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I have listened to a lot of radio during this year of isolation, but lately it’s been unpleasant. For weeks the music stations were clogged with Christmas songs and NPR with endless hand wringing about how the holidays will “look a little different this year.” The DJs and hosts had only just got done with that when they launched into a collective lamentation about what an awful, lousy, mean year was 2020. They stood there cursing the year like drenched maniacs yelling at the storming sky — as if the year itself were possessed by some maliciousness and on this particular pass around the sun it had intentionally steered our world through this patch of nasty weather. Damn you, 2020!
Today on the radio I heard a saner voice. It belonged to the historian Andy Horowitz, who was discussing his recent book about Hurricane Katrina, Katrina: A History, 1915 – 2015. “It’s not the weather that causes the most pain,” Horowitz said. “It’s the choices we make as a society.” I would add only this: Or the choices we don’t make, the choices we aren’t allowed to make, the choices that are made for us.
The past year was the storm that blew the mask off the cruel, rotten, unequal systems that govern our lives. Many saw behind the mask for the first time. Others — those for whom these systems have never worked — were not so shocked. As our leaders do their best to patch the facade back together, we would do well to remember what we saw.
With this in mind, I looked back through the articles we published this past year on Rural America In These Times and rounded up the ones that bear re-reading and remembering.
This was the year we learned that many of the structures we’ve been forced to depend on are flimsy and undependable. We watched what happened when the pandemic ran through our industrial food system — a system from which resilience has been trimmed as dead weight on industrial efficiency and profits. Virus outbreaks tore through meatpacking plants, sickening workers by the thousands and derailing supply chains. Farmers were forced to grind tens of thousands of hogs daily into compost, plow under crops, dump milk — all while, grocery shelves went bare and need overwhelmed food banks.
On the brighter side, these failures inspired renewed interest in escaping industrial food. Stephanie Woodard wrote that for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe bringing back the buffalo was always important but the pandemic made it urgent.
This was the year we learned, against the best efforts of corporate advertising consultants, that we are not, in fact, “in this together.”
There was talk at the beginning about the virus as equalizer, because rich and poor alike are vulnerable to infection. In truth, the pains, and the profits, of the pandemic have been distributed along roughly the same lines as everything else in our starkly unequal society. Black and Native communities have been hit particularly hard. And as Stephanie Woodard wrote in May, when Sioux tribes in South Dakota closed their reservations to visitors to protect themselves from the virus, the governor tried to stop them.
Prisoners, apparently deemed expendable, were kept in lock up as the virus spread — including, as I wrote in August, water protectors doing time for opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline, which a judge ruled had been unlawfully built.
The virus continues to burn through rural communities already ravaged by decades of pro-corporate farm policies and overwhelm rural health care systems weakened by years of disinvestment.
This was the year we learned that, try as we might to smother it under concrete and behind phone screens, we are part of the natural world and share its fate. The coronavirus pandemic was a blunt, difficult reminder of this fact. Vandana Shiva explained it this way:
“New diseases arise because a globalized, industrialized, inefficient agriculture invades habitats, destroys ecosystems, and manipulates animals, plants, and other organisms with no respect for their integrity or their health,” Shiva writes. “The health emergency of the coronavirus is inseparable from the health emergency of extinction, the health emergency of biodiversity loss, and the health emergency of the climate crisis…. All of these emergencies are rooted in an economic model based on the illusion of limitless growth and limitless greed, which violate planetary boundaries, and destroy the integrity of ecosystems and individual species.”
Unfortunately, these lessons won’t lose their relevance in the years ahead. We face a future of climate change, mass migrations and ecological collapse — a future for which, we’ve learned, our leaders and systems are woefully unprepared.
This past year wasn’t all ugliness and defeat. I’m thinking of the mutual aid groups that sprung up in the early days of the pandemic, of the Indigenous farmers who distributed food in Minneapolis amid the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd, of how that uprising spread across the country through cities and small towns alike. I’m thinking, in short, of the moments when people took care of each other while the power structure staggered. More storms are coming and we need to prepare. If this year taught us anything, it’s that we’ll have to do it ourselves.
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Joseph Bullington grew up in the Smith River watershed near White Sulphur Springs, Montana. He is the editor of Rural America In These Times.