now have to care for 24 babies each while hospital staff try to squeeze 3 infants into 1 incubator due to equipment shortages. Current staff are overworked and still have to take up jobs at other institutions to get by. Medicinal needs are also not being met for children and adults. Drug cabinets and storage closets become emptier every day as the influx of patients has depleted the resources faster than can be transported into the country. 

A hand holding a cluster of large, yellow tablets.
A hand holding a cluster of large, yellow tablets that are basic medications that Afghans need. Source: Unsplash

Women’s Health 

The aid cuts have also decreased access to essential healthcare resources for women and girls, including contraception and family planning. Many women carry out risky pregnancies and are subjected to unsafe reproductive procedures without modern medical equipment. Prenatal and postnatal care for infants is not provided, and postpartum care for new mothers is nonexistent. Despite the labor shortages, a great deal of responsibilities for maternal health clinics are on the backs of midwives. Midwives continue to perform complicated surgeries, dangerous deliveries, and other reproductive procedures.  

Expensive medicines and transportation to clinics for health problems are not feasible for the majority of Afghan women. Beginning in early 2017, extremist groups turned their sights on medical facilities in Afghanistan, which led to increase of attacks on aid workers, doctors, and hospitals. Mounting fear against staying in maternity clinics has also driven many women away from seeking help.  

Covid-19 Pandemic 

The lack of data and accountability in Afghanistan makes it difficult to comprehend the extent to which the virus has contributed to the death rate. Around the world, Covid cases are increasing, and the Afghan population is largely unvaccinated. According to the latest data from the United Nations, only 2.2 million of 39 million individuals have been vaccinated, while 1.8 million doses are waiting to be distributed.  

Public health experts worry that an impending 4th wave of the disease will render the healthcare infrastructure irreparable. Dead bodies line hospital morgues and overflow into the outside corridors as the lack of fuel has stopped ambulances from operating. Many sick patients suffering from Covid don’t bother coming to hospitals, because they know they would not be able to receive medical assistance. Hospitals, private practices, and clinics are resorting to hastily assembling makeshift wards outside hospitals to accommodate Covid patients.  

The healthcare situation in Afghanistan has been worsening for years, and in light of the looming public health disaster, much more support from the international community is needed. The snowball effect of international neglect will continue unless major monetary, political, economic, and healthcare interventions are considered. Nonprofit health organizations such as Doctors Without Borders have been tackling both maternal and child healthcare as well as managing Covid cases in 5 provinces, but people can help by donating to Doctors Without Borders, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and increasing awareness for the healthcare crisis in Afghanistan. 

Improper Sex Education and the Effects on Women’s Health in Alabama

 

Three Condoms Side-By-Side
Yahoo Images, three condoms side-by-side

Sex Education in the United States

In the United States sex education has historically been underfunded and often used as a tool to shame people for their sexuality. Currently, only 29 states in the United States mandate sex education; however, this still does not ensure that children are taught medical sex education in school. In fact, 37 states within the United States require abstinence to be taught as the only way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy. Even worse, up until April 2021, seven states in the South prohibited educators from discussing LGBTQ+ identities and relationships, which further stigmatizes youth and puts them at a higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Currently, now that Alabama has passed a new bill which removed homophobic language forbidding schools from teaching LGBTQ+ sex education, teachers are able to create sex education curriculum as they please, as long as parents are sent an overview of the curriculum and agree to let their children learn said material.

How U.S. Sex Education Policies Measure Up to the ICPD

According to the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), “ the objective to achieve universal access to quality education, underlines that gender-sensitive education about population issues, including reproductive choices and responsibilities and sexually transmitted diseases, must begin in primary school and continue through all levels of formal and non-formal education to be effective.” The ICPD further notes that “full attention should be given to the promotion of mutually respectful and equitable gender relations and particularly to meeting the educational and service needs of adolescents to enable them to deal in a positive and responsible way with their sexuality.” When looking at the rights set forth by the ICPD, it becomes clear that the United States is failing their youth populations and exposes them to unnecessary risk by refusing to inform them of the dangers that come with unprotected sex. By not requiring sex education, the United States also fails to inform youth of preventative measures they can take to ensure the utmost safety and consensual enjoyment between parties. This lack of education has not only resulted in a multitude of unwanted pregnancies and an overflooded foster care system; but has led to thousands of people, especially in the South, contracting chronic disease and illness that will impair them for the rest of their lives as well. 

