I wanted to write this for some time but I put it off because I wanted my tone to show that I’m not necessarily mad at people. Rather, I’m more frustrated by situations. My intention is to make this a multi-part piece explaining why I’ve concluded that there is no dialectic. This one today involves the on-going situation regarding the contamination of water.
If someone is unaware, it was discovered that the residents of Flint, Michigan were receiving water that was highly contaminated with lead. The local government knew about this and did nothing about it. The governor of Michigan has admitted that federal, state, and local legislators had failed the residents. The contamination began in April 2014, when state-appointed ’emergency managers’ were in control of the city. They began to use the water from the Flint River instead of Lake Heron to supply the residents (whilst waiting for a new water pipeline to be completed from Lake Heron).
There has been outrage for quite some time over the condition of water in Flint. Michael Moore has been posting statements online such as:
This is a racial killing. Flint MI is 60% black. When u knowingly poison a black city, u r committing a version of genocide #ArrestGovSnyder
If this were elsewhere, & the white leader blocked a black city’s clean water supply &made them drink poison, we’d call it ethnic cleansing.
160127171402-flint-water-crisis-politics-film-michael-moore-lead-intv-00020902-exlarge-169Aside from the histrionics of it, I do believe it is good that Moore cares. It is good that he continually tried to draw attention to the situation. With that said, it’s not genocide. The term “genocide” has a pretty specific meaning. It is the purposeful annihilation of an ethnic group. It is true that genocide does not have to necessarily mean death camps like in WWII. There have been other attempts at genocide since The War. But there isn’t evidence that this was the purposeful annihilation of an ethnic group.
The simple fact that poverty affects non-Whites disproportionately is always going to show the effects of actions or policies that impact the poor to disproportionately affect non-Whites. It’s really an impossible claim to prove either way, unless we find some evidence that they purposefully poisoned this water knowing and hoping it would disproportionately impact Black people. The fact is that for Flint, the median household income is only $24,834 (half of the average household income of Michigan).
water-photo_400x299What concerns me is Moore’s claim that if this were to happen anywhere else we would call it “ethnic cleansing.” Mostly because it does happen in other places and no one is calling it “ethnic cleansing.” Instead it’s just capitalism. A few weeks ago there was a woman on the nightly news talking about living in the conditions of Flint, with the contaminated water. She was discussing not having access to running water whilst raising her children. “It’s like living in a third world country,” the woman claimed. That statement strike me at my core. It was a fundamental problem I’ve had with this entire narrative since the beginning of it.
What I came to realize is that people were angry that poor people in the United States are now being treated like poor people in the rest of the world. There are too many places to mention where people are forced to drink water more contaminated than the lead filled water in Flint. Taken from UN Water:
85% of the world population lives in the driest half of the planet. 783 million people do not have access to clean water and almost 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation. 6 to 8 million people die annually from the consequences of disasters and water-related diseases.
q2VNAKoImages filled my mind when this woman made this statement, of children drinking out of the Ganges River in India, amongst dead bodies and human waste. There are people drinking polluted water all over Africa, South Asia, East Asia, and Latin America. And when I say “polluted water” I mean much more toxic than lead. Water with human waste in it, radiated water, water with pollutants from electronics, and toxins that are highly fatal. (Lead is not a healthy substance to be in a human’s water, as it does cause neurological impairment and can lead to death, but it’s not arsenic or depleted uranium.)
How can people knowingly allow the polluted water be piped into the homes in Flint and go about their business as usual? The same way Westerners do it every day. Children bathe and drink from polluted rivers and tributaries and Westerners use bowls of water to poop in, we wash our feet with it, we use it to wash our cars. Out of sight, out of mind.
Third World Countries
Indian scavengers look for coins and other valuable items from among the offerings of devotees in the Ganges at Varanasi on April 5, 2009. More than 400 million people live along the Ganges River. An estimated 2,000,000 persons ritually bathe daily in the river, which is considered holy by Hindus. In the Hindu religion it is said to flow from the lotus feet of Vishnu (for Vaisnava devotees) or the hair of Shiva (for Saivites). While the Ganges may be considered holy, there are some problems associated with the ecology. It is filled with chemical wastes, sewage and even the remains of human and animal corpses which carry major health risks by either direct bathing in the water (e.g.: Bilharziasis infection), or by drinking (the Fecal-oral route). AFP PHOTO/Prakash SINGH
When this woman in Flint stated that she felt like she was “living in a third world country,” it spoke to me because of the way Americans tend to look at the state of humanity. This wasn’t a wealthy woman by Western standards. But at the same time, the social darwinistic view of humanity that applies to our society also applies to the world. There exists this idea that people in underdeveloped countries live in such conditions because they just have not evolved to reach our level of development. Just as we look at the wealthy in our society as ‘more deserving’ than our poor, we look at other countries as less deserving. It ignores the historical and material reality of current situations.
