Uncertain Future Forum

The Disabled Planet

July 17, 2019

This essay is part of our July 2019 Uncertain Future Forum on the topic: “If collapse is imminent, how do we respond?” We invite you to comment below, and to read the other essays here.

Taylor Brorby

Each day I contemplate how I might die. Will today be the day I go into a coma? Might I have a seizure? Will my blood sugar slip low enough while I drive, render my fine motor skills just that much slower, and cause catastrophe? My own mortality is not some abstract future; it is as real to me as the clothes I wear.

For the past twenty-six years I have been a Type I Diabetic. When I was five, I could not quench my thirst. Before my parents admitted me to the hospital, I chugged glass after glass of water—it was as if I had a scratch I couldn’t itch. By the time I felt the urge to go and launched for the bathroom, I already wet myself. My blood sugar geysered higher and higher. I chomped on apples to suck out their sweet juice. I bolted from bed during the night and scrambled to the bathroom, praying I could make it. Each morning, I wet the bed. My body tried to tell me all was not well.

When I emerged from the hospital days later, I wasn’t just the only redhead in my small kindergarten class of twenty-two—I was the only diabetic. Halloween candy now lasted until Easter; I politely declined the slabs of frosted birthday cake heaped on plates at parties; my parents discreetly informed other parents why I couldn’t attend sleepovers, the fear of an “accident” being too overwhelming to me. I now depended on test strips, lancets, vials, and syringes to monitor, adjust, and control my health. My health was now bound to technology.

In second grade I had my first seizure. It was a sunny day in Mrs. Fryslie’s class as I sunk from my desk and folded across the shiny tiled floor. When I woke in the local clinic, a doctor and nurse hovered over me. I didn’t know what had happened. During seizures, the boundary between awareness and unconscious is an untraceable line. Danger—or so it seemed—waited for me everywhere.

At fourteen I traded syringes for an insulin pump, a beeper-sized device that is programmed to account for my blood sugar and the amount of food I eat, all the while giving me micro-injections of insulin throughout the day. The pump attempts to mimic a healthy pancreas.

The use of an insulin pump requires plastic reservoirs to hold insulin; these reservoirs empty every three days and must be changed. I scrub alcohol wipes across my love handles each time I move the injection site (changing the injection site helps to prevent the build-up of scar tissue). A removable needle is plunged into my fat to secure a plastic catheter into my body; the needle is then removed and discarded. An eighteen-inch plastic tube delivers insulin from the reservoir to the catheter. This sequence is central to my health. This sequence, too, is complicit—in its own small way—in the continued destruction of the planet.

At no point in time—save for the one to two minutes when I rip the three-day-old catheter out of my body to then replace it with a new one—is oil not directly in me. My health depends on the plunder of the planet for oil. My body is, quite literally, colonized by the fossil fuel industry.

And every three days the removal, the reinsertion, the throwing-away of all of these fluid-filled products is repeated: the catheter, the reservoir, the test strips, the vials—all of it is, and is covered in, oil.

* * *
Environmental thinking has failed by relegating our imaginations solely to the future—we worry about future sea level rise, glaciers melting, increasing drought, and the erosion of the habitability of the planet. Climate change, after all, is in the future, we think. We’ve got time to figure this out.

Since I’ve been five, the world—as humans have constructed it—has been inhospitable to me. Dinner parties, birthday celebrations, weddings, funerals…any gathering where food will be offered fills me with dread. The industrialized food system encourages us to consume preservative-filled, oil-intensive, innutritious food, most of it pumped full of corn syrup—and that’s what’s generally served at these events. But to be diabetic inherently means to eat a protein- and vegetable-heavy diet. Diabetics are to minimize carbohydrates and sugars as much as possible. This diet, too, would ideally be organic, which costs more for an already economically burdensome chronic disease.

Then there is the emotional work of declining to purchase a coworker’s daughter’s Girl Scout cookies, of navigating pizza parties, of visiting family whose diets—because they don’t have a chronic disease—are different from yours. Those who can eat whatever they want rarely think that someone else can’t. And the ability to eat everything is mirrored in our endless consumption of our planet.

Being disabled, a term I’ve only recently started to own for myself, is conditioned by the reality that the seemingly good health you might have today (if you’re so lucky) is temporary. For me, as a diabetic, it is the reality that my existence is a continuing decline of health. Due to genetics, I’m already on blood pressure medication and cholesterol medication, which, as my doctor tells me, will eventually lead to joint pain—even a pill that’s supposed to protect me ensures future pain. I also take medication to protect my kidneys, which, as I’m already told, will need a transplant at some later date. I’ve accepted that if I live too long, I will go blind; I may even lose a leg or two. Because of these conditions—the reality of my life—it is clear to me that to think about climate change in our communities, we must listen and acknowledge the disabled.

