By Bill McKibben, Photo: Dominique Berbain/Getty, The New Yorker, January 19, 2022
Shortly after the New Year, the Washington Post ran a story with a headline that would have seemed inexplicable, even runic, to most readers just a few years ago: “The world’s torrid future is etched in the crippled kidneys of Nepali workers.” But we’re growing used to the idea that the climate crisis, in Naomi Klein’s phrase, “changes everything,” so why not the internal organs of Nepalis? Remarkable reporting by Gerry Shih tells a series of unbearably poignant tales: young Nepali men, struggling to earn a living in their impoverished homeland, head to the Gulf states to do construction work in the searing heat, some without access to sufficient water, some until they collapse. (Other reporting also shows that some Nepalis who work abroad resort to the black market for a transplant that might keep them—and the families that depend on the money they earn—alive.) The piece ends with a man coming back to the care of his sister, who donates her own kidney to save him. The costs of the medical procedures require that he sell his half-built house, and that he give up his life’s dream, which was to get married.
The Post was right: the world’s future is likely encapsulated in this story. The planet is getting steadily hotter, and large swaths of it are moving past the point at which it’s safe to do heavy outside labor in the middle of the day. A 2022 study estimated that six hundred and seventy-seven billion working hours a year were already being lost because it’s too hot to go outside and build things or farm. The researchers assessed the cost at more than two trillion dollars annually, but, of course, it could also be measured in other units—in vital organs, or dreams.