Why are “underdeveloped nations” still “underdeveloped”? For me, this is where the fundamental issue lies. Do we believe that developed nations are just somehow superior to underdeveloped nations? Or do we accept that developed nations are developed because they exploit the resources of underdeveloped nations? The facts support the latter.
Just find any story on pollution in India or China in Western social media and read the story and/or comments. It will frame this narrative that countries like China are destroying the environment to the ire of the environmentally conscious, “Green” West. Not long ago I happened upon a story in the BBC about India making a statement to the UN telling the United States to decrease it’s consumption if it is concerned about climate change and environmental pollution. The comments were littered with condemnation of India and China for their continued environmental pollution. But this condemnation is severely problematic and is, at best, a form of Manifest Destiny.
It’s not a simple issue. There are various factors in why China and India are producing such high levels of environmental pollution. There are historical implications as well as contemporary economic issues at play here.
_49759583_india_empire_gettyIn the 17th century, the British, the Dutch, and the Portuguese all vied for control of trade with the East. This led to colonial expansion and eventually domination of much of Asia. To avoid this becoming a detailed lesson in history, let’s just fast forward to the 19th century. The British gained control of India by the middle of the 19th century. They used their military to secure trade for the British East India Company and dominate India as a colony. In 1876, Queen Victoria (of the United Kingdom) had proclaimed herself Empress of India. From this position, the British began exporting large quantities of opium into China. China was even more difficult for Europeans, as it was a self-contained empire and had little need to trade with the West. Long story short: This led to the First Opium War which led to the Treaty of Nanking. And the whole point of this ‘quick and dirty’ history was that European profit motives led to military domination of the rest of the world, with India and China being the most prominent examples.
When we look at what occurred during Anglo rule of these territories, we see a disparate method of administration. One notable example would be the widespread famine that spread through India during the control from the East India Company during the 19th century. It is also important to note that this was the time period of the Industrial Revolution. (The Industrial Revolution started in the mid-18th century in England, spreading and growing into the 19th century.) Whilst the United States also hit the Industrial Revolution late in the game, it was independent of European control long before this period. (I would propose one reason the Industrial Revolution hit the United States later was the self-sustaining qualities of the United States.)
India gained independence from England in 1947. The Chinese Communist Revolution happened in 1949. These two nations were not independent of Western capitalist rule until the 20th century, a full two centuries after the Industrial Revolution began. This is relevant because this domination caused the West to propel forward through whilst leaving colonized countries less developed industrially. When colonial rule ended, the populations were left largely as peasant farmers. By telling countries such as India and China that they cannot continue to industrialize, it is essentially forcing them to remain nations of relatively impoverished farmers.
LA_smog_Cate Frost_ShutterstockIt’s important to take note of the pollution created in Western Europe and the United States during industrialization. Anecdotally, I have friends and colleague that had their formative years in Los Angeles. They told me they remember days of “smog alerts” telling citizens to stay indoors well into the 1990s. Personally, I remember “smog days” in the San Fransisco Bay Area in the 2000s. The condemnation of China and India for industrializing in the current area is an ethnocentric way of saying, “We did it but you cannot.”
Another issue here is the lack of “green technologies” in India and China. It is true that China has currently taken steps to decrease use of coal for energy, but it is still highly dependent on coal. This is also less to do with social evolution and more to do with capitalist propriety. The West has developed methods of obtaining “green energy” but has created patents on this technology which make the cost of obtaining this technology prohibitive. (This also creates an issue of cultural conflict, where not all cultures have this liberal idea of ‘owning ideas.” We see this become critical when the People’s Republic “steals ideas” and “copies products” of the West.)
On top of all of this, a large amount of the pollution produced in India and China is produced to satiate the consumption of the West (particularly the United States). On the BBC article where India told the U.S. to cut down on consumption, many pointed out the higher levels of carbon emissions in India and China. If we look at CO2 emissions per capita in metric tons, the United States produces 17.0, China produces 6.7 and India a mere 1.7. (source) Of course, the 1.7 metric tons per capita in India is greater than the 17.0 per capita in the United States due to population density, but that doesn’t mean that people in the United States are not producing a disproportionately high level of CO2 pollution.