Women’s Healthcare in Alabama: The Dangers of Improper Sex Education

While the United States as a whole has failed its constituency by refusing to mandate sexual education to be taught in schools, the state of Alabama stands as a paradigm for just how dangerous a lack of healthy and inclusive sex education can be. According to Human Rights Watch, the lack of sex education in Alabama has led to relatively high mortality rates. These “mortality rates are higher for Black women, poor women, and those who lack access to health insurance.”  In fact,  according to the CDC, in 2017, Alabama was among the top five states in the country in terms of the highest rate of cervical cancer cases and deaths, and “Black women in Alabama are nearly twice as likely to die of the disease as white women.” While multiple factors are contributing to this alarming statistic, Human Rights Watch found the following issues to be catalysts for these poor outcomes in Alabama: “shortage of gynecologists in rural areas, prohibitive transportation costs often required to travel to see a doctor for follow-up testing and treatment, and Alabama’s failure to expand Medicaid to increase healthcare coverage for poor and low-income individuals in the state”.  By refusing to provide access to healthy sex education, Alabama has left thousands of women without the proper knowledge that is necessary to lower the risk of cervical cancer. 

A mother and her child during a pediatric check-up
Yahoo Images, a mother and her child photographed during a pediatric check-up

The Current State of Sex Education in Alabama 

In Alabama, the current state code claims that abstinence outside of marriage is the “social norm”. By making non-marital sex an abnormality, the legislatures have shown that they have no interest in providing education to youth who may break the “social norm”. Moreover, in the past, Alabama code emphasized that sexual curriculum had to be presented in a “factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state”. By painting non-heteronormative orientation as “criminal” Alabama consciously stigmatized members of the LGBTQ community for decades, which put them at a higher risk of contracting a chronic disease. In fact, according to SIECUS, Alabama ranked fourth in the nation for reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis in youth aged 15-19. Yet, thanks to activists and constituents voicing their concerns, the Alabama legislature has now removed said discriminatory language from their sex education bill. However, there is still a large amount of work that must be done to further advocate for proper, medical sex education to be provided to students. 

Yahoo Images, A woman is holding a poster which states “A woman’s place is in the resistance”
Yahoo Images, A woman is holding a poster which states “A woman’s place is in the resistance”

Ways to Get Involved

Thanks to the work of activists, legislatures, and constituents alike, Alabama’s laws have been updated so that they no longer criminalize LGBTQ+ individuals within the states schools’ sex education curriculum. Yet, the work is not over, and schools are still able to refuse to educate students on safe sex practices for non-heteronormative relationships, as long as parents of students consent to the curriculum proposed by staff. This continuation of the lack of medical sex education in our school systems is still leaving children vulnerable to ignorance, and exacerbating the current health issues which are prevalent amongst marginalized groups, especially within the South. Certain organizations, such as the Alabama Campaign for Adolescent Sexual Health and Advocates for Youth Sex Education, are currently advocating for proper sex education. If you are interested in getting involved, sign up to be an advocate for proper seed education through AMAZE, or with WISE (Working to Institutionalize Sex Education), to help aid in the fight for proper sexual education for our youth. Furthermore, if you would like to learn more about the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals and current issues within the LGBTQ+ community, then click this link.

An Ongoing Fight for Paid Parental Leave in America

Woman working on a laptop while holding a baby
Source: Yahoo Images

The United States is one of three countries in the world, and the only first world country, that does not provide paid time off upon the welcoming of a new child into the home. Today, eighty-two percent of U.S. voters, across party lines, support implementation of a national paid family and medical leave policy. However, only thirteen percent of American workers have access to such privileges. Much of the debate surrounding the topic involves who will pay for such policies, and who exactly should be eligible to receive the benefits. Whether you have personally been put at a disadvantage by this situation or have the privilege of merely learning about it from media outlets, such as Senator Bernie Sander’s audacious Instagram posts, it is quite difficult to ignore the prevalent issue of the lack of paid parental leave in America. 