The emotional resilience it takes to navigate an already inhospitable world is central in the thinking of disabled people. My being disabled doesn’t afford me the privilege to worry about the future of climate change—it forces me to acknowledge the present. With each blood sugar testing, fill of the reservoir, ding of my pump—all regulated by and coursing through plastic—I am constantly, physically aware of our consumption of oil and the climate havoc it is causing.

Like mortality, climate change impacts us all. In a culture that prizes the superficial—youthful good looks, six-pack abs—we’d do well to consider what appears invisible to us; or even worse, what we choose to turn away from. This is what we do to the disabled. And this is what we do to those most-impacted by climate change: brown-skinned people, the economically impoverished, rural people, refugees. We fail to notice what is already occurring.

The preservation of my body is wed to the extraction of fossil fuels. The reality of this burden weighs on me while grocery shopping, exercising, and reading at night. In this way, disabled people bring insight to the precarious predicament we now find ourselves in. How might we better think about the world if we recognize our own limitations as a species? How might we learn emotional resilience to prepare for increased climate grief? How would making the invisible visible shift our perspective? To acknowledge the disabled is to acknowledge how we continue, through economies of extraction, to cripple the planet.

The planet is seizing. The planet may enter a coma. The planet’s blood sugar may be slipping too low.

The planet of my body and the body of the planet are not well. Yet the economic forces of the planet would continue to make us believe that there aren’t issues that need to be dealt with. If they could, corporations would render invisible ocean acidification, food scarcity, drought, storm severity, sea-level rise, topsoil erosion, and wildfires.

And though climate change is felt everywhere, economies of extraction happen in “invisible” places—like West Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming, and my home in western North Dakota.

When I think of my insulin pump pushing insulin into my body, I think of the blasting of freshwater into the western North Dakota prairie to frack for oil. When I wipe alcohol across the topography of my body, I think of the chemicals injected into the prairie to frack for oil. When I rip off the adhesive pad and pull out the catheter, and blood gurgles from a small hole in my side, I think of the “light sweet” Bakken crude plunged from the prairie. When I wince at the needle injection, I whisper fuck; when I think of fracking, I holler Fuck!

Recently, while speaking with a friend over my own healthcare costs, I made a plea for universal healthcare. He protested and asked why he should have to pay to subsidize for my being a diabetic. This thinking is rooted in American individualism, a lack of care and empathy, and a lack of understanding that my friend, too, will one day face the demise of his own health.

And yet it recognizes another American trait: Our fervent resistance to practice the art of community. We might rework the Declaration of Independence to read individual life, individual liberty, and the individual pursuit of happiness.

This individual thinking will not serve us well on a disabled planet. As the planet continues to warm and weird, we have the propensity to become meaner, more nationalistic, to isolate ourselves, and to be destructive—if we choose to be. We could instead rally our imaginations, listen to marginalized voices, and create new ways of living on a planet that is changing each day.

Due to industrial agriculture, the continued extraction of oil, timber, gas, and coal, the erosion of topsoil, the poisoning of fresh- and saltwater, and the chemicaling of the air, we are not—and the planet is not—well, whether we acknowledge it or not.

There is no difference between our health and the health of the planet. Healthy people are rewarded with low healthcare costs while disabled people are forced into lifelong healthcare choices, which are, due to free market capitalism, burdensome. To be healthy creates the illusion that health is perennial—a guarantee—while to be disabled is to acknowledge and work within limits. To acknowledge the limits of our bodies helps us better see the planet in peril. To acknowledge illness is to face reality, and then to fight like hell to be made well.

image credit

Taylor Brorby is contributing editor at North American Review. He is the author of Crude: Poems, Coming Alive: Action and Civil Disobedience, and co-editor or Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America. He is currently at work on books related to the Bakken oil boom, growing up gay on the Northern Great Plains, and being a diabetic.

Taylor Brorby

Taylor Brorby is contributing editor at North American Review. He is the author of Crude: Poems, Coming Alive: Action and Civil Disobedience, and co-editor or Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America. He is currently at work on books related to the Bakken oil boom, growing up gay on the Northern Great Plains, and being a diabetic.