Kianna Marquez: How compassion can save our environmental future

Thursday, February 21, 2019 - 4:02pm

None of us will forget the polar vortex that passed through Ann Arbor in January 2019. Almost everything was shut down and almost everyone spent time taking advantage of the curiosities this rare weather phenomenon offered. We joked about how long we would last outside, willingly threw water only to watch it instantly freeze in the air before drifting to the ground and counted how many seconds would pass before our shower hair froze when we stepped outside. We watched it happen through the windows of our rooms, felt utter joy when all academic obligations were called off and the rest was history to us.

Meanwhile, at least 21 deaths, as well as dozens of frostbite injuries occurred across the Midwest due to weather-related incidents brought upon by the polar vortex. These tragedies were most common for the homeless, senior citizens and people whose access to heat was not consistent or reliable. Though not necessarily a bloody, graphic disaster, it’s clear that the brief displacement of Arctic temperatures to our region of the country was enough to punish those who were unprepared. What remains in question is whether their incapability to prepare was their fault or not, and what could have been done if they were not in such disadvantaged positions to begin with.

I vividly remember the late fall of 2018. It was a ripe part in my first semester at the University of Michigan, a blend of addressing academic responsibilities and responding to the desires I had to explore this campus and to explore myself. The energy of the campus was refreshing and vibrant. Our football team had achieved a massive victory against our rivals and would go on to defeat another on one of the colder days of the season. We stressed about exams and de-stressed over the weekend, tuning into the fluctuations of our student lives and living in what would come to feel like the only world we knew.

During this time, at least 77 deaths, as well as hundreds of missing persons reports, occurred as a result of the blazing wildfires that passed through regions of California. The slow obliteration of residences and commercial buildings continued by the thousands, not to mention the destruction of 240,000 acres of land among various regions, including Los Angeles and Malibu. In the end, not even the wealthy were safe from the physical damage and emotional trauma that our environment brought upon us as its behaviors momentarily became different than what we were used to. While these wildfires have emulated what the end of times could be like on a microscopic scale, I know this is not yet the true end. The end will have infinite power against all of us, but we have to recognize that there is still some power that remains in our hands.

What concerned me the most at the end of last summer was starting classes at the University. The end of August was both a swell of excitement and a melancholy farewell to my childhood. It felt like an onward push into the new world — whether I was prepared for it or not. This time marked the beginning of my quest to find my people, to be who I wanted to be, to connect with those who had similar interests to mine and to enjoy myself in the process. I embraced the big change and was swept away by the uproar of excitement that came with the new school year, relishing in the newfound freedom.

In the meantime, the news was acknowledging the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, a natural disaster that caused a total of 2,975 deaths in the U.S. territory Puerto Rico in September 2017. While this hurricane was considered as the worst recorded natural disaster in the Caribbean, it’s also worth noting that the American citizens in Puerto Rico lived in disadvantaged conditions with a stigma that prevented any significant benefits from coming their way even before they were tormented by this natural disaster. Our nation’s response to this disaster was a disgrace, but why?

I believe that our government’s response was disgraceful because what people in power today lack is compassion; what modern society lacks is compassion. As college students, we are too invested in our own lives and self-fulfillment, thinking about where we are going to go without thinking about if there will even be a place to go as a result of our actions — or lack thereof. We don’t think enough about the people who are suffering as a result of our prospering, who are living in conditions that we can’t even imagine and who recognize that privilege is a gift while we complain ungratefully. It pains me when some don’t realize that it doesn’t have to be this way, that some are reluctant to help others out of fear of causing their own disadvantage and that some are unwilling to recognize the humanity in shared prosperity.

In our defense, we are almost required to be fully invested in our own lives. We carry our own futures by addressing the countless responsibilities that are set upon us every day. Even so, I think we all need an attitude check. The way that we feel around people who are not like us is something that we can control and something that more people have to be aware of. In the same way, we have to recognize that our environment suffers from our apathy just as people do and that we have to act in consideration of everyone and everything if we don’t want to bring the end upon ourselves.

Kianna Marquez can be reached at kmarquez@umich.edu.