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Denial Doesn’t Change Our Climate Reality: Earth Is Becoming a Sacrifice Zone

Communities that have contributed little to the climate crisis are bearing its brunt — but nowhere on Earth is safe.

A flooded street in Antananarivo, Madagascar, on January 25, 2023.

The people of Madagascar are suffering. Battered by two cyclones last year, they’ve been fighting through a perfect storm of pandemic-related food supply disruptions and climate-stoked damage to local agriculture. That confluence was made worse by a two-year-long drought in the south, which laid the groundwork for a terrible famine. And that was all before Cyclone Freddy came calling this year… twice.

Although Freddy barely broke through the U.S. mainstream media’s navel-gazing news bubble, the cyclone grew to become the most “energetic” storm in recorded history. So energetic, in fact, that it pummeled Madagascar, Malawi and Mozambique two separate times over the course of 37 excruciating days, topping out at a Category 5 storm on February 21, 2023. Then it literally grew “off the chart” the following day. And that wasn’t even Freddy’s halfway point. Ultimately, the swirling vortex incubated and recharged in an increasingly warmer Indian Ocean, pouring its rain and destruction down on three nations that have done almost nothing to earn the wrath of our carbon-polluted planet.

The situation is so dire in Madagascar that, as France 24 recently reported, families are “forced to abandon or, worse still, sell their children.” Gilles Grandclement, project manager for Médecins Sans Frontières, says the organization’s staff has been approached by locals looking to sell children in a desperate effort to feed themselves. The government denied it, refusing to hear from locals who’ve been approached by beleaguered parents or from those who’ve found or taken in abandoned children. Their denial doesn’t change the reality. And the reality is that the people of Madagascar are trapped in a climate sacrifice zone.

The Rise of Sacrifice Zones

The term “sacrifice zone” is often associated with the urban decay and economic desperation wrought by the profit-obsessed paradigm of neoliberal economics. Based on the revelatory reporting of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Matt Katz in 2009, the hollowed-out city of Camden, New Jersey, became the poster child for the concept of the economic sacrifice zone. Camden’s well-documented plight was linked to corporate America’s wholesale abandonment of the working class in favor of cheaper labor and lax regulations overseas. Back home, many Camdenites found themselves struggling to survive in an economic sacrifice zone — a place where disempowered people pay the price for other people’s cult-like devotion to the bottom line.

But the term “sacrifice zone” has a long, all-too trenchant history that predates its more recent application. In fact, the concept has evolved over time from a “livestock and land management concept” into a “critical energy concept during the 1970s,” and then from an “Indigenous political ecology concept in the 1980s” to an “environmental justice concept in the 1990s.” That evolution is detailed by Ryan Juskus of Princeton University’s Meadows Environmental Institute in an extensive article published this year in the journal Environmental Humanities. What emerged from the original term “sacrifice area” is, according to Juskus, a “critical concept for opposing the human and environmental costs of abstract collective projects like development, consumerism, and militarism.”

In animal agriculture, “sacrifice areas” are natural spaces “sacrificed” to the irreparable consequences of heavy grazing by hoofed animals that trample the land and strip away the foliage, breaking down vital topsoil in the process. It’s a given that those lands are lost to other uses. That’s why areas decimated by topsoil-stripping herds of grazing animals were dubbed “sacrifice areas” in a 1970 Bureau of Land Management report cited by Juskus. And still today, you can find instructions on how to “Construct a Sacrifice Area for Horse Operations” on the website for Fairfax County, Virginia. In fact, there are dozens of resources available to help animal agriculturists build sacrifice areas and, in turn, “protect pastures” from the land-altering consequences of keeping hoofed animals.

Expanding the Zone

The concept’s wider application was aptly spurred by the Energy Crisis of 1973. Responding to an Arab-Israeli War-sparked OPEC embargo, then-President Richard Nixon launched a coal-fired energy plan he called “Project Independence.” This familiar-sounding push for “energy independence” included building 1,000 nuclear plants, finishing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, reducing the speed limit to 55 mph and, most controversially, converting oil-fueled plants to coal. It meant, notes Juskus, that eastern-based coal companies heading to coal-rich western states would be bringing destructive strip-mining practices with them.

