Overview:

Living longer and being healthy should be uncontroversial, nonpartisan ideas—but to the American right, they aren't.

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Bad news for those of us who cook with gas. A December 2022 study concludes that gas-fired stoves and ovens are harmful to our health, more than most of us may have realized. They could be responsible for as many as one in eight cases of childhood asthma in the U.S.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Burning natural gas gives off particulate matter, carbon monoxide, pollutants like nitrogen oxides which irritate the lungs, and carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde. In poorly ventilated rooms, running a stove for as little as an hour can cause these chemicals to build up to levels the EPA considers hazardous even for outdoor exposure.

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We’ve known for a long time that indoor cooking fires and kerosene stoves are a major cause of respiratory disease around the world. It makes sense that gas stoves would have the same problem. Your lungs are supposed to breathe air; they’re not adapted to breathe anything else.

I have a gas stove in my house. I’m not going to run out and replace it, but from now on, I’m going to make sure to open a window or run an air filter when I’m cooking. I already wanted to get an electric stove (both because they’re better for the planet and because the smooth surface is easier to clean), but now I have an extra reason to put it at the top of my priority list whenever I renovate my kitchen.

Culture-war mad libs

This isn’t a crisis that we need to fix immediately. Not everyone has the money to buy an electric stove, and renters may not have the option to install one. But in the long run, we should move away from gas. For the sake of our own health, as well as the planet’s, we should electrify our kitchens just as we’re electrifying our vehicles.

In light of research like this, some cities have already banned new natural-gas hookups and are requiring new construction to be all-electric. The Inflation Reduction Act has rebates and incentives for electric appliances.

And, as predictably as night follows day, electric stoves have become a culture war issue. As soon as Democrats were for something, Republicans decided they were against it. Conservative politicians are foaming at the mouth about their God-given freedom to cook with gas (even though the states that use gas stoves most are blue states: Illinois, California, New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, in that order).

“You will have to pry my gas stove from my cold dead hands,” replied Matt Walsh, the rightwing political podcaster and Daily Wire columnist.

… “COME AND TAKE IT,” read the caption to a pixelated stock photo of a mint-green stove, floating somewhat menacingly on a white background. This was posted by the Oklahoma Libertarian party.

Republicans turn up the heat on a new culture war target: gas stoves.” Alaina Demopoulos, The Guardian, 11 January 2023.

The invective is so familiar by this point, it’s like culture-war mad libs. You already know the script; all you have to do is swap in the outrage topic du jour. (“You’ll have to pry my __ from my cold, dead hands”; “Democrats are coming for your __”; “God commands us to __”; and “American soldiers died for your right to __” are popular choices.) Their claim to be defenders of liberty is especially ridiculous, coming as it does from the party of Don’t Say Gay, book-burners and abortion-banners.

Dying for the culture war

What’s less comical is that, while Democratic states and cities move ahead with policies that make their people’s lives better, Republicans are literally dying in an attempt to cling to the past.

That’s the conclusion of a December 2022 study of COVID mortality rates by congressional district. It found that, even after controlling for race, education and income, Americans living in more conservative areas fared worse and died more often:

Harvard researchers analyzed data on covid-19 mortality rates and the stress on hospital intensive care units across all 435 congressional districts from April 2021 to March 2022. They also examined congressional members’ overall voting records, how they voted on four coronavirus relief bills, and whether the governor’s office and legislature of a state were controlled by one party.

The study, published this month in the Lancet Regional Health-Americas, found that the more conservative the voting records of members of Congress and state legislators, the higher the age-adjusted covid mortality rates — even after taking into account the racial, education and income characteristics of each congressional district along with vaccination rates.

…Covid death rates were 11 percent higher in states with Republican-controlled governments and 26 percent higher in areas where voters lean conservative. Similar results emerged about hospital ICU capacity when the concentration of political power in a state was conservative.

Can politics kill you? Research says the answer increasingly is yes..” Akilah Johnson, The Washington Post, 16 December 2022.

This study shows the toxic effect of ideology. Conservatives have cultivated a worldview in which literally everything is a culture-war issue. They’ve also inculcated a deep suspicion of science and education in general. The result is predictable: anything that would improve their lives, they instinctively reject as a liberal plot. They treat facts as a personal affront whenever those facts don’t line up with what they already believe.

Red states have scorned Medicare expansion because a Democratic president passed it, even when their hospitals are shutting down left and right. They deny climate change even when floodwaters are lapping at their feet. They view the daily headlines of gun slaughter with dull apathy. They refused to wear masks in the midst of a pandemic.

This policy of cultivated ignorance has a massive human toll, according to a study of mortality in working-age adults from October 2022:

…if all states implemented liberal policies on the environment, gun safety, criminal justice, health and welfare, labor, marijuana, and economic and tobacco taxes, more than 170,000 lives would have been saved in 2019. On the flip side, if states went with conservative versions of those policies, there would have been about 217,000 more deaths that year — “the equivalent of a 600-passenger airplane crashing every day of the year,” the study said.

Now it’s gas stoves too. Conservative leaders are rallying the troops for their “right” to breathe polluted air, to wheeze and cough, to suffer asthma, heart attacks and cancer. Somehow, they see this as a victory.

Science should be a tool to help us make better choices. Whether it’s lead paint or asbestos insulation or nitrogen dioxide, when we figure out that something is making us sick, we can seek out alternatives. When we know better, we can do better.

This should be the most uncontroversial, nonpartisan idea imaginable—because who doesn’t want to live longer or be healthy?—but, somehow, it isn’t. Instead, the American right has made itself aflame with anger at everyone who wants to help them lead better lives. In the name of their ideology, they’re marching toward their own destruction.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...