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The BREATHE Act would defund police — and fund environmental justice

As the U.S. enters another month of sustained protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality, organizers are working to turn the protests’ energy into legislative action. This week the Movement for Black Lives, a nationwide coalition of Black organizations formed in December 2014, released a summary of a new legislative proposal that aims to defund police police forces around the country and give funding and support to Black communities looking to create their own models of public safety. They’re calling it the BREATHE Act.

“We crafted this bill to be big,” said Gina Clayton Johnson, the executive director of Essie Justice Group and one of the act’s creators, during a virtual announcement event reported by New York Magazine’s The Cut. “We know the solution has to be as big as the 400-year-old problem itself.”

The proposal is divided into four sections that each address different approaches to sustainable public safety: The first two sections call for the divestment of federal resources from policing and incarceration, as well as federal grant programs for alternative community-led approaches to non-punitive public safety.

The proposal’s third section, however, demonstrates that environmental justice is central to the proposal’s vision. It calls for the creation of a grant that will fund solutions for environmental justice issues that affect Black communities around the country. The grant would fund “clear, time-bound plans” for states to ensure universal access to clean water and air that satisfies Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. The section also calls for for the creation of clear state plans to meet 100 percent of their electricity demand with “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.” Funding for community-owned sustainable energy projects would be subsidized by the grant. Disaster preparedness would also be prioritized.

Environmental justice often intersects with other public health issues for Black and brown communities. In recent months, for example, it’s become clear that Black and Latino communities in the U.S. suffer higher mortality and hospitalization rates from the novel coronavirus. This May, Democrats in Congress introduced the Environmental Justice COVID-19 Act to look at the connection between air pollution and disproportionate COVID-19 outcomes for these communities.

The BREATHE Act has not yet been translated into actionable congressional legislation, but Democratic Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley both expressed their support for the proposal during a virtual meeting this week.

“The BREATHE Act is bold…. It pushes us to reimagine power structures and what community investment really looks like,” Tlaib said during a recent call with activists. “We can start to envision through this bill a new vision for public safety. One that protects and affirms Black lives.”


The BREATHE Act would defund police — and fund environmental justice

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Study: Gas-powered appliances may be hazardous for your health

Stay-at-home orders and other social distancing measures have dramatically improved outdoor air quality in cities around the world, but a new study published Tuesday shows that indoor air quality may pose acute risks of its own — especially now that the novel coronavirus has us all spending so much time at home.

The UCLA Fielding School of Public Health study found that after just an hour of using a gas-fired stove or oven, levels of nitrogen dioxide — one of a group of gases that contribute to smog formation and are considered harmful to human health — inside California homes reached levels that exceeded both state and national ambient air-quality standards. The compromised indoor air quality caused by gas-powered furnaces, stoves, and water heaters could increase the likelihood of respiratory and cardiovascular disease and premature death, according to the study.

“The goal of this report is to provide information to Californians on how pollution from gas-fired appliances affects the air they breathe, and the related health effects,” Yifang Zhu, the study’s lead researcher, said in a statement. “California’s state agencies often focus on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts, but there has been much less focus on how fossil fuel use in household appliances can adversely impact indoor air quality and public health.”

The research, commissioned by Sierra Club, comes as recent studies have linked air pollution to higher rates of COVID-19 mortality. Inhaling nitrogen oxides poses especially acute risks to children and the elderly. Meanwhile, residential gas appliances emit approximately 16,000 tons of nitrogen oxides to outdoor air each year — which Rachel Golden, deputy director of Sierra Club’s building electrification program, notes is more than twice the NOx emissions from all of California’s gas-fired power plants combined.

Air pollution concentration matters a great deal, so residents of smaller homes and apartments often have it worse. Researchers found that after an hour of cooking in a small household, more than 90 percent of smaller residences had peak levels of nitrogen oxides that exceeded national ambient air quality standards. As Grist’s resident advice columnist Eve Andrews reminded us last week, indoor air quality isn’t always better than what you’re breathing outdoors.

The study also highlights environmental justice issues, since low-income households tend to have less space and more unmet maintenance needs, which can increase indoor emissions on top of being more at-risk for poor outdoor air quality. These factors may contribute to higher rates of respiratory challenges among low-income communities — particularly communities of color — which in turn may make residents more vulnerable to developing serious complications if they contract COVID-19.