This was quickly labeled “Appalachianization” by an alliance of “ranchers, Native Americans, and environmentalists” and, Juskus explains, “Don’t Appalachianize the West” quickly became “a rallying cry that [sought] to prevent the energy companies from ravaging with strip mines such coal-rich states as Montana and Wyoming,” writing them off as “national sacrifice areas” where “little of the vast mineral wealth [is] returned to the citizens.”

That same year, the National Research Council completed a report on the rehabilitation of western coal lands, and its publication in 1974 firmly established “sacrifice areas” as an energy concept by designating coal-extracted lands as “national sacrifice areas,” essentially adapting the agricultural concept to match the catastrophic reality of strip mining. Writing a year later in The Washington Post, Helena Huntington-Smith called the report’s use of “National Sacrifice Areas” a “verbal bombshell” that was “seized upon by a people who felt themselves being served up as ‘national sacrifices.’”

The metaphorical horse was out of the barn (or the fenced-in sacrifice area) and it gained traction wherever lives and landscapes were trampled by extractive, polluting and waste-intensive industries. From coal and uranium mining on Native reservations in the ‘80s, to toxic industrial pollution in predominantly Black neighborhoods in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the concept of a “sacrifice area” or “zone” readily explained the brutal logic of sacrificing the health, welfare and the lives of those living on lands that, essentially, were written off to protect and/or enrich others living on the equivalent of protected pastures.

Sadly, the concept has taken on a terrible new significance in the carbon-polluted 2020s. Not only do we see traditional notions of sacrifice zones still applied to people who live near oil drilling, next to heavy industry or amid chemically treated agriculture, but almost daily we see, as predicted by climate and oil company scientists alike, the sacrifice zones being created by decades of flippantly burning megatons of hydrocarbons.

The key difference is that our anthropomorphically altered climate exacts its toll on a global scale. It’s not as simple as building a fence to contain the damage, or locating a petrochemical plant in an economically disempowered town. Instead, climate sacrifice zones emerge within the context of an interdependent, macro-ecological system that sustains everything we know. And that system is a closed system. Externalities are a null concept. Much like the misnomer about throwing “away” garbage, there is no “away” for climate pollution.

You can think of it like the conservation of energy. It’s a basic principle of physics and chemistry stating that the “energy of a closed system must remain constant,” and that energy “cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be transferred and transformed” from one form to another. That basic truth can also be applied to the sacrifices connected to the closed system of climate change. The sacrifices we refuse to make can “only be transformed or transferred” from one place or person to another. Like plastic trash, carbon or methane doesn’t just go “away” simply because we refuse to take responsibility for it.

And therein lies the rub.

Just as climate pollution is tallied daily and in the aggregate on the Great Balance Sheet in the Sky, so too are the mounting costs of climate pollution imposed daily and in the aggregate on “we humans,” regardless of the relative contributions we make to the problem. And all too often it seems to be imposed, or “transferred,” in spite of those contributions, like the price currently being paid by low carbon-emitting Madagascans. Or by Pakistanis who, despite producing one of the world’s smallest per capita carbon footprints, still find themselves wading through the hunger-inducing aftereffects of last year’s climate-stoked deluge. Or by the Panamanian tribe that long lived on an island free of cars and motorcycles, but is now forced to relocate to the mainland to avoid being swallowed by the rapidly rising sea. There are easily a dozen other countries like these that have contributed little to the climate crisis, but now find themselves facing a bleak near-term future of sacrifice for a problem they did not create.

Zoned Out

Meanwhile, politicians argue over the inherent “unfairness” of the U.S. taking “unilateral” action on climate, while “communists” in Beijing build coal-fired power plants with a capitalism-inspired impunity. These callow protestations, though, wither under scrutiny. One obvious problem with their argument is that China’s massive emissions are largely made in America. The Chinese industrial juggernaut was built in no small part to service the U.S. consumer market, and to serve the bottom lines of U.S. corporations that have shown no compunction about exploiting cheap Chinese labor and lax Chinese environmental regulations to feed their ever-expanding profit margins. Frankly, it’s a serious ethical mistake to predicate one’s bad behavior on the bad behavior of someone else. In this case, it’s doubly fallacious to defiantly pump pollutants into the atmosphere because China’s “getting away with it.” The bitter truth is that nobody is getting away with anything.

