Two weeks ago, a man suffocated in California. His death was entirely preventable.
For the past decade California has been trapped in the grip of a terrible drought, the damage of which is only further compounded by companies such as Nestle’s runaway siphoning of water for resale and the wealthy’s refusal to stop watering their desert lawns. As such, every summer the brush and forests of Northern and Southern California become tinderboxes waiting for a spark.
Those sparks often come from powerlines owned by the chief electricity utility company of the region, Pacific Gas and Electric. PG&E is a private company that contracts with the government of California to supply power and gas to most of the homes and businesses in the state. The lines crisscrossing the state often run over the dried-out brush and through the parched forests, and seasonal high winds have a tendency to detach the live wires from their mounts, igniting brushfires that can spread for tens of thousands of acres.
This all came to a tragic crescendo last year, when fires obliterated the ironically-named town of Paradise, resulting in the deaths of 85 people. Facing a lawsuit and less than eager to repeat the experience, PG&E was faced with a choice: spend millions on deferred upgrades for their lines to resist the winds, or take a more drastic, but ultimately cheaper measure, and cut power to regions experiencing winds that could detach lines.
Being a private company, PG&E’s ultimate responsibility is not providing power safely to the people, but to generate profit for their shareholders. As such, their business practices, like any corporate entity, will always hew toward cutting costs and taking risks at the expense of others. PG&E’s leadership elected to execute the blackout plan, banking on the hope that the winds would be milder this year, or that the blackout period would at least not be prolonged.
This, of course, proved not to be the case. With forecasts of 50+ mph winds on the approach, PG&E announced that they would be cutting power to whole swaths of Northern California for potentially a whole week. Because of the nature of the power grid, it would prove impossible for power to be rerouted, even if the endpoints were well away from the danger zone.
Little warning was given to the affected populace; a website was reportedly set up, but it allegedly crashed after being accessed by too many people. The cutoffs happened too soon to reach most affected by mail, and it could not be guaranteed that everyone would see news broadcasts or get phone notifications.
Therefore, some people were either unprepared for the severity or completely unaware of the coming shutdown. And so, a man reliant on an oxygen device was forced to seek help from an overwhelmed emergency services system when his oxygen device shut down, and passed away in a hospital miles away from home as his body gave out under the stress. His name was Gerald Niimi, and he didn’t have to die.
One week later, a woman would be discovered dead along with 38 other people in the cargo hold of a transport truck in Essex, England. The woman’s final moments had been hellish: she had been trapped with others in the darkened hold, unable to breathe, freezing as the trafficker moving them used the temperature controls to shield them from heat detectors at the border.
In her last act, she sent a message to her family in Vietnam, expressing regret that her journey had failed, that she loved them, and specifying her home village so that she could be returned there to be buried.
The name of her village is Nghen, in the Ha Tinh province of Vietnam. The region is primarily rural, relying heavily on fishing and farming as their means of revenue.
These means came under threat three years ago when a local fisherman discovered a giant waste pipe spewing a yellow liquid into the ocean. The pipe was traced back to a project site belonging to Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Ltd., a steel plant under the auspices of Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa Plastics Group.
Shortly after the discovery, fish farms began reporting mass die-offs in their grouper and snapper stocks. WIld fishers also reported mass deaths around the pipe and divers working in the area said the water tasted wrong, alongside reports of feeling sick and exhausted.
Two months later, after mass public outcry and demand for investigation it was determined the plant had been dumping cyanide and phenol into the ocean, in violation both of expected regulations, and the actual agreement signed by the company (which they were later shown to have altered to disguise their intentions).
While cleanup efforts have been ongoing for two years, the damage has been done. The already impoverished area suffered millions of USD in damages and lost years of revenue in abandoned tourism and unusable fish stocks.
Desperation and lack of economic opportunity in the area is what drove this woman and so many like her to undergo a perilous journey across continents in hopes of finding work she could do to earn money she could send back home. Instead, she died afraid and in the dark, sending one last message of love to her family. Her name was Pham Thi Tra My, and she didn’t have to die.
What unites these two tragedies is the willful disregard for human life shown by large corporations across the globe. The stories are manifold, ranging from the banal to the obscene, but what is truly infuriating is the fact that it keeps happening. Every time stories such as these come out, the usual platitudes of “encouraging more humane business practices,” or “this isn’t how the system is supposed to work,” are thrown around and people ask "how could this have happened?"
But of course it happened. It has happened before, it will happen again. It will keep happening so long as we continue to uphold an economic system that encourages and rewards exploitation and cost-cutting. As the coming environmental cataclysm accelerates there will be many more Tra Mys, many more Geralds.
A braver person than I once said that we need to “act as if the house is on fire, because it is.” Gerald and Tra My are but two of the countless first casualties of that fire. We are out of time. We can no longer afford to wait, we can longer afford to compromise, we can no longer afford to hope. Capitalism does not value human life, it values accumulation of resources. It does not plan ahead, it does not take into consideration the aftereffects of rampant consumption and waste. It has no capacity for “humane business practices,” except for half-measures designed to camouflage greater abuses. A corporation is incapable of moral action; it will only ever do the “right” thing if the right thing is also profitable.
We can no longer pretend that these endless examples of greed and disregard for human life are bugs in the system and not features. The house is on fire. We are either going to change, or we are all going to burn.