Paid Parental Leave as a Human Right 

The scarcity of paid parental leave is a violation of various aspects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 23 of the UDHR states that everyone has the right to “just and favorable conditions of work” and “remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.” The definitions of adequate work conditions and social protections can and will obviously be interpreted by society in different ways over time; however, Article 25 goes on to state:  

  1. “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including…medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. 
  2. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to particular care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.”

Regardless of not being stated specifically, it is a common belief that paid parental leave exists within the realms of the above stated rights and is an ethical standard to which society should be held. Pushing personal opinions aside, a recent article from The Guardian says “The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends women take at least six weeks off work following childbirth. But with no federally mandated paid family leave, for many women maternity leave is an unaffordable luxury.” 

The Reality of a Working Mother without Parental Leave 

Mother holding her baby
Source: Unsplash

As the participation of women in the workforce has steadily increased since post-World War II, the modern era expects women to work full-time as if they are not raising children, yet also expects women to raise children as if they are not working full-time jobs. This concept is evident in many American women’s lives who push off having a career until their children are grown or wait to have children until they are settled in their career. With the knowledge that many women do not have access to parental leave, another question is evoked: what happens to working women when a child is born? Those who are lucky enough to have a planned pregnancy may opt to save as many sick days as possible before their delivery date to be used during their recovery. But unfortunately, in many cases women can be forced to leave their jobs because of choosing to give birth. 

Not all Families are Impacted the Same 

In addition to women being disproportionately affected on a large scale, there are various other societal groups which are put at a greater disadvantage. According to a June 2021 article on BBC, “workers in blue-collar jobs are less likely to get paid parental leave than those with corporate jobs.” This not only affects the lower-income spectrum of the working class, but therefore largely affects BIPOC women and families at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Specifically in the post-war years, resistance formed through the idea that granting universal leave to all workers would encourage the “wrong” families to have the ability to produce. The UDHR lays out in Article 2 that all persons should have access to such human rights without any distinction regarding not only sex and gender, but race and social status as well. 

What does the fight towards ensured parental leave in America look like today? 

map of maternity leave around the world
Source: Yahoo Images

The fight for paid parental leave is not new to the agenda of human rights crises. In November of 1919, The International Labor Organization was quoted by the International Congress for Working Women in stating 12 weeks of paid parental leave is a “medical necessity and social right.” 

Today, lawmakers across America’s political spectrum voice their support for paid parental leave. Regarding the public, advocating for paid parental leave should be accompanied by voting for politicians at a federal and state level that will bring action to further implementing this agenda into legislation. There are also various activist organizations nationwide that can be further magnified by volunteers or monetary donations, including the PL+US and the National Partnership for Women and Families. 

 

The Realities of Being Homeless in America

An image portraying an encampment under a bridge
Source: Yahoo Images; People experiencing homelessness sleeping under a bridge

The homeless population in America tends to be neglected by the society they live in. They are among the most vulnerable, belonging to already marginalized communities that struggle to meet their day to day needs. As a result, the unhoused have little to no power or influence on social norms and affairs. As someone who has experienced homelessness both in India and in America, I have come to distinguish some of the common misconceptions society holds about the unhoused population. There are a lot of stereotypes and social stigma that surrounds the discussions around homelessness, which often blames the victims of systemic issues, instead of restructuring the conversation around how we as society can best help these marginalized groups realize their basic human rights to shelter. In order to do so, we must first understand what it really means to be homeless in America.

