There are interesting similarities between a hazardous substance pipeline and a deadly virus. Like all hazards, both have the potential for harm or loss. If a pipeline accident occurs, or if a person experiences a severe reaction to COVID-19, the potential for harm or loss goes to 100%, and the hazard becomes, by definition, a disaster. Hazard control in either case requires an open-eyed anticipation of the potential for danger and disruption. In this country we, as citizens, expect a well-informed, coordinated, top-down response when a hazard becomes a disaster. Instead we have been exposed to unnecessary harm.
When disaster response is neither well-informed nor well-coordinated, we are, of course, alarmed. That alarm is not evenly distributed across the population. There is, instead, variation by social and physical location. In the case of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, some landowners are more socially isolated than others, and may lack strong connections to kin or neighbors. They may feel alone in their newfound vulnerability in the face of the pipeline’s disruption. For people who take pride in their self-sufficiency, as rural people might, this vulnerability can be deeply disturbing. Vulnerability by physical location is more obvious, particularly for landowners in or near the “blast zone,” where the frequency of harm is low, but consequences can be fatal.
COVID-19 imposes its own disproportionate vulnerabilities among those living or working in crowded locations. As a society we have chosen to ignore calls for adequate compensation for our newfound “essential workers.” How can we expect those struggling under economically precarious conditions to further expose themselves to harm and not call it an injustice?
Hazards and disasters expose not only unanticipated vulnerabilities, but also unanticipated capacities for resilience. In the case of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, loss, disruption, and betrayal have sparked fierce “talking back” to corporate and governmental interests. Many people of a certain age feel uncomfortable with what might have been construed as disrespect in our younger years. But desperation has led to newfound capacities for resilience in the face of injustice, as citizens develop unanticipated expertise and admirable organizational capacity.
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