Taking into account the disparities in pollution output, we also have to look at where and how goods are manufactured. The outsourcing of production to India and China has allowed producers in the United States to increase availability of low cost, innovative products to consumers in the United States. One reason for this is the lower operating costs in countries like China and India. The problem here is that the pollution generated in China and India is not merely self-sustaining production, but production for Western consumption.
Africa-1The problem is larger than just India and China. These are just the largest examples. We can look at the entire world and see the effects of Western capitalism. We can see children in mines producing Coltan for our electronics. Impoverished people in Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan, West Africa, and even Brazil taking our electronic refuse and breaking down the components for our “green environment.” In effect, we have outsourced our pollution. (There is room here for an in depth examination of this process, but for brevity I’m just going to leave this claim here. It is verifiable and if anyone wants to give a detailed exploration of it, I’d be more than happy to link it.)
How does this relate to the lead in the water of Flint, Michigan?
Quite simply, what happened in Flint is what the West has been doing to the rest of the world for over a century. “How could this happen?” so many ask. The same way it has always happened. The lack of concern until it happened within the borders of the United States makes it more troubling than anything.
How could this happen? In short: Capitalism. The evolution of capitalism requires this to happen. A feature of capitalism is the requirement of constant growth. Stagnation in capitalism is collapse. This is true not just for neoliberalism, but even more Keynesian forms of capitalism. Capitalism requires growth. (I really want to discuss Imperialism, The Highest Stage Of Capitalism here, but the mere mention of it may shut off minds to any dialectic.)
The personal problem I seem to have is that borders mean very little to me. But in a normative discourse, it shows a fatal flaw in the arguments about what happened in Flint, Michigan. “Why should I care about the water in Flint?” – the response is often that “the men, women, and especially children in Flint are being victimized by this process. Water is a human right and these people have a right to safe and clean water.”
environmental-pollutionThere have been people all over social media and mass media claiming, “We need a revolution.” Where was your revolution when 6 to 8 million people died every year from the consequences of disasters and water-related diseases? Where was your revolution when the rest of the world is suffering? It didn’t exist. There were no calls for a “revolution.” The fact is that when these stories and statistics popped up from outside of the United States the response has been akin to “that is a shame.” That’s the end of it. There have been individuals seeking to do something about this – which is how we know it has been a problem. But these aren’t the masses. And there was no call for a revolution. There was no histrionics of genocide. Just patronizing platitudes and business as usual.
It is only when business as usual stops being business as usual that people want a revolution. This belies their claim that their outrage is due to compassion. And this is where I mean there is a fatal flaw in this logic. Americans have become that friend that never wants to help others deal with their problems but expects everyone to drop everything to help them when they have a problem. There’s no reciprocity. My question becomes one that asks “Why should I care more about the children in Flint, Michigan than about the children in Bangalore?” Any reasonable person would say that I shouldn’t. But their actions don’t display this. It’s this undercurrent of nationalism that lies beneath the surface. These actions show that many of these people do privilege the children in Flint over the children of Tanzania.
When we see cries that what happened in Flint is “genocide” because 60% of the population is Black, it points to the hypocrisy and histrionics. How many White people are drinking out of the Ganges? How many White people are drinking water contaminated with depleted uranium in war torn countries? How many White people are drinking and bathing in contaminated water in Indonesia or the Philippines? The answer to all of these questions is statistically zero. But it wasn’t “genocide” there, because it was just capitalist growth. It was the cost of maintaining our lifestyles. There was no outrage until the water inside the borders of the United States were contaminated by capitalist greed.
de520c31-89d8-460c-98d1-b87edf2070c7Many people ask why this is so important. Why is it important to argue this isn’t genocide? Simply because that obfuscates the real culprit: capitalism. It also perpetuates this idea that the wealth and growth of the United States is some type of natural occurrence resulting from some type of superior social qualities that have allowed this growth. It sweeps the dirt under the rug. Most importantly, it ignores the sociological realities of this system and it supports this conspiratorial view of society that helps hide the true nature of this exploitive system. Honestly, I love Three The Hard Way. I still watch it. I have it on DVD. It’s a classic. It’s also fiction.
Why have Black people in America been disproportionately affected by the contaminated water in Flint? Was it some dark conspiracy of White supremacy seeking to annihilate Black people? It actually would be convenient if that were true. The problem is that poverty disproportionately affects non-Whites in this society (and the world).