History of Homelessness in America

Homelessness is not an issue unique to the United States, as it can be found in countries all over the world. While homelessness in America can be found as early as the colonial times, modern homelessness rose as a response to the Great Depression, where people experienced high levels of unemployment and poverty. Especially interesting is the relationship between the growth of urban cities and the rise in homelessness. Coupled with low-wages and higher costs of living, people found it more expensive to find places to live in urban centers, such as New York and California. The aftermath of the Great Depression put a lot of people in desperate need of employment, and as the economy took to the service industry, more and more undereducated, impoverished people had no other choice but to turn to these low-income jobs. The country’s shift to a service economy meant that laborers were now being paid lower wages, leaving service industry employees unable to afford the rising costs of housing. Coupled with higher housing costs and lower wages, when people turned to social welfare programs, they found these programs to be lacking in funds as well.

Additionally, there was a campaign to “Deinstitutionalize” people held in mental asylums. While the campaign itself was well-intended, its applications were lacking in structure, and instead of providing patients with proper access to mental health resources, people with mental disabilities were released to fend for themselves. The neglect of these institutions led to the increasing numbers of mental health patients facing housing insecurity. To make matters worse, gentrification policies (made to bring in wealthy real-estate investors and high-income residents to underdeveloped parts of the city) led to the displacement of many low-income families, putting them out of their homes. These policies disproportionately  affect people of color, something that has forced many marginalized communities to fall prey to an endless cycle of poverty and degradation.

Unfortunately, one of the most concerning additions to the homeless population is the disproportionate number of youths that identify as being part of the LGBTQ+ community. According to a recent study conducted by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, LGBTQ+ youth had a 120% higher risk of experiencing homelessness. These members who already belong to an ostracized community can become more vulnerable to harassment, violence and hate crimes.

Additionally, unable to find jobs after returning home from military service, many veterans end up homeless with nowhere else to go. Although places do exist to support veterans who experience homelessness, many are either unaware of the resources at hand, or too ashamed to use these resources. As a result of the social stigma surrounding the topic, people experiencing homelessness often become withdrawn from society.

Society’s Attitudes Toward the Homeless

A bench that has armrests in-between to prevent laying down
Source: Yahoo Images; An example of hostile architecture that prevents the unhoused from sleeping on benches

Homelessness is received with wildly different attitudes among different cultures. America is a very diverse country, with people that share hundreds of different cultures and traditions, and these cultural attitudes can carry over in the way they respond to contemporary social issues. Different cultures share a varying definition of what a “home” means, and even more distinctions in their approach toward people experiencing homelessness. What the dominant White culture might consider to be a home, (an individual unit of space for nuclear families), might not be what someone who belongs to the Indigenous population believes. They might argue that a home is where you can interact with your community, a place to feel safe and share with friends and family. Even the attitudes toward helping people who are unhoused have strict cultural implications. As described in Islam, it is part of the every-day religious ritual of a Muslim to give alms and help the poor in their community. In Hinduism, while helping the poor with food and shelter is allowed, certain castes are not allowed to eat alongside with or sit beside  people of lower castes. People experiencing homelessness have their own unique culture, where certain skills or strategies for survival on the streets are shared amongst each other.

Along with all these complexities, the unhoused also undergo various types of stigmas, including social stigma, and cultural stigma. Social stigma can be discrimination and harassment directed toward the homeless population by the institutions, systems and people that make up society. Cultural stigma can refer to the stigma expressed by friends and family members or other religious or cultural institutions that may shame and blame the victims for being homeless.

Unhoused people also have a hard time finding employment. This is partly due to the fact that the job application requires a home address for the application process to be completed. As a result, people who are dispossessed also experience difficulties when finding housing. The applications for apartments include a proof of income/employment section and applying for government housing takes months to be processed and reviewed. Many states have long and complicated application processes, and even then, it is not a guaranteed housing option. Nevertheless, applicants can be denied, and they would still need a place to stay while awaiting their application to be approved.

Adding to these difficulties, people in the homeless community are constantly harassed with wild stares or abuse, (both verbal and physical), from members of society. The law enforcement agency, an institution designed to serve and protect people of the community, may make matters worse by deteriorating the situation further. Without proper training, police approach the homeless defensively, ready to attack at the slightest “abnormal” reactions. What they haven’t been trained to realize is that many people experiencing homelessness are also at high-risk of developing mental health issues due to the stress and realities of being homeless. These altercations can turn deadly, and unfortunately, many people of the homeless community have either been locked up or even killed by officers of the law. Many of these instances were even caught on camera, yet these officers faced little to no accountability or legal punishment.

