Our past newsletters were focused on concrete situations and policies related to climate change and disability. In this newsletter, I’m going to explore a more philosophical approach to the connection between these two topics. Here’s the main question: if the Earth and all of society are one giant, interacting, living being – what exactly is climate change? Is it an illness that we need to attack and cure through renewables and carbon-sequestration, the same way we would seek a medical cure for a disability? Or is it an ongoing transformation, a continual “new normal” that we must adapt to and prepare for? How can we build accessibility into our society to live as well as possible, considering nature’s change? And how does all of this connect to disability – namely, to the medical and social models so often discussed in disability rights circles? Can we transform our mindset to draw a line between people with disabilities and climate change – but also between the earth, its changing state, and us as diverse and changing human beings?
As I said, it’s a bit of a philosophical post. If it’s not your thing, that’s fair. But if you’re interested, read on…
The Earth is a Living Being – and it’s in Pain.
Many climate change activists frame carbon emissions and other warming factors as an illness for the previously pristine Earth, with climate change and all its consequences as the resulting chronic condition. The Earth, the saying goes, was a beautiful landscape of abundant ecosystems before humans came along – and especially before our overuse of resources. When industrialization hit, our environmental harm went into overdrive. Pollution tainted freshwater with nitrates and carcinogens, expanding cities tore down living forests and paved them over with concrete, and the burning of fossil fuels carbonized a stable atmosphere, over-heated a balanced globe, and made every corner of its ecosystems ill. As Agent Smith in The Matrix said, “humans are a virus.” And the earth is suffering.
Of course, our emissions have changed more than just “Earth” in the abstract. The warmer atmosphere affects ecosystems and the animals in them. It affects all parts of our society, from the availability of food and water to the widespread damage caused by extreme weather. It affects us as humans: our health, our economic well-being, our happiness, our survival. It’s no wonder that there is such a strong drive to address this crisis (at least, by those that recognize the reality of climate change and environmental damage in general).
To many in climate advocacy communities, this illness is unsustainable: it should be stopped, reversed, and cured. The earth must be healthy and sustainable once again. We need a treatment – and in the eyes of those advocates, we have more than one: Renewable energy will replace carbon-spewing power plants; electric vehicles will eliminate the need for gasoline and all its emissions; better agriculture (local, organic, seasonal, sustainable, vegan) will stop methane from cows and ocean-destroying farm runoff; forest replenishment will suck up the atmosphere’s excess carbon; new technology will put CO2 underground; and changes to our infrastructure and actions will return all our environments to the once-healthy ways they were. We will fix the world’s disease and make it whole once again.
We will eliminate the disability that is climate change. Technology and transformations will be our treatment. When that happens, everybody will be happy, and things will be stable across society.
Gosh, that sounds familiar…
The Medical Model of Disability
When most people think about disability, they view it through what disability advocates call the “Medical Model.” This model states that something is wrong with a person’s body or mind when it deviates from the ideal, able-bodied norm. A person’s disability results purely from this medical situation – and if they have any difficulty interacting with the world that is built around the that norm, that is the fault of their disability, rather than of the layout of the world. The Medical Model then argues that the only way to address disability is through treatment: this can take the form of technology, medicine, therapy, or any other medical approach. Ideally, a treatment will bring the person as close to the able-bodied norm as possible. If they can be healed, that would be a fantastic outcome. Being able-bodied is the way to go, and if somebody could be turned from disabled to able-bodied, everybody would be happy, and things would be stable in their life. (Gosh, that sounds familiar…)
The focus on stem cells in the past two decades is the near-epitome of this. As an example, somebody who had formerly been able-bodied and acquired a spinal cord injury (such as myself), has damaged nerve cells in their spinal cord. Usually, limbs and muscles remain relatively intact, but there is a loss of movement and sensation (although over time, muscles can atrophy, bones can become more brittle, and so on). Stem cell therapy proposes taking cultured stem cells, which are incredibly malleable, and injecting them near damaged nerve cells or intravenously. The hope is that with physical and occupational therapy and enough stem cell treatments, people with spinal cord injuries can regain voluntary movement and sensation, eventually standing, walking – and essentially becoming able-bodied once more. This is the pinnacle of the spinal-cord-injury cure in the Medical Model. Even aside from stem cells, other proposed “treatments” for people with SCI include technological fixes that make people appear more able-bodied, such as mechanical walking suits (sometimes considered better than wheelchairs because they allow people to stand like able-bodied people do, despite the suits’ other limitations). The philosophy behind such proposals is that disability is caused by a damaged or misshapen body or mind, and disability in general is a problem – so the best way to cancel it out is to cure it, or at least bring somebody as close to the “norm” as possible.
Of course, from our standpoint, this view is very, very problematic. In the past, it’s been used to excuse (or outright support) discrimination and a lack of access to physical environments and economic opportunities, to “hide people from sight” by putting them in institutions, and even to vilify at some levels. People weren’t being given the services or accommodations they needed “because,” according to this line of reasoning, “if you can’t live in society as an able-bodied person can, tough luck.” So when people with disabilities started fighting for their own rights, they fundamentally had to challenge the Medical Model – and in the end, they came up with a new way to look at the world.
The Social Model: a Transformative Concept
Even though it has been a core societal viewpoint for hundreds of years, the Medical Model of disability ignores something very fundamental about the world: our personal situation is not just the result of our physical or other characteristics – it’s also the result of the infrastructure and society around us. People don’t experience difficulties related to their disability simply because of their “condition”: those difficulties are also connected to whether society accommodates the person’s characteristics. So a wheelchair-user is not disabled because they can’t walk up stairs to enter a building or reach its upper level: their disability is caused by the fact that there isn’t a ramp or elevator that can accommodate their wheelchair. A person isn’t disabled because they have trouble with personal care on their own (due to a mobility limitation and/or cognitive condition); they are disabled because they don’t receive social services and attendants who assist them in daily needs. A person who is deaf isn’t disabled because they cannot hear a presentation; instead, the problem lies in the fact that there aren’t alternative communication solutions in place, such as interpreters or captioning. A lack of screen-reading technology and braille is what impairs someone who is blind, not the fact that they can’t operate a conventional computer or read print on paper. The list goes on.
