The Guardian November 12, 2003


The canaries in the mineshaft

by Will Parry*

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 USA as well as in 
Europe. Children and grandchildren move away, leaving their aging 
elders to cope as best they can.

Communities have become atomised. Neighbours 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 the US 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 Dr Klinenberg 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 US, 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, agonising death alone; of being discovered only when 
neighbours or passers-by report a strong odour; 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 and President of the Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans The Retiree Advocate

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