People experiencing homelessness are also easy targets to getting their possessions robbed, and many times, police will raid their camps and confiscate what few belongings they might acquire, including sleeping tents and toiletries. Society also treats the homeless population as a burden and blames them for being “lazy” or “druggies” or “criminals/suspicious,” without any provocation from the homeless community. It can be especially insulting for the people experiencing homelessness to be judged for their situation while society simultaneously fails to criticize the state’s inability to protect peoples’ fundamental human rights to food, shelter, and other basic needs.

The Legal Response to Homelessness in America

Spikes under bridges
Source: Yahoo Images; An example of hostile architecture to deter the homeless from sleeping under bridges

The legal response to the homelessness crisis in America has not been a heartwarming one either. Urban cities all over the United States have put in place anti-homelessness measures, otherwise known as hostile architecture. These include slanted benches, benches divided by armrests, spiked and rocky pavements to prevent people from sleeping there, and even boulders under bridges. Not only are these measures inhumane, they also cost the tax-payers a lot of money. These atrocious tactics are put in place to discourage homelessness, attempting to connect rising numbers of homelessness to increased crime rates. As recently as July of this year, Los Angeles even went so far as to make homelessness downright illegal, restricting homeless encampments in majority of the city. The city has even  prohibited the homeless from sitting, sleeping, or laying in public.  Due to the fact that homelessness overwhelmingly affects people who belong to already marginalized communities, a rights-based approach is necessary, one that addresses the existing systemic issues which need to be fixed first.

Covid-19 and How it Continues to Impact the Homeless Population

An image of a crowded homeless shelter
Source: Yahoo Images; Homeless shelters can be crowded, without proper social distancing measures in place

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to impact many different communities in a variety of ways. The pandemic hit especially hard among the homeless population, where access to hygienic products are often slim, if not non-existent. People experiencing homelessness may not have the ability to continuously wash and sanitize their hands, with limited access to clean water and soap products. They also been experience complications with social distancing measures, forced to be in crowded spaces like homeless shelters, which has only increased their risks of getting infected. Furthermore, even when infected, or exposed to the disease, the homeless population has very limited ability to quarantine, further allowing the spread of the disease to others in close proximity. The unhoused population has limited access to healthcare and medicinal treatments, and many are already immunocompromised or have pre-existing conditions, which increases their vulnerability of catching the disease. Stereotypes geared toward the homeless population labeling them as “junkies” or “druggies” has influenced the care they receive, leading to many cases of misdiagnoses or mistreatment as a result of biases held by healthcare professionals and others in the health care industry. Due to the rise in unemployment numbers during the economic shutdown as a response to the pandemic, millions of people who did not qualify for unemployment benefits, and could not make ends meet, also became homeless as a result.

Some Successful Approaches to Ending Homelessness

A person sitting next to a hostile architecture with a sign reading, "Homes Not Spikes"
source: yahoo images; An unhoused person advocating against hostile architecture

There have been some successful attempts at ending homelessness in America as well as in other nations. Utah attempted to decrease its rates of homelessness back in 2015, which successfully reduced its homelessness by 91%. They executed a policy known as “Housing First,” which gave their chronically homeless populations free housing, a decision that cost the state less money than alternative anti-homelessness measures. This program unfortunately has not been a complete success, as people experiencing homelessness in other states have been migrating to Utah, making it too expensive for Utah alone to pay for the country’s increasing homelessness crisis. A national policy, on the other hand, that could implement the Housing First approach taken by Utah, may be the easiest, and essentially cheapest option to ending the homelessness crisis in America. This is essentially what Finland did. In 2019, Finland approached the homelessness issue with the most obvious of answers, by providing housing for all those who are unhoused. Like Utah, they applied the “Housing First” policy, (which came with no strings attached), recognizing that housing is an essential human right that should be protected and promoted. They also understand that in the long run, providing the homeless population with housing is the cheaper option to society. Also, as examined earlier, if applied in America, this Housing First policy will inevitably save more lives, with fewer interactions between the homeless and the police.