This new concept – that disability is ultimately caused by inaccessible infrastructure, insufficient services, lack of accommodations, and discriminatory viewpoints – is called the “Social Model” of disability. The Social Model, which grew out of the Independent Living Movement and the expansion of disability studies, serves as a framework for independent living philosophy and positive disability identity. It pushes us to transform the world to be more accommodating, to minimize the disabling interaction between our personal characteristics and an inaccessible society. Especially considering the reality of many disabilities – it’s impossible to expect somebody with osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone syndrome) to ever stop having fractures or not need a wheelchair, most types of blindness or deafness will not be “cured” through medical means, etc. – changing perspectives in favor of the Social Model is the way to go. If we build an integrative, accessible, accommodating, and accepting society, it will create equality and improve lives much more than anything the medical system could achieve.
Now, this isn’t to say that striving for positive health outcomes and functional improvements is inherently evil. In fact, there are many benefits of therapy, especially when used in combination with accessible services or technologies. On a personal level, I have a spinal cord injury as a result of which I have no use of my legs and limited use of my arms. Just to drink water, I use a straw, a CamelBak, or sometimes a mug with a large handle (I can grip the handle, but don’t have the finger function to grab a whole glass). A CamelBak and a mug are useful tools, but I wouldn’t have be able to use them without the physical and occupational therapy that I needed to improve my arm strength and develop techniques to grab them. If some reliable stem cell therapy comes along, I’d give it a look because more mobility could improve my health and independence – but I’d almost certainly still need to use my wheelchair and personal assistance to some extent, I’d still have some muscle contractions that would limit mobility, and so on. There will always be limits to treatment, so the Social Model should always be a major part of how we interact with the world. And in the opinion of many, it should be the main venue through which we push for change.
Climate Resilience and the Social Model
There are many connections between climate change, the Earth, and the Medical and Social Models of disability. The first two sections of this post show that viewing the earth as “ill” from the byproducts of industrialization, and then striving to “cure” it through sustainable practices tracks surprisingly closely with the view that the bodies of people with disabilities are broken and need to be cured through medical interventions. But this brings up an important question: what if the Earth is no longer “curable”? This is an important question because, in the end, that hypothetical is our new reality. Scientists predict that the Earth will continue to warm to at least some extent, regardless of how quickly we reduce emissions, simply because some warming is built into the system given what’s already in the atmosphere. “Stopping” climate change is a practical impossibility considering the dynamics of the atmosphere, and “reversing” warming is a pipe dream. Although it’s possible to replant some forests or build rooftop gardens, we cannot raze all our cities and cover that land with trees, and while removing some pollutants from the environment is a realistic goal, we cannot completely clean up the many Superfund sites nationwide. A good amount of the environmental damage that has been done is irreversible, and more is likely on the way. It’s a grim reality, but one we need to face.
Now, minimizing our environmental footprint is admirable and, to a large extent, necessary – as is doing cleanup to reverse as much damage as possible. (Just like undergoing some medical treatment can improve quality of life). But we also need to adapt to our new world in order to accommodate the environment for ourselves and for the animals and plants around us. The first step is to understand the environmental conditions at hand, just like one must understand the details of their medical condition. Then, we can use those insights to build a world that handles them as smoothly as possible. So if one environmental condition is the rise of sea levels (which is bound to happen to some extent, and possibly a large one), our adaptation strategies can include building seawalls, reinforcing coastal infrastructure, or even moving inland. If deeper droughts lead to more forest fires, we can improve forestry management and develop better emergency planning. The adaptation sequence remains the same: understand the existing and upcoming environmental changes; analyze how they interact with the population at large, with specific communities, and with plants and animals; and take adaptive actions to maximize the well-being of the people, plants, animals, and environment. Of course, it may seem odd – or even offensive – to equate building seawalls for rising oceans with providing guide dogs to individuals who are blind (bear with me, I’m trying to use a range of disabilities and accommodations in the article). But for the sake of philosophical exploration, it’s hard to deny that there is at least some connection between climate change, adaptation, disability, and the Social Model.
There’s another aspect of the dynamic between the Medical Model, the Social Model, and climate change that connects to climate justice for people with disabilities. Just as the Social Model of disability echoes the philosophy of climate adaptation, the Medical Model echoes the philosophy of “fighting” climate change and environmental damage. Equitable Independent Living using the Social Model requires us to have services, supplies, accessible built environments, and technologies for people with disabilities – and these ultimately rely on the modern social-economic-industrial system that many back-to-the-Earth environmentalists vilify and wish to eliminate. It’s also a system that is extremely endangered by the consequences of climate change, putting people with disabilities in that much more peril (we’ve written and spoken about this before). Putting all of our eggs in the one basket of “stopping” climate change means we may not be prepared for what’s on the way: if we indeed aren’t prepared and the environment catches us off guard, people who rely on the “system” the most are also the ones in the most danger. With that in mind, adapting to climate change is not only necessary in its own right, it is also the only way for us to support the accommodations needed for people with disabilities to continue living positive, independent lives.
What I’ve laid out is a major piece of why we advocate so much for climate resiliency, adaptation, and preparation. Our team is committed to finding ways to best support everything and everybody around us as the world changes, and especially to focus on the under-addressed needs of people with disabilities. So please, join us in this journey – and we’ll keep you informed of the actions we take.