Published in The Hampshire Daily Gazette Wednesday, January 31, 2018
I was walking to the River Valley Co-op Sunday morning, pondering what I would say in this column, when a pickup truck narrowly missed hitting me in the Jackson Street crosswalk at Bridge Road.
The driver had run a red light and I reacted with a classic “What the …?!” pose. But then I audibly finished the phrase when the Toyota behind him followed his path and came even closer to flattening me. He yelled back at me as though I were the aggressor.
I immediately knew there were lessons here, so I will dare to spin them.
I can remember when there were fewer laws protecting pedestrians. There were not many crosswalks. Drivers had a lot more freedom to drive as and where they wanted, and since it was an unequal match — body vs. automobile — a lot of destruction was done to those on foot.
The public danger and immorality of uncontrolled car use was slowly recognized and now every city enforces pedestrian safety. Some, like the scofflaws who threatened me on Sunday, ignore the law, but by doing so they risk jail, particularly if they are successful in doing me in.
More recently the public health threat of tobacco was recognized and codified in laws throughout our country, controlling where and when people can light up, to protect us all from heart and lung disease caused by the smoke. The same should happen with guns to stop the epidemic of violence from mass and individual shootings.
They are practices that most people recognized were wrong before they were made illegal. They violated the public trust, the right to live free of threat by the actions of others. The process of codifying in law that which we know benefits society is nearly always stymied by those (big car, big tobacco, big gun) who sell and profit from lack of restriction on their product and claim they represent the civil rights of the users. Corporate advertisers have fabricated an ideology of “freedom” for the driver, smoker, gun owner.
That ideology has masked a David and Goliath (like me and the car) battle for health and safety against huge, wealthy and powerful corporations. Alert civil society is David.
Enter climate change and environmental devastation. Human rights advocates around the world recognize a fundamental right to breathe clean air in a stable climate without destructive hurricanes, massive drought with associated crop failure, rising seas and flooding, and killer heat waves. It is as basic as my right to life when I step into that crosswalk.
And yet, despite progress first made under Richard Nixon in the 1970s to convert into law that which was known to be reasonable and moral, the Trump administration and corporate friends are wiping out all the protections against climate chaos, heat and rising seas on behalf of the right of polluters to profit. Nixon’s Environmental Protective Agency and its regulations are systematically being dismantled by Trump and Scott Pruitt.
Our coastal waters, public lands and Arctic are open to drilling and despoiling with taxpayer subsidy in a mad drive for profit that will raise world temperatures well above climate tipping points that will yield uncontrollable warming.
To protect the public trust and human rights, particularly of the most vulnerable poor in our country and around the world, we must make (and sometimes remake) the laws that stop the polluting. It’s rough to do it now on the federal level, but we have 2018 elections coming soon.
In this state, there is a lot of lawmaking to be done to protect that public trust for a livable climate:
It must become expensive to pollute. There needs to be a price put on the burning of fossil fuels that begins to capture some of the externalized costs that are borne by all of us in the form of asthma and heart disease they cause as well as the climate they change. (H1726/S1821)
There must be a significant structured rise in the amount of renewable energy that we substitute for coal, gas and oil-burning in generating our electricity. (H2706/S1846)
We must defy the Trump administration’s attempt to kill solar energy development through the imposition of tariffs and instead remove Massachusetts net-metering caps that now limit panel owners’ benefiting from their investment and ensure that low-income communities have access to solar power. (H1396/S1831)
Our Department of Public Utilities, which arbitrates the structure of energy delivery, must stop acting as protectors of the gas companies, welcoming every proposed pipeline as a long-missed relative. There are better alternatives now, and the building of new fossil fuel infrastructure, using taxpayer or ratepayer funds, is a rotten investment. (H3400/S1847)
Speaking of investment, our state and our cities need to follow New York City’s lead and divest from fossil fuels. (H3281)
Poor and working people need institutionalized protection from the kind of polluting industries that tend to be sited in their communities. (H2913/S426)
These are some of the laws that we need to adopt to deal squarely with this century’s overarching public health threat, climate change. They state clearly that, when weighed against corporate profitability and the “rights” of polluters, human life and our planet’s sustainability must win in a just, democratic society.
Every Tuesday morning, I get together with good friends around a kitchen table to drink coffee, eat pastries and gossip. We also call our legislators and let them know exactly what we think should become law in our state to protect our society and our children’s future.
We request that good sense become good law. You are welcome to join us or, if you like, create your own gathering. If we recruit hundreds if not thousands of Davids, Goliath doesn’t have a chance.
Dr. Marty Nathan lives in Northampton and is a physician at BaystateBrightwood Health Center in Springfield. She is on the steering committee of Climate Action NOW and drinks coffee with 2degreesatgreenneighbors.earth. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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