To decrease indoor air pollution, the study proposes that households transition to zero-emission electric appliances. If all residential gas appliances in California were immediately replaced with clean energy alternatives, the resulting decrease in pollution would result in approximately 350 fewer deaths, 600 fewer cases of acute bronchitis, and 300 fewer cases of chronic bronchitis annually.

Without a massive public intervention, however, it seems unlikely that these appliances will be replaced at that scale, at least not in the homes of many low-income residents that could benefit the most. Golden says that policymakers can prioritize a just transition by focusing on efforts to reduce pollution and lower energy bills for vulnerable households, especially given the economic fallout from COVID-19.

“State agencies have a central role to play in helping people replace polluting gas appliances with clean, pollution-free electric alternatives like heat pumps and induction stoves,” Golden told Grist.

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Study: Gas-powered appliances may be hazardous for your health

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More words to describe a world gone nuts: Firenado, ecoanxiety, covidiots

Remember the first time you heard the phrase social distancing? Chances are that it was earlier this year, even though the phrase was coined in 1957, when it meant something akin to “ghosting.” After more than 60 years of stagnation, the phrase instantaneously wove its way into our everyday speech.

As the coronavirus pandemic tightens its grip on seemingly every aspect of daily life, our vocabularies are adapting at warp speed. Once obscure phrases are suddenly commonplace. The virus, nicknamed the rona, has spawned other creative coinages. A quarantini is a cocktail you drink in the isolation of your home. A covidiot is someone who throws a block party when everybody is supposedly sheltered in place. Technical acronyms like PPE (personal protective equipment) have entered everyday speech, as well as slang like WFH (working from home, a.k.a. working from hell). The most meticulous know the distinction between quarantine and isolation. Someday soon, we’ll all start gossiping about isolationships.

Language is trying to keep up with a world in upheaval, a time in which many see the planet as plotting against us, with fresh heat waves, punishing droughts, and wildfires. Every year brings new crises and new words to describe them, such as ecoanxiety, firenado, flight shame, and climate crisis. In an update last April, Merriam-Webster added all sorts of environment-related words to its online dictionary, including microplastic, “a piece of plastic that is five millimeters or smaller in size,” and omnicide, “the destruction of all life or all human life (as by nuclear war).”

Last month, Merriam-Webster announced its fastest update ever, adding COVID-19 — the shortened form of coronavirus disease 2019 — to its online dictionary a mere one month after the World Health Organization minted it. In the slow-moving world of lexicography, that’s a “rapid pace.” Super-spreader, self-quarantine, and patient zero were also included in the special update.

Dictionaries are simply giving the people the resources they want. The Oxford English Dictionary keeps track of the terms being used more frequently than usual, and in March, all 20 of the top keywords had something to do with coronavirus.

“Any new and widespread phenomenon always brings with it the development of new language to describe it,” wrote Fiona McPherson, editorial manager at the OED, in a statement accompanying the dictionary’s update.

Just four months ago, dictionary editors were picking their 2019 “words of the year.” The selections included climate emergency and climate strike (the global protests first started by Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish activist), more evidence that the urgency (or anxiety) around climate change was going mainstream. It seemed like everyone was talking about the Green New Deal, whether they loved it or hated it.

This year, the Word of the Year selections will undoubtedly be related to the novel coronavirus. But it’s by no means the only crisis we’ll face in the coming months. Scientists are predicting that 2020 will deliver devastating floods, hellish wildfires, and even more supercharged hurricanes than usual. Hey, at least we’ll have something else to talk about.

“Usual” is already a pretty high bar these days. Heat records are broken so often that they’re hardly considered news. Under a smoky-red sun, the wind has taken ash from burning forests and rained it down on cities. Holing up in your home for months while sewing face masks for your family? That’s definitely not part of the old normal, either.

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More words to describe a world gone nuts: Firenado, ecoanxiety, covidiots

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One more way the world wasn’t prepared for coronavirus: Air pollution

The coronavirus pandemic is changing everything — including the quality of the air we breathe.

In three coronavirus hotspots, satellite imagery revealed a dramatic decline in air pollution in recent weeks as China, Italy, and Iran were brought to a standstill. One Stanford scientist estimated that China’s coronavirus lockdown could have saved 77,000 lives by curbing emissions from factories and vehicles — nearly 10 times the number of deaths worldwide from the virus so far.

