More people each day are disgusted with the course our civilization is taking. Whether your main concern is social injustice, proliferation of nuclear weapons, environmental ruination, white-collar criminality, the decay of morality, growing rates of addiction to recreational and psychiatric drugs, the decline in educational standards, or the ravages of corporatocracy, one thing’s for sure: you’re one of very few if you believe the human race is on the right track.
I don’t have a lot of answers. But I think I can say this without fear of contradiction: It’s up to all of us to raise our voices when we see things we don’t like.
Here’s something else I suggest we do with issues: analyze them honestly. Is there any commonality among all these social ills? I believe there is: the concept that someone else – another person living now somewhere on Earth – or someone who will be born in the future – should pay for the benefit you’re taking here and now.
When Ford famously made the decision to build and sell the Pinto in the early 1970s – a car they knew very well a certain percentage of which would explode on impact due to an engineering defect, they opted to take the gain (the profit unencumbered by the cost of fixing the mistake) and passed those costs (pain, death, trauma, and loss) onto its customers, and the healthcare costs (healing the burns, fixing the broken bones, etc.) onto the healthcare system. Each year we learn of dozens of examples of this very phenomenon, and wonder how many lie beneath the tip of the iceberg. And while these examples of criminality are the extreme, think of all the industries that are legal whose products knowingly and invariably damage their users: fast food, tobacco, degraded entertainment, cheap products designed to fall apart 10 minutes after their warranty expires – to name a few.
I don’t approve of the high rates of litigation we siffer here in the US, but it can certainly be justified as an attempt to right a wrong, i.e., to force the party that rightfully caused the damage to pay for it.
I often write about the need to internalize the externalities of energy. I point out that if we as a society would identify and pay the true and complete costs of the energy produced by oil and coal – including the long-term environmental damage, healthcare costs, etc. – and wrote the check as they were being incurred, clean energy solutions – all of them – would be hailed as the bargain of the century, and businesses based on fossil fuels would close more or less instantly.
Now some of these calculations are more straightforward than others. It’s well documented that:
- The estimated health cost of human exposure to outdoor air pollutants is $50 billion a year.
- An estimated 50,000 to 120,000 premature deaths are associated with exposure to air pollutants.
- People with asthma experience more than 100 million days of restrictive activity annually, costing $4 billion a year.
- Death rates from asthma are up over 40 percent in the past few years.
But what are the costs of global climate change, of the acidification of our oceans, and of the other horrors we’re inflicting upon our planet and all its life forms? People make a stab at this all the time, but it’s hard to put much credence in the figures that are produced.
We’ve all seen the bumpersticker that reads: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance” – a clever and pithy way of making my exact point. Again, however, while it’s easy to add up what we’re spending on public and private education, it’s quite a task even to list all the consequences of ignorance, let alone the costs associated with them. In addition to the obvious costs of unemployment and loss to the tax base, you’d have to include the incremental burden to the systems involved in criminal justice, healthcare, supporting unwanted children, and dozens of other items.
I’m completely convinced that if there is a civilization here at all in 100 years, it will regard us generally as most of now regard litterbugs – essentially as inconsiderate slobs who would coldly disregard the idea they share the planet with 7 billions others. Or perhaps we’ll be remembered as thieves, with our deeply defective sense of ownership – appropriating things for our own use that clearly no not belong to us.
In any case, difficult though it is, this is the challenge that we face: to refuse to engage in practices in any arena – at any level — that are simply unsustainable. If there is any good in any of this, maybe it’s that we’re starting to remember who profoundly brilliant Thomas Jefferson was, with his ideas like: “It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes.” Imagine: cleaning up after yourself. Not burdening your grandchildren with the costs of your wars, entitlements, and ecological recklessness. All we have to do is to find a way to live that does the accounting and enforces prompt payment.