Is it just me? Or do the candidates in this year’s U.S. elections appear to be debating just about every issue under the sun with the one exception? With only seven weeks or so remaining in this year’s elections, any discussion of humankind’s relationship with the Real World appears to be muted. Earth as a resource? The need to protect natural habitat, ecosystems and ecosystem services, and the environment? The importance of building national resilience to natural hazards community by community and hazard by hazard? Hardly a (mumbled) word.
At the national conventions, one nominee suggested, near the close of his remarks, “(My opponent) promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet…My promise is to help you and your family.” The other nominee made reference to energy issues, but linked these to job creation and U.S. energy independence more strongly than to any environmental considerations. He alluded to renewables, but only in the same breath as domestic oil and natural gas exploration as well as clean-coal technologies. There was a passing reference to air quality. Otherwise, there’s been hardly any mention of environmental and resource concerns.
Perhaps events and circumstances will change. But for now, Living on the Real World seems to be a non-issue. The attacks on U.S. embassies and businesses across the Middle East? The state of the war in Afghanistan? Jobs? Health care? Immigration? 47%? Sequestration? Which candidate came from the humbler roots, and is best in touch with middle-class concerns? The candidates are giving all these subjects extensive attention and the media are providing unending, breathless coverage.
But this year’s widespread heat, drought and crop failures? Community-level vulnerability to high winds and power outages, tornadoes, coastal flooding, and more? The Keystone pipeline? Any environmental costs of fracking? The shrinking of the extent and mass of Arctic sea ice? Alternatives at local, national and global levels for dealing with these issues? Although these have commanded the headlines daily, they haven’t been a significant part of this election’s conversation. They’re part of the party platforms, but buried deep. And they’re not causing comment like the presence or lack of references to God, the status of Israel, the war in Afghanistan, etc.
Is this because the issues are non-partisan? Because policy officials of both political persuasions are in agreement on what should be done? That seems unlikely. Is it because the topics are irrelevant? The news coverage would suggest otherwise.
Listen. Did you hear that pin drop?
First, it would be interesting to hear from the candidates what they think about
- The simultaneous challenge posed by natural resource extraction, protection of environment and ecosystems, and building resilience at community and national levels to natural hazards.
- The importance of full-cost pricing of natural resources extraction and use that internalizes the environmental costs of their extraction.
- Commitment to the support of the critical infrastructure represented by Earth observations, science, and services needed for America to prosper throughout the rest of the 21st century.
- Use of such capabilities internationally to improve the prospects of all nations…both developed and developing…and by partnering in this way foster world peace and stability.
- Exploration of public-private collaboration at a strategic level toward these ends.
Moreover, it would be interesting to hear your contributions for improving and adding to this list or replacing the enumeration with one superior.
Second, neither candidate or party should be faulted for remaining silent on these issues. They have their hands full responding to the interests and concerns we the American public have raised. For a candidate to speak out on issues 1-5 above, given the lack of public concern, would risk being characterized as out of touch with American needs and the times we live in.
Any onus on raising these subjects therefore lies with the remaining three hundred million of us. When Americans are concerned enough to hold our leaders accountable, politicians will gladly comply. They’re members of the “Name-any-tune-and-I’ll-play-it” school.
Sounds like representative democracy at its best to me. When we care, our leaders will care.
A closing comment/question:
If a hurricane is offshore, we all wonder, what is its track? When and where will it make landfall? How intense will it be? What will be the impacts?
So, by analogy, when and how will these Living-on-the-Real-World issues hit? As soon as the 2016 elections? 2020? Later still? Will the issue hit suddenly or gradually? What will be the trigger(s)? Water? Food? Energy? A natural catastrophe of historic proportions? Another BP oil spill? Will the issue ebb and flow throughout the century?
What’s your forecast?
In a sense, the candidates are talking about these issues when they speak about their two very different visions of government. One big and trying to solve every problem, one small(er) with more limited scope. For many of the issues you raise, each can provide a potentially viable solution. For example, take number 3. Democrat solutions are clustered around “Tax and have government do it.” Republican solutions seem clustered around “Find ways to incentivize the private sector to do it.”
However, for some of the issues, I think there is a preferable choice, sometimes in favor of one, sometimes in favor of the other based on the scale of the solution. All of us own the environment, so no one is responsible. In this type of situation, if the scale of the problems transcends the community level, Big Government seems more likely to be able to provide solutions. On the other hand, there are problems whose solution is at a much more modest scale where Big Government actually is a hindrance. Let me suggest that “resilience” is an example of this. If we look at New Orleans, the recovery of many neighborhoods was in spite of, not because of, Big Government (city, state and federal). That’s because resilience – whether of an individual or a neighborhood or a community – ultimately starts at a level where government of whatever ilk can’t be very effective. Look at all of our anti-poverty programs. I’d argue that the only one that has worked has been the welfare reform crafted by Clinton and Gingrich. The solution was seen as on the scale of the individual; government’s role was to tear down barriers to the individual’s escape from poverty.
In this regard, it is instructive to look at the effectiveness of the extended unemployment insurance after Katrina. The data sure seem to say that rather than helping people to make it until they could find work it merely gave them incentive not to look for it. A similar case has been made about the alarming rise in disability payments since the beginning of the Great Recession – perhaps 6 million people have left the workforce to claim disability.
There was great wisdom and prescience in John McKnight’s “The Careless Society.” As he pointed out, when government comes in to do something that an individual (or, I would argue, any other entity operating at a lower scale) can do, the ability of the individual to do that atrophies and disappears. We’ve seen it in the institutionalization of elder care, child care, and so many others. Equally important, however, (as can be seen in Tainter) is that these institutionalized solutions harden the arteries of government, making it – and all of the body politic – less able to innovate, to adapt, to be resilient.
Thanks, John…just the kind of extended, thoughtful contribution this topic needs.
The question that came to the mind near the end of your post is, “why do/can we track some types of pending disasters and not others?” I even initially thought this is what you were about to pose.
We humans take an interest in the hurricane because we can see it on radar and in satellite images, and we can track it. We see something very real coming. Somehow we learn from some experiences. Perhaps that is rooted somewhere deep in or biology: ‘get out of the way dummy that moving rock is going to hit you.’ And we can get out of the way. We also look for asteroids that might collide with earth (literally big rocks coming at us.) What are the odds?
But some things which we logically see as significant risks seem to be diffuse, abstract, or in some way less physical and just do not register with us in a survival part of the brain. Perhaps that lack of internal reification relates to some of the material covered in Kahneman’s latest book. (That a guess, I’ve not had the chance to read it.) Humans have their limitations.
John, you are as sharp as ever.
Yeah, that’s me, the original blunt instrument.
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