Our Disabled and Climate Changed Futures
"Two things are inevitable: the climate is changing and we are all becoming disabled."
1, 2, 3, the rain starts to patter on the metal porch roof.
1, 2, 3, I start anxiously counting out my pills.
4, 5, 6 days left, two days until landfall, the pharmacy won't let me refill my prescription for another three days at the earliest. If there’s a delay, if the hurricanes prevent this legal trafficking of my survival, another day or two on top of that. I may have to improvise. I may go through withdrawal.
When winds come knocking and trees bury roads, how will I die? Will I hold off eating, balance my blood sugar as best I can, starve, or blackout? Will I slip into the cozy of Death's embrace or flail madly, obtuse in anger that I am finally so close to a life I enjoy and use to bring joy to others?
Does melting ice disable polar bears? Do the highly specialized diets of koalas feel like an impairment in the face of deforestation? Do fish and birds feel blinded or disoriented with the loss of ancestral migratory patterns and changing seasonal variations that call them too soon, too late, further away, or not far enough?
When the revolution comes… We had entertained our hike months earlier. When all hell breaks loose… When every insurrectionist wakes to live and die in their favorite wet dream…How will I die?
I am not afraid of Death. We have met. Death is dressed in blue not black. When I was a child, Death was like a warm ocean as deep as time. Death was a golden pirate's treasure sinking deeper, and deeper still while the machines beeped a slowing pace and the doctor’s inserted a needle or a tube. A few years ago, Death was electric, bright teal and navy energy arms, pushing my wheelchair down the halls of the ER. I was Death. I greeted myself at the edge of life.
I am not afraid of death. Death is the end of capitalism, the end of gender, the end of work, of war, of counting pills, and feeling guilty about not attending more socialist meetings.
I am adverse to a slow and painful death of waiting to starve or blackout, or choking on the polluted air that others' lungs have adapted to.
I am concerned that discussion about slaying the Leviathan relegates me and other disabled folks to these slow and painful deaths. Capitalism, industrial society, and all else we observe along the body of the Beast are rightly identified as root causes of climate change. Capitalism, like its absence, also causes disabled people to suffer and many to die slow and painful deaths. But while abolishing an economic system is justified, what will we grow in its place? And more importantly, when do we begin? (Can we begin now?)
Disabled people like me want to be part of our collective conservations on life post-capitalism. We want to be included, but not in the tokenizing social progressive ways of neoliberalism. Disabled people are also people of color, Queer people, trans people, working people, immigrants, and more. Our issues at times parallel other social concerns like racism and sexism, and have even informed these prejudices. For instance, the perceived mental disability of being female was once used to justify opposing women’s suffrage. And perceived racialized disabilities preventing one from being an efficient worker have a long history of being employed against immigrants to the U.S. Being gay was once thought of as a mental illness, and debate on whether or not trans people stand to benefit in more material ways from claiming gender dysphoria as a disability rather than distinguishing themselves from disabled people was a community issue just a few years ago. In one form or another, ableism still informs sexist, racist, and other prejudicial discourse.
But at the end of the day, disability is also different. I need to eat on a specific schedule. I need to eat specific types of meals that depend on my blood sugar, and vary day to day and throughout the day. This isn’t as easy as me simply telling other people what I can eat. I’m still navigating this terrain myself. I sometimes have trouble hearing too. A few years ago, I went totally deaf for five days. I’ve had teeth removed to help relieve this impairment. Under times of intense stress, my whole body feels like it is sunburned. I get fatigued and my skin is irritated by even the softest and lightest fabric.
I need assistance breathing the air we have polluted. When I was a child, my lungs collapsed with relative frequency. I was out of school for at least a week every semester for several years. Leaving Baltimore for North Carolina sometimes helped. In fact I made that move permanent over a decade ago. But this year my symptoms have returned. I pay ~$95/month for a rescue inhaler in order to perform a bodily function most people have to intentionally set aside quiet time to remember they do with ease. I’ll be paying more in the future if my symptoms don’t subside. Many times this spring, I went to sleep wheezing because I knew I could not afford a visit to the emergency room. I couldn’t leave the house for much of July when the skies were just too hazy and the air quality was too poor. I waited for months to see the doctor in one of two yearly visits I can presently budget.
