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Poverty and climate overheating: flip sides of one coin

November 22, 2023

I retired in 2020 after decades as a mental health outreach worker. My job involved going out to my clients’ apartments – usually in sprawling housing projects or in “section 8” apartments in run down neighborhoods. Some of my clients slept in backyard sheds or abandoned factories and I met with them on playgrounds, parking lots or street corners. Poor people are a more diverse group than most of us realize – a few of my clients had a significant number of college credits, and some had been born into relative privilege before the invisible trap door to the bottom opened up. Childhood trauma and later addictions often lubricate the hinges of this portal.

Trauma can mean many different things – a nine year old girl told me, rather matter-of-factly, that she had seen several men knock her neighbor unconscious after he intervened in a domestic dispute. Another child with a swollen lip explained that his step father had slapped him. Anyone can experience trauma, but poor children endure an outsized share.

We hear a lot about upward mobility but little about downward mobility – the much more crowded lane for America’s two way class traffic. There are tens of millions of poor people in America, generally sequestered from the awareness of more fortunate members of the public. The manner in which an enormous and growing segment of the population can be kept from plain sight involves public policy “slight-of-hand.”

In Greenfield, Massachusetts, where I worked, three large housing projects, each with several hundred units, had been discreetly carved into the woods along the bubbling Green River. Two of these were owned by private real estate corporations. One of these privately owned complexes, built in the river valley abutting adjacent hills, had been constructed almost directly beneath the razor wire and concrete structures of “The Franklin County Jail and House of Corrections,” Prisons and housing projects share a similar mystique – both are usually set back from the road and both provoke lurid fears. The children that I worked with would commonly point to the prison and casually name the relatives incarcerated there – “my uncle, my step-dad, my older brother.”

People living in housing projects have little floor space and almost nowhere for storage. One guy had a pile of spare car parts and batteries crammed behind the couch. A profusion of unopened plastic soda bottles often dominated the kitchen areas in the homes that I visited and these would, if necessary, spread out into other rooms. The man with the stashed car parts carefully placed four 2 liter bottles on every step leading to the second floor. You had to carefully tip toe past them. Dollar stores sold these for 79 cents each. It was hard to resist.

Sugar addiction has a choke hold on poor communities and I would typically see Little Debby’s or Hostess pastries piled on countertops. Little Debby’s must hold the world record for cheap calories. One particular frosted bun has 500 calories without a molecule of nutrition, and sells for 50 cents. This poisonous confection contains a wallop of high fructose corn syrup held together with a sprinkle of flour, corn starch, and the notorious, invisible dollop of palm oil – the scourge of both rainforests and poor people  It almost seemed like Little Debby’s had a mandate to hook in impoverished children on behalf of the global corn, palm oil and sugar industries.

Many of my clients had lost all or most of their teeth by age 30. Poor people, famously struggle with sky high rates of obesity and diabetes. One women in my caseload had such severe osteoporosis that, by age 50, she had suffered a hip fracture. Both poverty and high sugar consumption correlate with low bone density Tooth loss is often a harbinger of early mortality, and, life expectancy in the poorest towns in Franklin County is 15 years shorter than in the wealthiest towns of Middlesex County.

I was acutely aware that my job offered an intimate, panoramic peek into the underbelly of capitalism, but I never thought at all about how the lives of my clients fit into the larger context of climate overheating. If I had thought about it years ago I would have likely dismissed any connection at all. Most of my clients did not drive – having no drivers’ license is often one of the defining features of those living in poverty – and they inevitably had very modest habits as consumers. The story of climate change, we have come to understand, does not entirely center on fossil fuels – the industrial aspiration to build an empire of pseudo-nutrition requires the appropriation of unspoiled habitat. The diseases overrepresented in impoverished communities – obesity, diabetes, emphysema, osteoporosis, HBP, asthma, coronary blockage, mental illness, etc. – are deeply entwined with shrinking habitats and overheated climate. We might even think of poverty and climate as a single, indivisible issue.

Those living below the poverty line have so little that one might easily conclude that there are no resources left to hoover out of people who have already been turned upside down to shake out the last few coins. But that sort of thinking is a disservice to the resourceful persistence of corporate schemes. The increasingly privatized and highly profitable “prison industrial complex” proves that billions of dollars can be squeezed from the poorest communities.

Consider, also, bank overdraft fees that, in 2019, drained over 15 billion dollars from America’s poorest citizens into the coffers of wealthy bankers. My clients sometimes showed me bank statements with savings under a dollar. Those with depleted accounts often have to pay “maintenance fees.” A trickle extracted from each poor person gathers into torrents and oceans of banker profits. Wherever there is rampant, unregulated corporate plunder there is environmental ruin.

