I grew up in Seattle and left for 16 years—six in Bellingham, two in Hawaii, and eight in California. Three years ago, I came back home. I wanted to come home to kinky sex in the news, red and grey flannel atop mossy beards and leather, and the darkness of basement bars and grim rains on sidewalks. This is my natural habitat. I wanted to come home and get divorced and publish and raise my son.
Instead, I came home to a Amazonian fiefdom. A hotter, smokier, drier city. A city with tent after tent after tent on the roadside. A different city–one overrun by ubiquitous white tech bros and their conference calling and white earbuds. An expensive city–one where the rent burden blocks the only path to the middle-class stability, homeownership, and the moral imperative of saving for a mythical retirement. A white, segregated city–the kind of city in which, at any given night, a preschool on Phinney Ridge might convene an organizing meeting and 100% of parents and staff would be white–and no one would say a damn thing. This city has settled me into a perpetual and aggravated state.
What is the difference between the Seattle of 2000 and the Seattle of 2018? I would argue that the first and second order drivers of this are climate change and Jeff Bezos; we could debate about the order.
Climate change–a global scale problem which externalizes harm and cost from economic activity onto the lives, health, and infrastructure of the poorest and most vulnerable people. And Jeff Bezos, the richest man on the planet. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. A man who recently confessed that the only way he could “deploy this much financial resource” was to spend his “amazon winnings into space travel.” This statement, so clearly lacking moral direction, made in a city of more than 12,000 people experiencing homelessness.
There is a functional link between Bezos’s untethered greed and the warming of our planet. In the same way, there is a link between cancer or childhood asthma in South Side and Duwamish Valley and the loading of diesel exhaust (from Amazon trucks) in these impinged local airways. The link is there–but we must make it real through observation and deduction. It’s not enough to treat the symptoms of these crises; we also must look at mechanisms and causation.
In paleoecology, we have a term called “trace fossils.” This term refers to preserved structures, such as footprints or teeth marks on bones, which record the presence of an animal or an interaction without the material of that animal being present. Trace fossils are such helpful logical frame: you don't have to witness an interaction to know that it’s happened.
The same is true for Bezos. You can see the traces of his greed, his boot on the neck of our city, across our entire environment: from labor, to climate, to health, to culture. In 2017 alone, Amazon’s diesel shipping operations spewed 19.1 million metric tons of CO2 (and equivalent of 4.7 coal-fired plants operating for one year) into the atmosphere. Even more staggering, these numbers don’t even come from Amazon. Amazon doesn’t even report their carbon footprint. What is that carbon doing in the atmosphere? It’s acidifying Puget Sound (and breaking food chains between pteropods, salmon, and orcas), intensifying West Coast fire season, melting North Cascade glaciers, and supercharging Puget Sound heatwaves. We all pay for Amazon’s carbon footprint, but that cost is not borne out equally.
Bezos’s traces of greed can also be seen on the bodies of specific Seattleites. Poorer, blacker, browner Seattleites. People who live in environments impinged by Amazon’s primary routes of operation (I-5 and I-99 corridors to and from their warehouse in Kent). Why? Because diesel exhaust, from shipping, represents 78% of the potential cancer risk from all air toxics in the Puget Sound area. Residents of South Park and Georgetown have an increased cancer risk of up to 4 excess cancer cases per 1,000 residents due to air pollutants. Moreover, Duwamish has the highest rate of childhood asthma in the entire country. These communities, composed of families of color, bear cancer and childhood asthma as a dual cost of both heating the planet and paying Amazon’s feudal dues. This is also Bezos’s trace.
Seattle is not the same, and will never be again, as we exit the envelope of pre-industrial climate. So much for flannel and Cobain and moss. The traces across our public health, climate, and culture are undeniable–yet still so egregiously denied (if only we could get that thermometer at SeaTac to stop lying). We are gaslit. We choke under the smoke and heat of the boot of the greed of the world’s wealthiest man, as he dreams of shooting his penis into space. Meanwhile, black and brown mothers in the city make doctor and pharmacy trips for their asthmatic children and we all sweat in the heat, grieve that damn whale and wring our hands, and press the “Buy now with 1-Click®” button.