By Regina Stevens-Truss, Contributing Editor, Science and Social Justice
When did we lose our humanity and accept circumstances in which we are allowed to say, “I have a right to be here and to prove that I’m going to shoot you”? As I ponder on the multitude of “stand your ground” laws that have been enacted in states across the country, I agree, in one sense, that we all have a right to be wherever we want to be. In fact, the Declaration of Independence gives all Americans the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” After all, this is the United States of America, the welcoming land, is it not? What I disagree with is this:
“The law removes a person’s duty to retreat before using deadly force against another in any place he has the legal right to be – so long as he reasonably believed he or someone else faced imminent death or great bodily harm.”
But if we all step back and think about this law, it suggests that retreating is equivalent to cowardice, which is ridiculous. When one is faced with a life or death situation, retreating can be the wise and brave thing to do.
Okay, so I can imagine what you might be thinking right about now: “not another piece on Florida’s stand your ground cases.” But rest assured, what I actually want to suggest is that there are other important issues we should stand our ground on: education, health, and climate change. With so many pressing issues of life and death in the world today, perhaps if laws existed that prevented us from ignoring people’s needs, we would be better off.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ news release from June, “The U.S. education system is not as internationally competitive as it used to be.” As a nation, we are failing to effectively tackle the growing abyss that is the educational gap among students in low socioeconomic groups, including a disproportionate number of students of color. As a Black woman scientist from a Latin American country, I personally know about the power of education because education was my salvation. A child of unmarried parents, I migrated to the U.S. at age 13 and lived in Brooklyn, New York for 4 years.
My life could have turned out quite differently if it weren’t for teachers who “stood their ground” and educated me. Moreover, these teachers were role models who encouraged and guided my learning. Because of their courage, I am here today, teaching chemistry at Kalamazoo College. What if we all stood our ground to support a good education for everyone in the U.S. and acknowledge every human being as a potentially positive contributor to society? What if there was a law that “removes a person’s ability to retreat and not allow the continued poor education of our children”? What would the U.S. look like? Shouldn’t we all take a more active role in the education of the next generation? And, more importantly, with changing national demographics (over 50% of Americans are predicted to be non-white by 2050), doesn’t our future and global standing depend on educating all?
Healthcare is another issue on which we should stand our ground. In addition to disparities in the U.S.’ educational system, there also continues to be a gap in access to healthcare among the American population. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, “despite ongoing efforts to reduce health disparities in the United States, racial and ethnic disparities in both health and health care persist.” Americans born in particular racial groups, socioeconomic classes, and even in certain states can find themselves in precarious health situations.
Indeed some may argue that ill health is due to poor nutrition, which in and of itself is another issue we should stand our ground on, especially since poor nutrition is linked to income disparities. There is some good news; several laws have been enacted by State legislatures in an effort to reduce this gap [see Health Disparities State Laws site]. What if there was a law that “removes a person’s ability to retreat and look the other way in the face of human suffering due to health related problems”? What would the U.S. look like? What would the world look like? A recent report in the JAMA examining the status of America’s health in the last fifteen years (1985-2010) found a direct link between wealth and health that is alarming. As shown in Figures 16 and 17 from the JAMA report, life expectancy of men and women in southern states, predominantly populated by racial minorities, is less than life expectancy in more affluent states.
I am not sure if it’s possible for anyone to look out of their window right now and not believe in climate change. The frequent occurrences of storms, their length of duration, and their strength and level of devastation should be enough evidence that the earth’s climate is changing. Some critics suggest that “Heat waves have happened before,” and, “We didn’t have global warming during the Industrial Revolution,” as well as, “Human CO2 is a tiny % of CO2 emissions.” But science has, time and time again, responded to each criticism with data demonstrating that most of the changes we are experiencing are human-made.
Critics who believe that CO2 levels are not to blame should explain the 14000% increase in CO2 levels in the last 100 years relative to the low levels observed prior to 1901. In fact, as shown in the diagram below, CO2 levels remained constantly below 300 ppm for 650 years until 1950 when the level rose above that.
Critics question whether or not increasing CO2 levels are responsible for the increasing temperature of the planet, and they may have a point there. However, “According to an ongoing temperature analysis conducted by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS)…the average global temperature on Earth has increased by about 0.8°C (1.4°Fahrenheit) since 1880.” CO2 levels have also risen in that same time period. The GISS analysis also found that “Two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975, at a rate of roughly 0.15-0.20°C per decade,” a rate of increase that we cannot continue to ignore.
Those that advocate for climate change argue that even if CO2 emissions are not the true cause of the temperature changes, would it hurt to reduce them and see how temperature fluctuations change as a result? An analysis of the 2012 temperature variation across the USA demonstrated that the average temperature of Midwest states increased more than 4° (see diagram below). This analysis, which was published in the New York Times in 2013, also found that the temperature of the ten states indicated in the figure below deviated above and below normal for more than 95% of the year.
This knowledge is enough for me to think we need to respond to climate change. To dismiss the role of humans in these changes is to suggest that the planet, and life on it, can sustain these changes. What if there was a law that “removes a person’s ability to retreat and dismiss human behavior in the face of the continuing changes to the Earth’s climate”? What would the U.S. look like? What would the world look like? Perhaps we should stand our ground on thinking creatively about ways to slow down climate change.
I am sure that there are other causes that we can all think of that might benefit from stand your ground laws: war, homelessness, and marriage equality, to name just a few more. Ultimately, if we started valuing human life and finding ways to coexist, we might be able to better live out the words in the Declaration of Independence – “the pursuit of happiness.” After all, as Spock says in The Wrath of Khan, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”