The plastic soda bottles on my client’s staircase might be conceptualized as a point on a large circle connecting his obesity and life threatening asthma to Coca Cola profits and rain forest destruction.  65 million acres of moist, tropical lands have been stolen from the carbon absorbing plans of mother nature, and given over to the cause of sugar cane – the essential ingredient in soft drinks and ultra processed foods. It is a lose/lose situation for all of us who are not executives of food conglomerates. While I must emphasize that poor communities suffer the worst injuries from industrial food marketing, it is important to recognize that people from all social classes suffer and die for the bottom line of Cargill

In the homes of most of my clients ( at least for those who could intermittently afford to pay for cable) the TV was almost always on as a sort of semiconscious background murmur. Material wealth is inversely proportioned to TV watching time – thus, a ghastly paradox: those with the least money view the most advertising. The lords of capitalism obviously know that most of their TV addicted targets have no means to purchase Porsches and Rolex watches but have just barely enough to buy meat, fast foods, soda and cheap baked items loaded with salt, palm oil and high fructose corn syrup. Of course, all these things come wrapped in plastic.

Plastic waste is particularly problematic in poor areas, and my clients often stored mountains of empty plastic bottles to return for a couple of dollars. The plastics industry, a branch of the fossil fuels empire, generates nearly three quarters of a trillion dollars in annual, global profits. It is beyond my scope here, to detail the medical and environmental destructiveness of plastic, but these compounds, like climate overheating and nuclear war, represent an existential threat to life on earth.

I think of “free surface hydraulics” as being the most apt metaphor for capitalism. Liquid water conforms to the contours of geological structures and the dictates of gravity – water never exhibits free will. It cannot flow uphill or form lakes where no lakebed exists. So too, capitalism clings to predetermined principles always aligned with the quest to maximize profits and expansion. History has proven that capitalists will exploit child labor, work people to death in systems that grant corporate access to slave labor, or poison the totality of living things with tetraethyl lead unless forced to stop by popular will or governmental decree. Engineers do not beseech water to flow in an advantageous direction – they build canals.

We deceive ourselves if we imagine that capitalists ruminate over moral issues and struggle to find some sort of ethical compromise in which the preservation of the environment and the feeding of humanity can both be accomplished. Capitalism, by nature, kicks ethical constraints aside, just as water runs down hill. The CEO of Hormel is not about to renounce ultra processed foods and reduce profits – there are no belated moral epiphanies. Ebenezer Scrooge does not inhabit the real world. Processed foods are cheap and addictive, and the rain forest is an obstacle to the sugar, fat and beef needed to make them.

Nothing has laid bare the intent and the soul of capitalism like tobacco. Only massive government intervention has slowed the murderous aspirations of big tobacco.  The hydraulic nature of capitalism can be seen in the way that this industry, – blocked from its former commercial domination – hones in (like water seeking a streambed) on the solitary remaining market, poor people. While the US has largely banned tobacco advertising, tobacco products are highly visible in franchised, convenience store chains that hawk what I call, “the addictive trio” – junk food, lottery tickets and cigarettes.

Tobacco and nicotine vaping go hand in hand with Little Debby’s snacks, as poor people – often confined to food deserts – have little choice other than to use convenience stores as a nutritional hub. Most of my clients smoked and several suffered from emphysema and asthma. One of my clients was hospitalized ten times in a single year for asthma, and the prednisone prescribed to treat his lung inflammation added another fifty life-threatening pounds to his frame. The added weight destroyed his knees, and, at age 45 he walked with a cane.

Smoking is overwhelmingly more common among poor people. The tobacco industry may be so renowned for mass murder that we barely give it credit as a source of greenhouse gasses, but annually this industry belches 84 megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere while poisoning ecosystems and occupying lands that would otherwise support dense forests.

In a world of constant warfare, angry fascist movements and self serving political regimes, it may be hard to get worked up over palm oil. But palm oil is often the saturated fat of choice to create the desired consistency of sugary, processed, commercial foods like the above mentioned Little Debby’s and it also has an outsized role in deforestation, animal cruelty and human rights abuses of indigenous Indonesian populations.

According to a 2015 investigative piece in the Wall Street Journal, a Malaysian plantation sold palm oil harvested by slave laborers to a number of multinational food conglomerates. It is indeed telling that a powerful institution can spike global carbon, exploit slave laborers, harden arteries of untold millions, and wipe out endangered species, all while getting caught (but not punished) attempting to silently tip toe past the mass media.

All seed oil production – soybean, sunflower, peanut, canola and several others – contributes to deforestation. As ultra processed foods (UPFs) have become one of the primary commodities to increase industrial agriculture’s profits, the urgent impulse to hack away at rain forests increases.

Fast foods – a huge niche in the UPF industry – created two problems for my clients: (1) Venues like McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King sell extremely addictive, high fat, high sugar, low nutrition meals that have been appropriately called heart attack food. (2) The overpriced and addictive offerings of industrial fast food chains put a crushing burden on poor people’s precarious financial status.