While homelessness is not something people are normally born into, the unhoused face discrimination, stigmatization, and marginalization from society just as much as any other group. Although people’s socioeconomic status is a major factor in determining who is most vulnerable to experiencing homelessness, as we’ve seen in the case of the LGBTQ+ youth, and older veterans as well, homelessness can impact people of any and all races, at various age levels, and at any given time. The pandemic itself has expanded the homeless population as people are unable to pay their backed-up rent or mortgage payments. While alternative approaches can assist to eradicate levels of homelessness in our society as implemented in Finland and Utah, it is crucial that we also continue to destigmatize being homeless in American society and take a rights-based approach to finding long-term solutions to end their suffering.

 

 

Gun Violence and Human Rights – An Event Recap

Bullet casings and crime scene tape
Source: Upsplash

On Wednesday, September 29, the Institute for Human Rights at UAB welcomed Katie White, UAB Masters of Public Health student, to the Social Justice Café. Katie facilitated a discussion on gun violence and human rights.

Katie began by sharing that her research on gun violence in Birmingham emphasizes the intersections with public health and public health responsiveness. Katie shared statistical data on national rates of gun violence as well as in the state of Alabama. In the United States, there are an estimated 393 million guns — more guns than humans. Gun violence accounted for 961 deaths in the state of Alabama in 2020. The state of Alabama has the 5th highest death rate nationally, and there was a 15% increase in gun related homicides from 2010 to 2019.

Katie also discussed how the city of Birmingham is addressing the growing trend of gun related homicides. Birmingham has invested in various forms of technology such as; ShotSpotter, Predictive Policing, and a state-of-the-art real time crime center. The implementation of new technology is a step in the right direction, according to Katie; however, technology can be flawed and subject to bias and discrimination, especially against People of Color and people living in underserved communities. Additionally, the merger of traditional police work with new technology is inherently reactionary, creating a strong response whether than creating a strong deterrent.

Social Justice Café participants asked questions and shared their personal opinions. One participant asked Katie if she had any suggestions on how to minimize gun related homicides in the Birmingham. Based on her research, Katie suggests a three-point plan beginning with the implementation of economic development within disadvantaged communities that have historically lacked social mobility and access to opportunities. Next, Katie suggested the implementation of “Hospital Based Gun Violence Intervention (HBCVI).” HBCVI is initiated when a gunshot victim is admitted into a medical facility. Katie shared that “people who are most likely to commit gun violence are often likely to become victims of gun violence.” HBCVI is a proactive policy used to break the cyclical nature of gun violence. The victim will be offered social assistance in the form of social workers and a police officer. It will be the responsibility of the police officer to gather obtain information to locate the perpetrator of violence. It will be the responsibility of the social worker to administer much needed support to the victim as they journey down the road to physical and mental recovery. The implementation of HBGVI could solve a plethora of social injustices. The neglect experienced in underserved communities tends to manifest in the form of violence and mental health deterioration. HBGVI can address violence within underserved communities, as well as administer much needed mental health support during moments of extreme stress. Finally, Katie suggests the City of Birmingham create conflict resolution courses to be taught within communities as well as in the classroom. Arming citizens with healthy conflict resolution skills, instead of firearms, will better prepare citizens to avoid conflict.

After a robust discussion, varying in topics ranging from public health initiatives to community building, Katie offered a final sentiment: “Gun violence is a complex issue and requires a complex solution.” It is the responsibility of everyone to prioritize institutional response to the escalating threat of gun violence.

Thank you, Katie White and thank you everyone who participated in this wonderful discussion. Our next Social Justice Café will be held on Wednesday, October 13, and we will be discussing vaccine mandates and human rights with Dr. Suzanne Judd. Everyone is welcome. Register here!

To see more upcoming events hosted by the Institute for Human Rights at UAB, please visit our events page here.