The canaries in the mineshaft

Opinion

This summer’s heat wave in Europe left more than 11,000 people dead in France alone. Hospitals and morgues were overwhelmed. Most of the victims were elderly. Most lived in isolation from family and community. Most were poor.

Wealthy folks don’t die in heat waves.

Fred Brock has written a deeply affecting commentary on this mass tragedy in The New York Times. Brock quotes Dr. Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociology professor who has studied heat-related deaths. Dr. Klinenberg says the toll in France exposes a major social change: the emergence of an older, vulnerable population that lives and dies in isolation.

This population is present and growing in the U.S. as well as in Europe. Children and grandchildren move away, leaving their aging elders to cope as best they can. Communities have become atomized. Neighbors are less likely to look after one another than in earlier times. Heat waves cruelly reveal this fraying social fabric. “Heat waves are silent and invisible killers of silent and invisible people,” says Dr. Klinenberg.

He reminds us that the severe heat wave of 1995 in our own Midwest left 700 people dead in Chicago alone. The event has faded from the national memory, “a non-event in American history,” he says. And he adds, “If 700 people had been killed by a tornado, we’d still be hearing about it.” In fact, says Dr. Klinenberg, heat waves each year kill many more Americans than tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes combined.

In 1995, Chicago officials played down the terrible toll, but the scale of this year’s calamity in France was simply too vast for cover-ups. Today the French are even considering the cancellation of one national holiday to provide funds to care for the elderly.

In the U.S., says Dr. Klinenberg, heat-related deaths are seen as “an act of God” or “the failure of individuals to care for themselves.” In 1995, Chicago’s commissioner of human services blamed the 700 victims. “We’re talking about people who die because they neglect themselves,” he said.

Columnist William Pfaff found this year’s heat waves a blessing. The victims, wrote Pfaff, “were not, most of them, killed by the heat. The time had come for them to die, and the heat eased their way … we should be grateful to pneumonia, broken hips and heat waves that can take us gracefully to where we all must go.”

Indeed, the infirmities of old age are real, and indeed, we all must go. But a society that values human life will not permit the elderly to perish in a heat wave.

As Fred Brock notes, there is nothing graceful “about dying a slow, agonizing death alone; of being discovered only when neighbors or passers-by report a strong odor; or of being buried in a cheap wooden casket in a common grave.”

Society, says Dr. Klinenberg, must come to terms with the broader issue of old people living in isolation. “When massive numbers of people die alone, it’s a social embarrassment,” he says. “It’s the sign of a sweeping social breakdown. Everyone is implicated.”

Those charged with environmental protection under George W. Bush should confront the implications of the 11,000 deaths in France. This summer’s sweltering temperatures in Europe corresponded to the forecasts of climate scientists. British meteorologists predicted that as a result of climate change, 2003 would be the warmest year on record.

In the Guardian of Great Britain, George Monbiot writes that “the consensus among climatologists is that temperatures will rise in the 21st century by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees centigrade; by up to 10 times, in other words, the increase we have suffered so far.”

“We are not contemplating the end of holidays in Seville. We are contemplating the end of circumstances which permit most beings to remain on earth.”

The 11,000 French elderly are in some sense the canaries in the mineshaft. The air is foul. The canaries are dying.



Will Parry is a retired trade unionist. He can be reached at pscsc@qwest.net. This article is reprinted with permission from The Retiree Advocate, newsletter of the Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans, of which he is president.