Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Grim Reaper's Invisible Hand

In case you weren't aware, the die-off began last week.

Okay, I'm being a little facetious here. But indeed,the combination of record heat waves and power outages has claimed the lives of vulnerable people who would not have died anyway. And that, by my definition, is a die-off. Here are the details:
PHILADELPHIA — Americans dipped into the water, went to the movies and rode the subway just to be in air conditioning Saturday for relief from unrelenting heat that has killed 30 people across half the country.

The heat sent temperatures soaring over 100 degrees in several cities, including a record 105 in Washington, St. Louis (106), and Indianapolis (104), buckled highways and derailed a Washington-area train even as another round of summer storms threatened.

At least 30 deaths were blamed on the heat, including nine in Maryland and 10 in Chicago, mostly among the elderly. Three elderly people found dead in their houses in Ohio had heart disease, but died of high temperatures in homes lacking power because of recent outages, officials said. Heat was also cited as a factor in three deaths in Wisconsin, two in Tennessee and three in Pennsylvania.

Officials said the heat caused highways to buckle in Illinois and Wisconsin. In Maryland, investigators said heat likely caused rails to kink and led a green line Metro train to partially derail in Prince George's County on Friday afternoon. No one was injured, and 55 passengers were safely evacuated.

Thousands of mid-Atlantic residents remained without power more than a week after deadly summer storms and extreme heat struck the area, including 120,000 in West Virginia and some 8,000 in the suburbs around Baltimore and Washington, D.C. In the Washington area, Pepco asked customers to conserve power, saying the heat was stressing the system.

"This is becoming a black swan of heat waves, in the sense that it's such a long heat wave, such a severe heat wave and encompassing such a large area," said Chris Vaccaro, spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Unrelenting heat wave bakes half the US; 30 dead as temperatures reach record highs
At least 42 people have died in a heatwave that has brought soaring temperatures to a dozen US states from the Midwest to the East Coast. Crops shrivelled and roads and railway lines buckled in the heat.

Hundreds of records fell across the affected area on Friday and Saturday, but the heat was expected to ease slightly on Sunday. Severe storms are expected to follow. Many homes in the region are still without power after storms a week ago.

Media reports say many of the deaths were of elderly people stuck in homes without air conditioning because of the outages.Ten deaths in Chicago were blamed on the heat, and at least 10 each in the eastern states of Virginia and Maryland. Three each died in Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and two in Tennessee. A four-month-old girl died after being left in a car for "an extended period" outside her home in Greenfield, Indiana.

On Saturday temperatures reached 105F (41C) in Washington DC - just short of the hottest ever recorded in the city - and 107F (46C) in St Louis, Missouri, which also extended its record for consecutive days over 100F to 10. Hundreds of thousands of people in West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland and Indiana are still enduring power outages caused by storms that swept through the area one week ago.

A number of cities have opened cooling centres and extended opening hours for public swimming pools. Some communities are offering meals to residents whose food has spoiled after their refrigerators stopped working. Officials in Chicago cancelled summer schools classes in 21 buildings without air conditioning because of the heat. The heat there buckled a major road, cracking and bulging part of Columbus Drive by 5in (12cm).
US record heatwave leaves dozens dead (BBC)

Now, the heat deaths were mainly elderly people, and you might say that if they were so weak that heat would have killed them, it has provided a natural culling mechanism. Not so easy to say if it's your loved one, though. But that's exactly the point - as our climate changes and our modern infrastructure can't cope - as the investments just to maintain the status quo don't materialize - those dependent on our technological infrastructure will die first: the elderly, the very young, those with poor immune systems or with chronic diseases. This is how it would have happened prior to fossil fuels, and this is exactly how it will happen as food and fuel prices rise and our technological infrastructure breaks down. Even though no one was injured due to the train and highway bucklings, what about next time? It's also a reminder of how fragile our technological infrastructure really is.

And not only that, there are signs that violent crime is on the increase:
A boy who the police say was bludgeoned to death by his mother, three men cut down in a car by the spray of an assault rifle and a shop owner fatally shot in his store were among seven people killed in New York between Friday night and early Saturday.

[acts of violence]

On Saturday in Springfield Gardens, Queens, officers responded to a call of shots fired and found a Jeep Grand Cherokee double-parked on 144th Street, across from Springfield Gardens High School. The bodies of two men were found in the car about 5 a.m., and the body of a third man was found on the street by the rear passenger door. All three men were declared dead at the site. Their names were not immediately released.

More than 50 shells from an assault rifle, as well as shells from a 9-millimeter pistol, were recovered, the police said.

Shirley Farrell, a hospital aide, said one of the bullets pierced her glass door. “There were so many booms all at once,” Ms. Farrell, 51, said. “I have three children, and my children are traumatized. They don’t want to come outside.”

The brazenness of the attack recalled the murderous violence of two decades ago, when crack kingpins dominated the streets of Springfield Gardens.

“I have not seen a crime scene like this since the ’90s,” said a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing. “The rounds tore these bodies apart.”
Violence Across New York Leaves 7 Dead (NYT)

This is what happens when society falls apart. We've already heard of the heartbreaking tales of suicide increases in "austerity" wracked Europe. And in poorer countries, high food prices caused by financial speculation and corn ethanol looks to become a major culprit:
The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) has released a warning that U.S. and European policy to increase the production of biofuels could lead to almost 200,000 deaths in poorer countries. How? Mostly through higher food prices. Most biofuels are made using food crops like corn at this time, and diverting corn to ethanol refineries not only increases the price of corn, but it also encourage farmers to plant more of it, leaving less space for other types of crops, driving up their price too. This is a big deal if you live on $1-2 a day...
U.S. Doctors Say Biofuels Could Kill 192,000+ Per Year in Developing Countries (Treehugger)
Scandalously, the food crisis in developing countries has passed us by, almost unnoticed. Yet it is the biggest threat to poverty reduction.

Farming in many developing countries has been decimated by ''free trade'' rules under the World Trade Organisation. Countries have become dependent on food imports, leaving the poor vulnerable to price hikes.

From 2006 to 2008, the global price of food doubled, forcing an additional 180 million people into destitution. Why is food suddenly so expensive? The answer came in 2008, when prices halved with the financial collapse, and then doubled again with the financial recovery.

Speculation on food prices was big business after the US lifted its ban on the practice in 2000. About $13 trillion surged into food commodities from 2006, and then out again in 2008, and then back in again by 2011. That's why we should reverse the WTO's ''market access'' agenda and support peasant agriculture - rather than global agribusiness - and reimpose the ban on food speculation.

The third threat to poverty reduction - climate change - is already having a devastating impact on the global poor. Nine of the 10 people displaced by climate change live in developing countries. Poverty is already on the increase due to floods and shortages of fresh water and sea-water inundation related to climate change. The World Bank says $100 billion is needed now, each year, to help poor countries cope with the impacts of climate change. Obviously, rich countries are most able to stop burning fossil fuels. We are most to blame for the problem and yet still we stall. And aid donors (including Australia) still refuse to accept that climate aid should be in addition to development aid.

The debt, food and climate crises are the key drivers of global poverty. Rich countries are responsible for all three crises, and can address them if they have the political will. Why don't they?
As long as the rich can speculate on food prices, the world's poor go hungry (The Age)

Again this is what a die-off looks like, not like The Road. The numbers may not be huge in the overall scheme of things, but over time they add up. And it's not only those who die prematurely; you should also count those who are never born, such as the children who would be born under more favorable economic conditions.That is a much harder number to determine.

Sorry to be so grim, but I think it's important to point out what people are missing. You can have a die-off under the radar.

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