I just completed a solid three days of attendance at two conferences linked only by geography – the state chapter conference of the National Association of Social Workers, which met at Biloxi’s Imperial Palace casino, and the “Race, Gender and Class” conference, sponsored by a section of the American Sociological Association, in New Orleans.
The two conference experiences prompted distinct but equally troubling health-related thoughts. The Biloxi experience had nothing to do with conference content, but rather with location. Despite a major push in recent years by health advocacy groups to pass smoke-free workplace legislation in Mississippi, casinos in the state remain havens of “smokers’ rights,” and you certainly know it as you move about the Imperial Palace. The smell of cigarette smoke is everywhere and seems to cling to everything, including your clothes long after you’ve left the premises.
The New Orleans experience, on the other, was all about content. Several presentations by university-based researchers focused on the extremely troubling health impacts of environmental degradation and climate change, with emphasis on disparate impacts related to race, gender and class. Yet it’s clear that virtually all the attention of both policy-makers and practitioners today is on ameliorating the effects of this degradation and change; little is going to addressing underlying causes, which are largely, if not exclusively, human in origin. Most discussion and an increasing measure of action is devoted to “impact mitigation” and “building community resilience” to climate change.
Both conference experiences prompted me to consider the madness of our current state of collective thinking and behavior, and our seeming inability to take appropriate action in response to unequivocal scientific evidence. Despite massive and no long disputed evidence of the extreme health risks associated with second-hand smoke, we still allow thousands of workers (many of them low-income) and thousands more patrons to suck in second-hand smoke at Mississippi casinos every day. This is an outrage, and evidence, I think, of a certain kind of behavioral madness, a species of “denialism” that revels in thumbing its nose at the data.
In like vein, an overwhelming scientific consensus has emerged to conclude that human activity is responsible for climate change, and hence all the deleterious health effects already flowing from it and expected to cascade rapidly as climate change advances. And yet we appear incapable of acting to address the underlying cause of our troubles – an extractive economic order that is “healthy” only when it’s growing, ever increasing on a global scale the very behaviors that are threatening the essential conditions of human existence itself.
“Resilience” in response to known threats to human health and well-being is not the answer. Resistance to the forces driving our destruction – be they personally behavioral and psychological, or collectively political and economic – is.