On the latest episode of Last Week Tonight John Oliver discusses how historic racial discrimination practices have resulted in poor and minority communities ending up living in highly polluted areas, where the life expectancy can be ten years below nearby communities that are not similarly polluted. He describes one community where the lead levels are hundreds of times above acceptable limit, so that signs are posted on yards telling children not to play on the grass or in the dirt! That is like asking children not to breathe the air.
He also describes how some government officials seem to have unofficially decided that certain areas are ‘sacrifice zones’, meaning that the pollution levels are already so high that they feel they might as well put more polluting industries in them, presumably with the idea that things can’t get much worse and that there is no sense in polluting areas that are not already affected. But it can make things worse. And the people in those areas are of course the marginalized. One such zone has even been dubbed ‘Cancer Alley’.
I was struck by the incredulous reaction (at the 18:10 mark) of one elderly man who lives in the so-called Cancer Alley who was asked by a reporter whether he has considered moving. He replies “Why should I move? How can I move? I struggled all my life to build this. Right now, in good conscience, who would I actually sell this house to? What poor unsuspecting family would I trick into moving into this death trap?”
That kind of sense of ethical sense and consideration for others is what is so lacking in many people, especially at the corporate and government level, who seem to have no compunction about sacrificing the lives of others as long as they and their own families are unaffected.
It struck me in watching Oliver’s show week after week what a lot of thought his team puts into researching important social questions. That is not all. They also usually end by suggesting realistic solutions to the problems and those are not particularly ideological but mostly pragmatic. This is all the more remarkable since this is ostensibly a comedy show.
Our legislators at the local, state, and national levels would do well to have their staff watch the show to get ideas about how to fix the many, many problems facing the US.