It’s a fact highlighted by a recent Associated Press report. The author consulted climate scientists after a terrifying winter of extreme weather rocked the U.S., and it turns out that the same geography often touted as an “exceptional” advantage also functions as a set of force multipliers exacerbating the impact of climate change across North America. Scientists say the U.S. is “getting hit by stronger, costlier, more varied and frequent extreme weather than anywhere on the planet” because “two oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, the Rocky Mountains, jutting peninsulas like Florida, clashing storm fronts and the jet stream combine to naturally brew the nastiest of weather.”

It’s a fact manifested in the recent growth of extreme weather events to previously unseen proportions — from the barrage of “Atmospheric Rivers” that slammed the West Coast to a tornado so big, its trail of destruction across Mississippi could be seen from space. And then there’s the state of Kentucky, which late last summer found itself drowning in its own unique experience of becoming a climate sacrifice zone.

In the Zone

A full six months after “biblical floods” decimated eastern Kentucky, The Washington Post detailed the continuing struggles of low-income folks without “the means to repair damaged homes [or] obtain mortgages or scrape together rent,” while others “are living in homes without electricity or running water, doubling up with relatives, staying in camping trailers or even tents.” Citing an analysis by the Ohio River Valley Institute, the Post notes that “6 in 10 Kentucky families with homes damaged in the floods have annual incomes of $30,000 or less” and, in a preview of climate refugees to come, explains that some have simply “moved away.” It also portends a replay of the much-feared “Appalachianization” that catalyzed the evolution of the concept of “sacrifice areas” in the first place.

To wit, Axios cited U.S. Census data which shows that “roughly 3.4 million Americans were displaced by a hurricane, flood or other disaster event in 2022” and, per E&E News, approximately “16% of those displaced never returned home — and 12% didn’t return for more than six months.” For those that do return to rebuild, like a group of fire-displaced Coloradans, progress rebuilding their homes correlated with household’s income — the lower the income, the slower the rebuilding. And the kinds of immediate relief from FEMA or HUD available to those fleeing a “single disaster event” are not available to refugees who are “forced to eventually leave an area following compounding pressures from a series of climate-related hazards.”

Unfortunately, as Spectrum News 1 reported, Kentucky may find itself in both categories simultaneously. Kentuckians not only face a cycle of floods and “blistering temperatures, dryness and long dry spells,” but the state’s sunbaked soils “can start shrinking, cracking and pulling away from” home foundations and, in turn, lead not only to “thousands of dollars of foundation damage,” but also “increase the pathways for radon gas” to leak into homes.

Carcinogenic radon gas is a big issue in Kentucky. In a January 2023 story to mark “Radon Awareness Month,” WKYT talked to the University of Kentucky’s Ellen Hahn, who pointed out that Kentucky leads “the nation in new lung cancer cases, as well as death from lung cancer.” The story noted that Kentucky’s “higher radon exposure” is due to “the nature of our bedrock.” It’s a sad, “full-circle” moment for a state so deeply associated with the sacrifice areas created by extracting hydrocarbons, to now be mired in the sacrifice zone created by the burning of hydrocarbons.

It’s also why connecting the dots on sacrifices being made today by starving Madagascans or deluged Kentuckians is so crucial. Faced with both the irrefutable science and the lived experience of human beings drowning in or fleeing from climate sacrifice zones, the question of climate pollution becomes far more than a problem of economics; it is a matter of ethics.

If it were just a matter of economics, all we’d have to do is switch to a new, shiny industrial infrastructure that purports to allow us to have our cake and eat it with both hands while our self-driving electric vehicles haul us into a carbon-neutral future. But in our hurry to find one-for-one consumer replacements instead of making real sacrifices, we run the risk of remaking the same mistakes that got us here in the first place, thereby creating new sacrifice zones in places like Myanmar, Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo as we busily build our own protected pastures.

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