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Climate Crisis Makes Us Recognize Our Limits; Disability Culture Can Show Us How

Disability culture teaches us to honor our limits and resist injustice. We need both skills to navigate climate crisis.

People wear masks as smoke from Canadian wildfires casts a haze over the area on June 7, 2023, in New York City.

The smoke caught most people by surprise. Communities in California and along the West Coast have been contending with intense fire seasons for years. But for many of us living in New York City, Washington D.C. and along the East Coast, the toxic haze from wildfires raging across Canada was a visceral reminder that climate change isn’t simply hovering on some future horizon. It’s here now, in our midst. And it’s forcing us to reckon with our limits.

Welcome to the summer of smoke: a season of scuttled plans and canceled cookouts, of air purifiers and asthma attacks. As the first wave of wildfire plumes turned the New York City sky an ominous orange, organizers pulled the plug on outdoor events. A few weeks later, cities in the Midwest had to rethink their usual Independence Day fireworks, hesitant to compound already dangerous air quality with pyrotechnics pollution. Across the country, airlines have canceled flights in droves. “We’ll have to see how the fires are,” a friend tells me, mulling whether to put a long-awaited trip on hold.

As a disabled person, this is familiar terrain. Disability has forced me to reckon more forthrightly with the limits of my flesh, to confront the truth that bodies and minds cannot do it all. It has helped me learn to embrace rest, to resist the voices that clamor for more, always more. But disability has also taught me to push back against injustice, to fight hard against the structural barriers that stand in disabled people’s way. Both of these insights are powerful tools for confronting climate change.

For most of my life, the world has told me lies about limits. People take one look at my wheelchair, and they’re quick to tell me all the things I cannot do. Disabled people face intense pressure to diminish our dreams, to settle for less, to accept other people’s estimations of what’s possible. Like many disabled folks, I’ve built robust armor against ableism. In a world full of naysayers, watch me has long been my touchstone.

But there’s a second kind of lie people tell about limits, one that’s gotten deeper under my skin. It’s the lie that says, “You can do anything, if you work hard enough.” That promise is the siren song of the U.S.’s no limits culture, the ideology of a nation founded on the myth that grit and determination will allow us to triumph over adversity. For disabled people, that story fuels a vicious cultural pressure to “overcome” our disabilities — to prove that we aren’t held back by pain, that circumstance will never get us down. The ideology of overcoming veils an entire edifice of structural inequality, making it seem like all that stands between a person and their success is individual force of will. The rules of the game are brutal: Never let them see your limits. Never falter. Never pull back.

Disability culture says no. It’s disability community that’s helped me realize that the measure of my life is more than a simple tally of accomplishment. My work is not my worth. Living with disability, as Rabbi Elliot Kukla observes, “is a long, slow detox from capitalist culture and its mandate that we never rest.”

In these times of increased climate disruption, this is disability wisdom that the world desperately needs. Climate change is a consequence of the collective human choice to push past our limits, to force this planet to carry more than it can bear. We live in a take-and-burn culture, one that pushes us to blaze bright without regard for the cost. I don’t just mean fossil fuels and fracking. I mean a broader set of cultural patterns that privilege growth and speed, that valorize profit over care, that fuel the fires of greed.

The ecological cost is mirrored in our tattered social fabric. We live in a country where more than 20 percent of the workforce has no access to paid sick leave, and where sick leave itself averages a paltry eight days. We live in a country where people routinely work more than one job to make ends meet, where folks crowdfund their cancer treatments or the cost of a new wheelchair. We live in a country in a care crisis: where disabled people skate by on benefits so meager we can’t afford to pay our attendants a living wage, where parents and caregivers rarely get a respite unless they can arrange and fund it themselves, where care is so privatized that it almost always falls on family alone.

We’re a culture that reaches for more without regard for what it takes to recharge. As a climate activist, I want us to recalibrate the way we think about limits. And I want us to listen to disabled people, to let disability wisdom lead the way.

When climate disruption strikes, disabled people are among the first to feel the impact. Disability activist Alice Wong calls disabled people “oracles.” We’re the canaries in the coalmine: the first to register the poisons in our bloodstream, the first to find ourselves unable to breathe. It’s time for the world at large to listen to what disabled people already know. Disabled poet Naomi Ortiz names the way disability hones our capacity to “venture into vulnerable unpredictability,” to reckon forthrightly with uncertainty. This is crucial wisdom. As wildfires, extreme heat, and other climate crises become part of the ordinary fabric of our days, our plans are going to have to become more provisional.

I want us to embrace that future in a way that centers Patty Berne’s clarion call for disability justice: “We move together, with no body left behind.” Let’s learn to press pause for migraines, for brain fog, for exhaustion and grief. Let’s learn to work more slowly, move more deliberately. Let’s learn to listen, when our bones say no. Let’s mandate breaks for anyone who works outside. Let’s require air purifiers, ventilation systems and safe work environments. Let’s make sure that all of us can breathe.

But to reckon well with limits, we also have to grapple with power. Many disabled folks, elders, children, and other “vulnerable populations” have already learned to check the air quality before we step outside. We’ve learned to change our plans, to shift our days to try to keep ourselves safe. That’s now part of the climate future we’re all living into, an unavoidable reality of our climate-disrupted world. But if we simply accept those personal limits, we risk leaving unchecked the root causes of the crisis. I want us to put the limits elsewhere: to rein in industrial negligence, runaway capitalism and corporate greed.

Limits are complicated, a tangled blend of private realities and public responsibilities. Beloved friends who live with chronic illness and long COVID give voice to the raw frustration of fatigue, the heartache of loss. These are limits imposed by the body. But they’re made harder and more isolating by the way our world sidelines those who live with long-term illness, the way our medical system is set up to deny persistent pain, the way our workplaces and social spaces aren’t set up to embrace bodies and minds that move at a different pace.

COVID is another case study in unjust limits. Most of the world has shrugged off pandemic protections. But for those of us who’re high risk? We’re staring down the stark realities of long-term pandemic life. Some days it hollows out my heart — the crushing loneliness, the political betrayal of a world that’s just moved on. Leaving home feels more dangerous than ever, because so few people are taking precautions. Remote access is harder to find. Accommodations have evaporated. As everyone else rushes back to normal, those of us who bear higher risk are forced to shoulder the burden alone.

When I talk about honoring limits, these aren’t the realities I want us to embrace. Some limits are intertwined with inequality, shot through with structural injustice. Some limits are a consequence of pervasive public failures. Some limits hit hardest against those who are already marginalized. Some limits are trash.

But disability has also taught me that limits can be generative. Disabled people know precarity intimately. But we also know something about how to find beauty and claim pleasure, even when we ache. Disability is a masterclass in adaptation, an invitation to work creatively within constraint. There’s a good life here, grounded by limits. In these days of intensifying climate disruption, that’s wisdom our world desperately needs.

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