But the blue skies are unlikely to last. Just as the temporary dip in global carbon dioxide emissions could be reversed when companies eventually increase production to make up for lost time, air pollution could rebound with a vengeance when factories and traffic spring back to life. On Tuesday, the Chinese government said it plans to relax environmental standards so factories can speed up production.

Air pollution and the virus have a close relationship. Breathing unclean air is linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, and respiratory disease, conditions that doctors are starting to associate with higher death rates for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Physicians say that people with these chronic conditions may be less able to fight off infections and more likely to die of the disease.

“The air may be clearing in Italy, but the damage has already been done to human health and people’s ability to fight off infection,” said Sascha Marschang, acting secretary general of the European Public Health Alliance, in a statement.

Evidence suggests that bad air quality may have increased the death toll of a previous coronavirus outbreak, the SARS pandemic of 2003. One study of SARS patients found that people living in regions with a moderate amount of air pollution were 84 percent more likely to die than those in regions with cleaner air.

And now, health officials are warning that people who live in polluted places anywhere may be at greater risk again. “I can’t help but think of the many communities where residents breathe polluted air that can lead to chronic respiratory problems, cancer, and disease, which could make them more vulnerable to the worst impacts of COVID-19,” wrote Gina McCarthy, the president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a post this week about how the organization is responding to the coronavirus.

Clearing the air could help vulnerable people fight off the threat of deadly disease — during this pandemic as well as any future ones — and save millions of lives in the meantime. Governments already have a pretty good idea of how to clean up air pollution, and it doesn’t involve a global pandemic.

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One more way the world wasn’t prepared for coronavirus: Air pollution

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His Brother’s Keeper – Jonathan Weiner


His Brother’s Keeper

One Family’s Journey to the Edge of Medicine

Jonathan Weiner

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: March 17, 2009

Publisher: HarperCollins e-books


Stephen Heywood was twenty-nine years old when he learned that he was dying of ALS — Lou Gehrig's disease. Almost overnight his older brother, Jamie, turned himself into a genetic engineer in a quixotic race to cure the incurable. His Brother's Keeper is a powerful account of their story, as they travel together to the edge of medicine. The book brings home for all of us the hopes and fears of the new biology. In this dramatic and suspenseful narrative, Jonathan Weiner gives us a remarkable portrait of science and medicine today. We learn about gene therapy, stem cells, brain vaccines, and other novel treatments for such nerve-death diseases as ALS, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's — diseases that afflict millions, and touch the lives of many more. "The Heywoods' story taught me many things about the nature of healing in the new millennium," Weiner writes. "They also taught me about what has not changed since the time of the ancients and may never change as long as there are human beings — about what Lucretius calls 'the ever-living wound of love.'" This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

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His Brother’s Keeper – Jonathan Weiner

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Kool A.D.’s Bizarre Pop-Culture Carnival

Mother Jones

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A lot of musicians can’t run fast enough from their first big hit. Led Zeppelin wouldn’t play “Stairway to Heaven.” Madonna hates “Like a Virgin.” And if you ask Radiohead to play “Creep,” Thom Yorke might tell you to fuck off (if he deigns to respond).

Not so the guy who broke through as one-third of Das Racist, the rap group behind “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” which was memorialized by The New York Times in 2009 as “an entrancing but numbing track based largely on the repetition of the title phrase.” Victor Vazquez, the 30-year-old rapper, punk rocker, novelist, and visual artist also known as KOOL A.D., parted ways with Das Racist in 2012, but says he tries “to think of everything I do as part of a continuous idea—I guess because it is all one continuous idea, in that all human life is one continuous idea.”

Peep the artwork, and you’ll get what he means. Maybe.

Vazquez is quick to point out that the hooks for Pizza Hut/Taco Bell and “Michael Jackson,” another of Das Racist’s hits, both came from a song he wrote in 2006, before the rap crew existed. Broadly speaking, his work feels remarkably consistent across his various media—a strong sense of unity emanates from beneath the seeming chaos. Vazquez’s mind is sensitive and humanistic, preoccupied by the philosophical challenges and existential absurdity of living in American society, yet nonetheless living as a part of it.

