How the Everest avalanche can remind us of government’s potential to do good

A portrait of Dorjee Khatri, who lost his life in an avalanche at Mount Everest, is seen on the truck carrying his body during the funeral rally of Nepali Sherpa climbers in Kathmandu on April 21. Reuters photo by Navesh Chitrakar.

A portrait of Dorjee Khatri, who lost his life in an avalanche at Mount Everest, is seen on the truck carrying his body during the funeral rally of Nepali Sherpa climbers in Kathmandu on April 21. Reuters photo by Navesh Chitrakar.

Doing their jobs at high, high altitude, they had no warning of the avalanche before tons of snow hurtled down and literally tore limbs from bodies. On Mount Everest, at least 13 were killed when snow above them let loose.

Now the Sherpas, on whose skills and sweat wealthy adventurers rely, are considering a strike. Families of the dead were upset at being offered about $400 each, but this was only part of the Sherpas’ grievances. As survivor Kaji Sherpa explained, “The Sherpas have suffered a lot. Those who stay at the base camp get food round the clock, while the Sherpa has to climb the mountain with an empty belly.”

After the accident, American Ed Marzec, who had invested $100,000 for his ascent and trained for two years, was ready to forgo his climb. But, noting the pressure on the Sherpas from the tour companies, Marzec wrote, “I am ashamed by our greed and embarrassed by our lack of compassion.”

A tragedy far away — 7,000 miles from Bangor — may not seem to say anything about our lives. But it can remind us about how change happens and the importance of collective action and public policy.

For the United States to achieve better working conditions, people took concerted action. Take coal mining. In 1907, almost 3,500 U.S. coal miners died in mine accidents. Numbers fell over the decades and are now typically less than 1 percent of their high. These changes didn’t happen by themselves. Workers organized. Due to this pressure, laws and procedures changed.

Yet we should not fool ourselves into believing that American workers are as safe as they could be, not when one West Virginia coal operation has had such a poor record. Massey Energy will be facing prosecution for what a U.S. attorney calls, “a conspiracy to violate mine safety and health laws.”

For all of us, the quality and length of our lives depends not just on safe workplaces, but on health security and making education more available. Few of us can get these on our own.

Our elderly receive health care through a single payer system, Medicare. The rest of us need the assurance that we can get coverage, whether through subsidized or unsubsidized private insurance, coverage through an employer, Tricare or Medicaid. When illness or accident suddenly strikes, health insurance coverage gives us a fighting chance to climb out of the avalanche of stress, sickness and bills.

Back in 1848, arguing for public “common schools,” Horace Mann wrote that education “beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men — the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” Now, as higher education matters more than ever, 47 states are spending less per student than they did in 2008. Student debt is soaring, hurting the economy and making it harder for debt-holders to move forward.

How can we keep moving up the mountain? Tennessee’s Republican governor proposed a plan — which became law — to make two years of community college tuition free, a plan a little less generous than the Lumina Foundation’s proposal for two free years at any public college and slightly more so than Mike Michaud’s plan of free tuition for sophomore year.

Such plans may seem impossible, too costly or too complicated. But imagine what our forebears thought before there were laws regulating workplaces, before the G.I. Bill opened the doors to college and vocational schools to tens of millions of veterans, before Medicare was there for seniors.

We live in a time when policies increasingly reflect the preferences of the wealthiest and the American middle class is no longer the richest in the world. Wealth is being redistributed upward.

But Americans can act together, can use government to improve our lives.

As one professional guide said about the workers on Mount Everest who risk their lives to prepare the route for their far wealthier clients, “[C]hange must begin with the climbing Sherpas themselves. … [T]here is no better way to honor the lives of those who have perished.”

The same goes for Americans. Ultimately, we can face challenges from increasing wealth disparities and decreasing opportunity. Our hard-won gains for worker safety, health care, education, and a strong and vibrant middle class need not slip away. Rather we can climb upwards together.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.