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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

I Will Send Rain and The Potato Metaphor

We know everyone we love is going to die, but we don't know it, can't possibly believe it, she thought, or long ago I would have gone andd started digging until I had a hole big enough to lie down in. - Rae Meadows, I Will Send Rain

Well. There are a lot of directions I can take this thing. Let's start with this article
In the 1910s and 1920s, another land boom spread across the Plains, luring a new generation of farmers unaware of the previous century’s drought disaster. Tractors that could rip through thick native grasslands replaced the old plows. Bullish news stories on generous rainfall, war-inflated wheat prices and farm subsidies helped bring tens of thousands of settlers. When wheat prices collapsed, farmers with large mortgage payments responded by tearing up even more of the grasses that had evolved over thousands of years to hold the Earth together in dry times. Early ecologists warned of the need for a conservation ethic. Most farmers never heard those warnings. Those who heard them did not believe. 
The next great drought settled in around 1930 and seared for a decade. Summer temperatures passed 115 degrees. Thousands died from the extreme heat. When hot prairie winds met stripped ground, they kicked up violent black dust storms. These storms really did follow the plow. Rather than rain, they carried millions of pounds of dirt. After riding out blinding blizzards in Oklahoma on Black Sunday in 1935, AP reporter Robert Geiger dubbed the region “the Dust Bowl.” In response, writes environmental historian Donald Worster, chambers of commerce formed “truth squads” that worked systematically “to deny, and to repress, the Dust Bowl label.” But the winds would not be censored. They blew five more years of dust and death.
The main point of the article is that for as long as there have been businesses, American business interests have been telling us that that thing that science says is killing us really isn't that bad. Take, for example, the gasoline and paint industry.
On October 26, 1924, the first of five workers who would die in quick succession at Standard Oil’s Bayway TEL works perished, after wrenching fits of violent insanity; thirty-five other workers would experience tremors, hallucinations, severe palsies and other serious neurological symptoms of organic lead poisoning. In total, more than 80 percent of the Bayway staff would die or suffer severe poisoning. News of these deaths was the first that many Americans heard of leaded gasoline–although it would take a few days, as the New York City papers and wire services rushed to cover a mysterious industrial disaster that Standard stonewalled and GM declined to delve into.
Seriously, read that article. It's long, but interesting. It says that industry actively fought to cover up the impacts of lead gasoline and paint on public health, with the help of the United States Surgeon General and a series of tactics to obfuscate science that are still used today. The upshot is that in spite of the Bayway deaths in 1924, the United States didn't start phasing out leaded gasoline until 1975, and tanks still offered "leaded" as an option until 1986. A lot of us remember pretty clearly as kids seeing it as an option. A CDC study showed that blood-lead levels declined from 1978 to 1991 by 78%.

The amount of deaths caused by this intentional cover-up are essentially incalculable, but in just under 10 years, street soil already found a massive increase in lead.
In New York City, at least, Charles Norris decided to prepare for the health and environmental problems to come. He suggested that the department scientists do a base-line measurement of lead levels in the dirt and debris blowing across city streets. People died, he pointed out to his staff; and everyone knew that heavy metals like lead tended to accumulate. The resulting comparison of street dirt in 1924 and 1934 found a 50 percent increase in lead levels – a warning, an indicator of damage to come, if anyone had been paying attention.
It took another 50 years after that study before lead was banned, and the number of drivers in the US increased exponentially. Some estimates say that there is enough accumulated lead in our soils to account for 68 million cases of toxic levels of lead in children, and an annual 5,000 adult deaths of lead-induced heart disease.

The men who got rich off of leaded gasoline in the US are dead now, and they couldn't take their billions of dollars in blood money with them, but every day people die because of their greed and corruption. The politicians who manipulated the message in order to get more campaign contributions are dead, too. But we still live with the results. There is a compelling correlation between lead levels and violent crime that suggests that the steady drop in crime the United States has experienced since the late '70s is the result of the phasing out of leaded gasoline.
So Nevin dove in further, digging up detailed data on lead emissions and crime rates to see if the similarity of the curves was as good as it seemed. It turned out to be even better: In a 2000 paper (PDF) he concluded that if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the ’40s and ’50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

We hear a lot about Flint, where city officials knew there was a problem but did nothing about it. Or there's Maryland's secretary of housing, community and development, who:
dismissed the never-ending lead crisis in Baltimore by callously suggesting that it might all be a shuck. A mother, he said, might fake such poisoning by putting “a lead fishing weight in her child’s mouth [and] then take the child in for testing.” Such a tactic, he indicated, without any kind of proof, was aimed at making landlords “liable for providing the child with [better] housing.” Unfortunately, the attitudes of Holt and Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan have proven all too typical of the ways in which America’s civic and state leaders have tended to ignore, dismiss, or simply deny the real suffering of children, especially those who are black and Latino, when it comes to lead and other toxic chemicals.
Hey Howie? It looks like so far you're just filling out a blog post with quotations and very few of your own words in between. Did this work for you in college?