Other disabled people have other types of needs. Others have different forms of mobility, sensory experience, and physicality. Disability is wide-ranging and diverse in scale. Our experience of life is marked both by hyper-visibility and invisibility, social stigma, and the embodiment of difference. Whereas one may argue that other forms of prejudice can be resolved by changing social attitudes about their focus, changing attitudes towards disability will not resolve difference. Prejudice isn’t the cause of lost limbs, deafness, malfunctioning organs, etc. And while capitalism is undoubtedly exploiting the health and life out of disabled people everywhere and informing ableism particularly in relation to employability and worker efficiency, neither is capitalism the cause of disability.
Disability is rather an experience of being human. As we age, our bodies break down on the way to death. As we experience the wildness of life, disability becomes us. As we are born, our bodies map an orgy of natural physicalities innate to human biology, mind and flesh, inside and out. The eugenicist and capitalist fallacy of the perfect worker is a dark magic spell Freak witches and wizards everywhere have been disabling.
As the raging hurricanes and rising tides bring climate change to the doorstep of so many unbelievers, and the mindsets of those in social justice awaken to a planetary dialogue continuing with or without us, disabled people must be part of the utopian futures we envision. If not for our sake, for your own sake, when you are aging, when your body’s health eludes you, and when the weight of all that human greed has profited on betrays you. Able-embodiment is temporary, conditional, and under direct assault by the pollutions and economic obstructions leaving your health to chance and a function of your zip code. Two things are inevitable: the climate is changing and we are all becoming disabled.
The deluge of corporate sins upon the Earth excites many into a state of climate change anxiety. When necessary, will we flee or bunker down in place? Will I run out of medication at the most inopportune moment? Will I drown in my home, or die of treatable impairment? Those of us witnessing the storms from afar may find ourselves suddenly inspired to take action, to open our doors to (climate) refugees, or to demand revolutionary changes to our impact on the planet.
I think the impulse to burn it all down or to retreat to the wilderness and find some long ago purged part of ourselves there or to die trying are feelings we all move through. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I think there is a well-traveled social change model we may think we have time to follow: a flurry of petitions, a media spectacle of permitted marches in the street, an election for the best candidates from a pitiful selection, or even a nonviolent public action of some sort providing us with the moral high ground of having been to jail for justice. Others of us may go vegan, become locavores or freegans. I’m personally traversing an evangelical stage of compost and zero waste enthusiasm complemented by a newfound creative interest in trash. A multitude of strategies will emerge in this era, and that multitude will be necessary for change.
For those of us responding to climate change and economic collapse anxiety by creating alternatives, I reason it is critical that we think as disabled people, even if we momentarily experience able-embodiment. As climate health worsens, our own health worsens too. How will we replace industrialized medicine, or rob the healthcare industry of the power to profiteer off our disabilities? How will we grow and manufacture our own pharmacies? How will we reclaim our bodies, our narratives, our medicines, and our assistance tech from capitalism? In our utopian futures, healthcare is a community function, and the health of the commons is where that value plants its roots.
Beyond the medical model, how too will we create sustainable communities structured in such a way to weather not only climate change but the physical changes of human experience? How will we modify our communities to account for multiple modes of accessibility, and to treat soil health, air quality, water potability, tree health, animal health, and human health as one holistic equation? How do we empower a biodiversity and cultural shift that values native plants, animals, and people too?
I am dreaming of wheelchair-accessible forest labyrinths, wild edible scavenger hunts, and community gardens. I am dreaming of community economic models that eschew ableist and capitalist constructions of jobs for a fulfilling life built together, from each according to ability, and to each based on need. I am dreaming of activists who learn sign language not just to better integrate with Deaf comrades, but for the sheer fun of knowing those who surveil them will have to budget time to pick up ASL too.
1, 2, 3, the little rain drops hit the curved leaves of my night-blooming cactus. A wren carries off the last twigs of an offering I made to Feronia, while a shaggy community cat perches before the altar dish with tail in carnal flex.
Meanwhile, floods return the streets of Texas and Florida to the ocean. I remember a girl from massage school whose house was destroyed by an oil spill in the Gulf. I wonder how many climate refugees will be washed ashore now. It looks like North Carolina will dodge the worst of it, this time.
The pharmacy opens in a few minutes, and I’ll finish this piece before I go to get the pills I need to survive. For another month, I probably won’t die from eating or breathing. For another month, I can work on something better without the urgency of survival gnawing at my lungs and pancreas.
How will this moment cause us to change?
What worlds are we creating in place of what is washed away?
Pat is making magic in the Carolina Piedmont. His blog can be found at patmosley.wordpress.com