The looming possibility of rent default colored almost all family relationships for the people in my caseload – on countless occasions I listened to back and forth accusations directed toward spouses, partners, children, housemates, parents or grandparents who had allegedly imperiled the family solvency with a binge on fast foods.

Keep in mind that a two bedroom apartment in western Massachusetts averages well over a thousand dollars monthly, and that Social Security checks ran along a continuum between $600 and $800 monthly – in single parent households, one check might have to support an entire family. Many disabled people are denied social security and waiting lists for subsidized housing often cause people to languish for five years or more. Against this backdrop of impossible budgeting, poor people struggle with fast food addictions – the cravings for these iconic American menu items may be as potent as those associated with heroin. To make up for the monthly shortfall many of my clients worked “under the table,” but local, informal employers pay only a fraction of the minimum wage.

An average meal at McDonald’s orendy’s costs $13. For my clients, every impulsive indiscretion threatened to bounce back and cause rent default. But the sins of McDonald’s far exceed the ruin that this company brings to the peace of mind and health of their disadvantaged customers. McDonald’s contributes some 53 million metric tons annually of CO2 to the biosphere, and was one of the primary clients of Brazilian farmers who burned down 7.5 million hectares of Amazon rain forest in 2019.

If poverty and climate comprise a single, inseparable challenge to humanity, does that change how we envision the climate movement?  Many climate activists have identified climate mitigation as a call to abolish capitalism. That perspective is here, and here, and here, and here, and here – and I could fill endless pages with links to writings that propose that the absolute first critical step to saving the planet is the destruction of capitalism.

But capitalism has long been seen as the primary cause of poverty and this short piece by noted Marxist economist, Richard Wolff reminds us all that, long before climate change proved that capitalism is even more sinister than we had ever imagined, many had seen the end of a market economy as a precondition to establishing equity, human rights and universal access to adequate housing, nutrition and medical care. Marx did not formulate his economic principles in response to environmental destruction, but as a means to address inequity, exploitation and suffering.

My clients had no political power. Most of them were not even registered to vote, and the few that were usually didn’t. I once asked one woman if she had registered to cast her ballot, and after a long withering look – that I perceived as pitying – she softly uttered, “why?” The population of my caseload represents a great many millions of people nationally, and just recently I have been thinking about an improbable alliance between the very poor and the climate movement. Historically, the most dispossessed and forgotten populations have organized and mounted resistance in Europe. In Greenfield, just a few years ago, a group of homeless people occupied the town green for weeks to protest against unresponsive authorities.

Many activists have argued that the climate movement must broaden its base, form alliances and coalitions, and – this is critical – develop the sort of rhetorical gravitas commensurate with the task of redirecting human fate. If poverty has deep systemic ties to climate catastrophe, does that compel us to expand our collective vision, and to protest all of the hostile societal forces that punish poor people?

Should Extinction Rebellion not merely confront MacDonald’s over the issue of meat, methane emissions, and rain forest destruction, but also for unfair labor practices, excessively high prices, massive profits and the practice of inflicting addictive, ultra processed, carcinogenic, artery clogging poisons upon poor communities? Should housing, universal basic income and universal health care be essential components of the climate activist platform? Is climate change a class issue (with poor people hurt most by climate heating, and more privileged people comprising the base of the movement) and, if so, how can these class issues be addressed? Not that long ago the idea of working class solidarity drove leftist ideology..

How much of an imaginative stretch is it to picture climate activists demanding that MacDonald’s pay reparations to those people harmed by their products in much the same way that tobacco and opiate manufacturers were held accountable for criminal deeds? I believe that these are important things to consider – the climate movement cannot stand alone and expect to make sea changing economic and political transformations. One should be encouraged by Extinction Rebellion’s recent focus on building alliances. I am particularly enthusiastic about Extinction Rebellion’s embrace of “sortition” or citizen’s assemblies – the most democratic institution ever imagined. Sortition is a radical response to class inequity. Climate overheating intersects with many kinds of human (and animal) suffering – these intersections must be the points of contact for alliances.

If the goal of the climate movement is to replace capitalism – perhaps with a decentralized, grass roots system of worker run cooperatives and farms – this will take an enormous, heroic and almost inconceivable effort to bring working class and poor people into the climate movement, and into leadership roles. I have described my clients in terms of their suffering and poverty, but poor people have a superior sense of community, generosity and altruism. I repeatedly saw people risk eviction in order to take in unhoused family members and even utter strangers. We don’t generally think of poor people as being a critical constituency within the climate movement, but I believe that there will be no climate solution without the participation of those who have been most harmed and alienated by the architects of future extinction.

Phil Wilson

Phil Wilson is a retired mental health worker who has written for Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Resilience, Current Affairs, The Future Fire and The Hampshire Gazette.

Tags: climate change, poverty