BEAUTIFUL DOG PIC (2014), by Victor Vazquez

He’s also absurdly prolific. A few months ago Vazquez married Saba Moeel, a fashion designer/musician he’s known since he was 15. A baby is on the way, and so is a book: O.K., A NOVEL, due out this fall, is a 442-page experimental narrative done as 100 fragmented episodes. Vazquez frequently switches up the narrators and breaks from standard prose into lists, screenplay-style scripts, dictionary entries, tweets, and fake ad copy.

His drawings and paintings, which gained some prominence in a 2009 “cartoon-off” with The New Yorker‘s Farley Katz (widely deemed to have ended in Vazquez’s favor), have shown in galleries in Oakland, California, and New York City. An internet-age artist through and through, he also sells visual art pieces via Instagram—some go for hundreds of dollars in seconds. The KOOL A.D. Twitter feed is itself a spectacle, and its oblique comedy and wild musings were partially compiled in Joke Book, his 33-page chapbook of “axioms and aphorisms,” such as: “NPR is to Fox as Starbucks is to Dunkin’ Donuts in that who cares” and “If you’re using a French word to describe it, it can’t be all that ‘avant-garde,’ now can it?” You can almost feel his mischievous smile.

The records keep dropping, too: Vazquez’s Bandcamp page now advertises 12 solo releases, with six full-length albums since 2012. He plans to make his latest, WORD O.K., a “visual album” (a la Beyoncé) with videos to accompany each track.

It’s hard to get much further from Beyoncé than WORD O.K., though. The video for one song, “WORD,” is a three-and-a-half minute, highly NSFW animated short that feels like an acid-fueled journey through a dystopian corporate carnival. It pans smoothly from Bart Simpson wearing a McDonald’s tee and smoking a joint to a sexualized, anthropomorphized rabbit doing the same. Yin-yangs, peace signs, and other pop symbols breathe in and out of cartoon orifices.

His associations might seem offhand, but really they are part of a thoughtful effort to deconstruct and rearrange cultural objects in ways that challenge our deepest assumptions. “We are all part of one universal organism, but at the same time we’re also distinct individual creatures,” he says. “It’s a paradoxical duality that, say, the yin-yang, as one of many symbols or combination of symbols, describes in a sort of shorthand.”

O.K., A NOVEL comes out this fall.

The ability to perceive the universal in particular moments and places, creating heightened impressions that encourage broader, often subversive, considerations, is where Vazquez’s work shines brightest. In “Open Letter,” the five-minute opener of WORD O.K., he raps: “The ice might melt and drip away / But picture yourself rolling in a Lincoln / Seeing pawnshops slink in your peripheral vision / And drift away.” On “Special Forces,” the final track, he takes a completely different rhetorical tack, bluntly repeating “Polo is owned by Nestle,” three times in a row.

In conversation, Vazquez is more explicit about how he relates to the world, artistically and politically. A proud San Francisco Bay Area native (three of his recent releases, 51, 19, and 63, are named after local bus routes), he’s outspoken about the impacts of gentrification.

“There’s nothing wrong with a couple new coffee shops or bars or restaurants,” he says. “But the rich people that move to a spot because it’s ‘cool’ often enough don’t really understand the politics of their being there.” He points to the tech industry: “You might take a private bus line to your software development company or whatever and essentially live a life that’s completely segregated from the majority of people in the world, and in the meantime you’re trying to develop products and concepts that are ostensibly going to enrich those people’s lives? When you don’t know a single thing about them? Don’t even ride the bus with them? Eat at a restaurant that replaced the restaurant they used to eat in and is now too expensive for them to go to? That kind of atmosphere breeds resentment and contention.”

When I ask if any particular political label suits him, his answer is characteristically circular: “I mean, I appreciate art and music and religious and spiritual concepts and, like, even drugs and socializing and sex and conversation and mediation as means of learning and acting that are less hampered by the seemingly inevitable dogmas you tend to find when you follow any argument about how people are supposed to live to its ‘logical’ conclusion.” As for thinkers who have influenced him, he sends me a list of more than a hundred names, including Swizz Beats, Jay-Z, Andy Warhol, Frantz Fanon, John Zerzan, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Walter Benjamin.

So it’s hard, perhaps even for KOOL A.D., to predict exactly where he’s headed. Will his fans age with him, and stay along for an unpredictable ride? “I have a feeling some of my fans aren’t aging at all. Some might even be growing younger,” he says. “I’m trying to crack the immortal demographic.”

As always, Victor Vazquez sets his own terms.

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Kool A.D.’s Bizarre Pop-Culture Carnival

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