The lead contamination in the drinking water in Flint was a wake-up call. It points out several serious issues, none of which are being discussed in relation to the situation. The racial element is not about “genocide.” It’s about how race and class cause poverty to disproportionately impact non-Whites. They are related but not synonymous. Any time an issue disproportionately affects those in poverty or lower incomes, that issue will disproportionately impact Blacks, Latinos, and/or Native Americans. This isn’t necessarily a conscious effort. It’s a result of a segregated society. And it’s a microcosm of how the world is segregated.
6776991These calls for “revolution” and statements of utter disgust over the situation in Flint have an element of Manifest Destiny or Western superiority among them. And this is the point I’m really trying to drive home here. When HIV/AIDS first hit, this society turned a blind eye. It was looked at as a “gay disease” and most people were perfectly content giving a few platitudes of how awful it was and moving on with their lives. When it was discovered that heterosexuals could die from HIV/AIDS related illnesses, treatments and cures became imperative. When the ‘crack epidemic’ spread outside of the Black enclaves of America and entered suburban culture, it became a serious issue. When test based teaching no longer stayed relegated to “urban” students, there came a backlash toward it. And now when poor people in America are being treated the way poor people in the rest of the world have been treated for decades, it’s an outrage.
This is really why I cannot be stirred to get up and shout about the lead in the water of Flint. It isn’t that I don’t care or that I do not think it is horrible. It is horrible. It is that I’ve been shouting about this problem to deaf ears. And I also worry that once the water in Flint is no longer contaminated, it will be business as usual again. As long as we don’t have to see it, it’s not a problem. It’s just something for “those people.” We can just tut-tut as the lives lost in “third world countries” and go on with our lives.
The water in Flint is really a case of the chickens coming home to roost. Americans (and Westerners) have been content exploiting the rest of the world and dumping their waste on them for quite some time now. What happened in Flint was that Americans got a small taste of what Western hegemony has done (and is doing) to the rest of the world. (A similar argument could be made for things like the ‘bedroom tax’ in the UK.)
The issue of what happened in Flint is not really lead contaminated water. It’s a system that requires constant growth. The cost of this growth is human capital. It has been for over a century. And when this system runs out of human capital outside it’s borders, it is going to use human capital internally. It’s unavoidable that lives are endangered to maintain this system of growth. This is what no one is talking about. No one is saying that Flint is what is to come. No one is talking about ending this system of capitalist exploitation. Why should they?
We need the filaments of our flat screens (phone, computer, television, etc.) placed by hand for less than $400 (USD) a month. We need places to dump our waste that won’t contaminate our own water. If we admit that Flint is the product of our consumption, we would have to change our consumption. This is why it’s important to point out that it isn’t genocide. It’s not a grand conspiracy to do anything to anyone. It’s the pursuit of profits. It’s neoliberalism. It’s capitalism. It’s the constant growth we need to maintain this system. It isn’t to say that there aren’t institutionalized forms of discrimination prevalent in this society. They do exist. The problem is that they are inextricably linked to this system.
There are a lot of problems in the response to Flint’s water crisis. They are mostly manifestations of larger problems from this society. The primary issue that I attempted to illuminate here is that there is more than a bipolar option of responses. One does not have to fall into one of two camps. It is possible to disagree with both sides of this situation. One can believe that what happened was horrible and still not believe this is “cause for a revolution” or an “experiment in genocide.” There are third and fourth options. It is possible that individuals disagree with the opposition response because it is still rooted in capitalist hegemony. It is possible to say, “Where have all of you been while millions of people died globally to this same problem?”
There is also the simplification of complex socio-political issues. There are issues that are not always so blatantly obvious. There is room for thought here and there is a discussion to be had. As long as we engage in histrionics and just respond to each individual crisis as it occurs, these crisis will continue to occur.
westernleftismMore importantly, if you look at the issue of Flint from an objective viewpoint, it’s not just an isolated and racist incident. It is the way the United States (and Western culture) has been treating the rest of the world for quite some time. The same way in which Americans have shed no tears over the millions of lives lost to poor water quality in developing nations is the way in which the wealthy have shed no tears over the contamination of water in Flint. And this has become just another example of moral relativism. The same way that the wealthy ‘allowed’ this to occur in Flint have not had it weigh upon their conscience is the way Americans have been able to go about their lives while the rest of the world is left to deal with the implications of neoliberal imperialism. You cannot ask the world to give a shit about Flint when you don’t give a shit about the rest of the world.