On June 27th, 2023, Detroiters and folks across SE Michigan woke up unable to see more than a few yards down the road and to reports that the city had been ranked as having the worst air quality in the world. The sky was the kind of smoggy orange and brown hue we associate with movies about dystopian futures in which humanity has finally reached some form of apocalyptic endpoint and the characters venturing out into the world don gas masks and hope for the best as they try to survive their new normal. The smoke was the result of what has now been deemed Canada’s worst wildfire season on record. As of the last report, some 42.7 million acres of land have burned.
It was the same day I had to take my 9-year-old daughter to the pharmacy so she could get a COVID booster before being allowed to attend her summer camp. We dug out a few paper masks and reluctantly headed out. Our eyes burned. Our throats burned. The air smelled like a campfire. Very few people were on the street as we’d been warned to stay inside if possible. My daughter looked at me at one point and asked “Mom, is it safe to be out here? Are we going to die!” She was half joking. But she was also half serious. And, in that moment, as I worried about both our bodies’ ability to handle the thick toxic air, the only thing I could do was answer her truthfully “I don’t know” and then answer her with a soothing lie “but, don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”
Right now, we are in what the world’s top scientists have designated as the epoch of the 6th great extinction. As global temperatures rise, due to the extractive, destructive, and selfish policies related to neo-liberal capitalist state and corporate policy, havoc is being wrought. As profit is continuously prioritized over life (be it human or not), our global ecosystem is put into deeper and deeper distress. Terrain which acts as buffers for flooding (like mangroves and natural mountain formations that help mitigate torrential rock and mudslides) are dying or being torn apart so we can build cruise ship ports or mine for rare earth minerals, leaving communities dangerously vulnerable to even light rain. Forests are clear cut leading to the rise of new diseases and increasing endemics. Whole regions have become unlivable by any creature due to oil and chemical spills. Access to fresh water is threatened by toxic runoff or aquifer depletion by corporate and state actors. More and more humans are displaced leading to escalating refugee crises as people flee decimated lands. Countless species of plants, animals, and bugs, are wiped from existence every day as their habitats are poisoned, burned, or destroyed in our unyielding incursion upon their space for more and more and more.
And yet, for some reason, a shocking number of people refuse to accept this reality, refuse to accept their role in this terrestrial genocide, and continue to soothe themselves with the same kind of self serving misdirection I used on my daughter “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”
Many also remain frustratingly blind to the rampant and devastating environmental impacts of continuous war and ever-increasing militarization. By all accounts, the U.S. military is the largest single emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. With some 500 bases around the world, unnerving numbers of aircraft, ships, and vehicles, on top of the toxins that get released during bombings (both from the weapons themselves and from whatever may be in the buildings that are hit), war takes not just a heartbreaking toll on human life, but upon every species on this planet, and upon the earth itself.
As we currently witness the atrocities taking place in Palestine and Israel, a war fueled by funding from U.S. taxpayer dollars, advanced by the principles of settler colonialism, and wrapped up in the unending cycle of deadly battles over resources, the time is now to act. We cannot become desensitized to the ways in which certain bodies and species are deemed more important than others in the search for a peaceful homeland on this earth. We cannot become desensitized to the continued destruction of the planet because our oil addicted lifestyle requires debasing other humans in the fight for access to material goods and natural resources. We cannot become desensitized to what is happening to our children.
As of the time of this writing, more than 2,000 children are estimated as having been murdered in Gaza as a result of the war. And yet, as told by one Palestinian father currently trapped in Gaza whose news interview I watched, when the bombs drop his toddler still looks to him to make it stop. At 9 years old my daughter has never known a world without pandemics, without war, without major and overwhelming climate disasters. And yet, she still reminds me every time I casually use a plastic straw not to do so for the turtles. They are looking to us to fix it, make the bad stuff stop, and to do the right thing. We cannot become desensitized to their faith in us. We cannot become desensitized to their hope.
This edition of Riverwise is devoted to shining a light on the courageous activism taking place by all those working to defend and protect our earth. Through brave poetry like those which came from our friends at Planet Detroit and Room Project the rhythm of right relationships enters into our narratives of environmental defense. We see new ways of thinking, new beats of life emerge, new vibrations to heal the land. We call upon Indigenous ways of knowing for a reframing of how we think about the land, for embracing an intimate relationship with nature, and for serious reflection upon shifting our thinking and behaviors about what we allow to happen to our environment. There are stories from our brothers and sisters on the frontlines of the work to free Palestine and vulnerable odes which highlight the intergenerational trauma at stake in seeing war as natural or inevitable.
As always, we will meet activists from across the city who are working tirelessly to raise awareness, pour life and hope back into our children, carry the torch for those of us who remain in the dark, and who never stop believing in the power of building beloved community, one person, one tree, one turtle, one river at a time.