I don't know. Maybe? I want to keep making this case, though. We're still using lead in bullets, which is messing up birds, including bald eagles, but hunters are fighting to overturn an Obama directive to stop it. Also, let's not forget the rest of the world. "While Americans cruise their freeways burning exclusively unleaded gasoline, as of 1996, 93 percent of all gasoline sold in Africa contained lead, 94 percent in the Middle East, 30 percent in Asia and 35 percent in Latin America."
According to the World Bank, 1.7 billion urbanites in developing nations are in danger of lead poisoning, including neurological damage, high blood pressure and heart disease from airborne lead, 90 percent of which is attributable to leaded gasoline. Excessive exposure to lead causes 200,000-500,000 cases of hypertension in the Third World, with 400 deaths per year attributable to lead exposure in the late eighties. In Mexico City, one of the world’s most polluted (and populous) cities, 4 million cars pump an estimated 32 tons of lead each day into the air. In Jakarta, one and a half tons enters the atmosphere every twenty-four hours. A research scientist with the Canadian National Water Research Institute performed roadside-dust analyses in Nigeria that revealed as much as 6,000 parts per million of lead. In the United States, lead dust is considered hazardous to children at 600 ppm.
I was in a conversation (argument ((fight)) once about climate change in which I was told that God would not let us ruin the Earth to the point of it becoming uninhabitable. This was news to me. The God I was raised to believe is in fact kind of famous for letting us make mistakes and then live with the consequences. That's kind of His whole deal. I can definitely ruin my backyard, as my next-door neighbors have so aptly pointed out. A city can ruin a park, a state can overgraze to the point of complete ecosystem conversion, and an entire region can tear up the grass that keeps soil in place and create a 300,000 ton dust storm, so dense that farmers put ropes between their houses and their outhouses in case they needed to venture out in a cloud of dirt so dense they couldn't see their hands in front of their faces. All because the phrase "the rain follows the plow," was just so dang catchy.
To those who possess the divine faculty of hope—the optimists of our times—it will always be a source of pleasure to understand that the Creator never imposed a perpetual desert upon the earth, but, on the contrary, has so endowed it that man, by the plow, can transform it, in any country, into farm areas. 
That's the scenario one finds oneself transported to when reading Rae Meadows' I Will Send Rain. We meet the Bell family in 1934 Mulehead, Oklahoma. There's Annie and Samuel, the parents, and their two kids: teenage daughter Birdie and young Fred, who is like 8 or something? I can't remember. I'll be honest, the family is the least interesting thing about the book.

“Stay calm,” the mayor said, though it was unnecessary. They were calm, resigned to the storms that had, over these months, worn them thin. How fast a new normal took hold.” 
Like, I feel like I've read this story one million times now. Annie is middle-aged and pretty but sad, and has a crush on the mayor. Birdie is 15 and has a crush on a boy. Fred is very smart and sweet but has bad lungs (guess what that doesn't go well with dust storms). Samuel starts having dreams that he thinks may be visions from God. Everything that you think is going to happen eventually happens. For some reason we're supposed to interpret Birdie's young love as naive and irrational, but Annie's adult fascination with the city mayor with his nice shoes as a very serious awakening of super great self-discovery. This is how people behave in literature, the author says. I know because I've read a lot of it.
As the darkness grew, and with Samuel gone, Annie thought she’d join her children upstairs, but she stopped outside the door when she heard Birdie mention Cy’s name. Since he’d left, Birdie spoke to her in short angry sentences, as if Cy’s leaving were Annie’s fault. She wished she could hold her and say she understood. She had more in common with Birdie than she could admit. But she knew how trying to talk to her would go. They were each spinning in the dark, like flies in a glass of water, flapping around for something to latch onto.
See, that's good prose. Meadows is a very good writer. The setting is especially evocative. I just would have loved to be surprised even once. There are side characters who I loved, and moments that were beautiful:
Pastor Hardy’s wife had been the organist back in Arkansas, and he missed her acutely whenever Mrs. Turner—her small spidery hands—would play the opening chords of “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” or “Abide with Me.” A warmth would travel up his spine and then fly off, leaving him more lonesome than ever. In front of his flock, he sometimes could feel the abyss of despair open beneath him. He feared these moments and felt the hand of the devil in them.
These people have faith, and struggle with God and His apparent abandonment of hard-working people. They waste their money on snake oil salesmen who shoot dynamite into the clouds. They get the band together and dispense lemonade while rounding up and clubbing jackrabbits to death. There is so much meat here, and yet it feels like the book wants to spend all of its time describing the mashed potatoes. Like, I've had mashed potatoes. They're fine. But if you're going to focus on them, they better be frickin life changing. Instead they're from a Pinterest recipe already shared by Kate Chopin and Tennessee Williams and Flannery O'Connor and Henry James. They are, in short, just potatoes.

That dang dust bowl, though. We just don't learn, do we? Nowadays just 90 companies account for 63% of air pollution. And half of that took place after 1988, when NASA testified to congress that climate change was no longer theoretical. And yet we're the only developed country to actively withdraw from a cooperative agreement to reduce its effects. I wonder what percentage of campaign donations those 90 companies account for? If only there were some way of finding out...

I'm not pretending that these companies don't provide jobs and livelihoods to a lot of people. Nor am I saying that I don't use the products they create. We're all sharing the blame on this thing, just like in the end the farmers' lands were coated and crops were choked by the same dust they ultimately sent into the air due to their farming practices. But there's a big difference between me filling up my very fuel efficient car with the only fuel source available to me, and an industry actively manipulating the market and the policy-makers who supposedly represent us and calling it freedom.

We've had those potatoes before, too, you guys. Those are what we call dumpster potatoes. They have lead and mercury in them and Big Potato is calling it a superfood. Wow this potato metaphor really went places.