Environment, Economy

21 May 2012

It is scary to realize that inequality in the USA has never been worse. But the inequality is not the scary part - our complacenecy as it poisons our physical and social environment is. We emphasize education as a national priority and devote an increasing share of our resources to the problem. We focus on better SAT scores and football teams in rich areas more then on straightforward measures like reading, science and math in poor ones. We spend more money on prison then on educating the next generation. We teach poor kids that the way out is on the basketball court instead of at Space X. We need to have a more honest debate about what is really important.

Religious fundamentalism, superstition, and conspiracy theories profit from the inability of other explanations to gain a toehold in the national conversation about the economic problems we are facing. Ron Paul wants to go back to the gold standard. Obama cannot prosecute obvious crimes because the very underpinnings of our economic system are at stake. The truth is that in the last 30 years, worker productivity has gone up by record amounts, and worker pay has gone down. The average family is working harder for a smaller share of the pie. Forced labor in the form of prison workers, welfare-induced poverty, and an un-livable minimum wage combined with expensive education and healthcare tied in many ways to corporate institutions make class mobility impossible for most people. French fries are cheap and we spend all our agriculture welfare on monolithic crops of fast-food feedstock. We need more long-term thinking.

The truth is that people are out of work, and we have a lot of work to do. Who among us does not think that building a new infrastructure for our cities, counties, and countries would not provide lasting jobs, a better life for everyone, and a better world? With the indirect costs like highway subsidies and increased medical expenses, along with fossil fuel fertilizer subsidies and agricultural handouts to giant corporations, we spend hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money on the food system every year. With even a fraction of the money, we could pay millions of people to work on high-tech organic farms in depressed places. Lower taxes and a healthier society! It is possible if we would just focus on the real root causes of problems instead of quick-fix band aids.

Our haphazard plans for economic revitalization are scary. Tar sand strip mining is shifting huge amounts of energy buried under Canada into the atmosphere. It is creating jobs, but is this the economy we want to be building? Fracking for gas poisons the water and worse. Deforestation in the Amazon is well-known but still tragic and impactful. The destruction of the oceans, and in particular the fate of our coral reefs, is painful beyond description.

If we don’t acknowledge Global Warming, we will be forced to deal with extreme solutions. The truth is that in the last 100 years, fossil fuels and chemistry came together to give us everything from plastics to cars, and cheap fertilizer to cell phones and personal computers. America is at the cutting edge of this trend, the developing world is rapidly catching up, and we cannot afford for them to be as irresponsible as we were. The United States needs to lead the way with solutions for a new economic paradigm that treats the environmental costs of our lifestyle the same way we treat the material costs. Business as ususal is not going to be an option if we want our children to have a fair shot.