We spend a great deal of time worrying about trivial issues, but then again, trivial is a relative term.
Sooner or later, our sun will go all nova on our ass, destroying not only this planet, but all of the others we haven’t demoted from that status. We usually don’t worry too much about that. Not going to happen tomorrow, right?
Of course, long before the sun goes full-on kaboom, it will have expanded to the point where Earth is nothing but a cinder anyway. We don’t worry much about that either.
When it comes to non-trivial things, these are right up there on the top of the wowser list. But we don’t waste time thinking too much about those things because they are what you might call long-range problems. Like, really long-range; billions of years long-range. In fact, it’s so long-range that it is a trivial concern for us, right now.
We prefer to worry about short-range problems. But then again, short is a relative term. Compared to the sun going all kabloomy, almost anything is short-term.
So, how far out do the consequences of any unsolved problem or any event have to be before we can just ignore them?
Modern people have evolved from beings whose major concern was killing dinner. That’s a short-term goal. It’s a crucial goal. It’s a life or death goal. But it’s a short-term goal. Our biggest concerns until pretty recently have been putting food on the table and not getting eaten ourselves. And that was often hard. We evolved from a subsistence culture and a subsistence economy.
All of our modern institutions grew out of that subsistence mindset. We didn’t have much. And we wanted more.
When the biggest problem we faced was running down dinner, barefoot, while carrying a spear, we had precious little use for government and law. What was going on a continent away had absolutely no bearing on us, and we certainly didn’t worry about what was going to happen years down the timeline. Who lived that long. There was plenty of food, plenty of water, and all you had to do was be strong enough to take it and have a bunch of kids to help you do that.
Over time, however, that mentality ran into problems as population densities grew and industrialization brought more material wealth to more people. Suddenly things like government and law were what protected the weaker members of society from the greed of the stronger. And it was no longer polite to just kill off the weaker and pretend they died because they weren’t strong enough to live. Everyone still operated on the cultural imperative that more was the ultimate good and that you had to take what you needed or someone else would, but now you had rules you had to follow to get your more.
And that has always been inconvenient for those who were best at taking things.
People were living longer and had more time to think about both their future and that of their children and how they could provide more for them.
The human race and its ancestors spent several millions of years running around naked with a spear, trying to kill something. It has only been about two hundred years since the industrial revolution changed our culture forever. Humans never have been quick to change, though. We spent all that time in a subsistence economy, scrabbling to get more, and it is impressed on our subconscious.
We created an economy based on the idea that we can create more than we can use and we can sell the rest at a profit. The more we sell, the greater the profit. We created a currency that only represented something of value and has no inherent value itself. We created a banking system that would take some people’s inherently worthless currency and loan it to other people at interest so the bank could make more currency off of it. Those other people in turn would use the loan to create more product, the cost of which had to be high enough to cover both the original cost, the interest and still provide a profit.
Eventually the system expanded to the point where the manufacturer sold shares to hundreds of people willing to risk their money to make more money by betting that people would be willing to pay enough money for the product to support not only the bank interest, the cost of manufacturing, wages, infrastructure, etc., but also dividends to them. The point of the entire economy we have built is that everyone makes a profit.
And if no one could turn a profit in their own lifetime, it wasn’t worth the effort. The entire system is based on individuals getting ahead. Groups of individuals may band together to allow that to happen, but the entire system is based on short-term profits for individuals.
All of this is founded on our subsistence mindset that more is better. More is how we get ahead. More is progress. No matter how much we have, even if we have 99% of all the wealth, we must have more.
And the only thing that allows any of this to happen is more energy. So the most important industry we have developed is the energy industry. Our entire culture depends on cheap, available energy. We depend on coal, oil and natural gas to keep the world running.
Shut down the energy industry; shut down the pumps; shut down the grid; turn off the gas, and the entire country would fall into anarchy within a month. Without the energy, the lights don’t shine; the refrigerator doesn’t cool; the trucks don’t roll; the food isn’t harvested; it isn’t delivered. Waterlines have no pressure, toilets don’t flush. Without the energy, nothing is produced; there is no profit. There is no more. Shutting off the energy is the apocalypse.
Because of that, our entire economic system has been designed to protect energy production and energy producers. To threaten them is to threaten everything. That’s why they are heavily subsidized by our government and why the industry itself spends so much lobbying to insure that. It’s why we fight wars in the desert and support countries that enable terrorists who want to kill us.
But it turns out that there was a hidden cost in the production of energy through fossil fuels. The by-products of producing all that energy have created a very real climate problem, and we can’t decide if it’s a long-range problem or not.
Some would say it is. We’ll worry about it later. Or we’ll wait and see if it is real. Or even if it is real, the effects won’t be so bad in our lifetime. We must put ourselves first. Why ruin our economy? Or as Marco Rubio put it, “America is not a planet; it’s a country.”
Others would say that it may already be too late. What good is an economy based on more when there is nothing, including a planet, and that we should be putting all our effort into doing what we can to eliminate the root causes.
Unfortunately, the root cause is the energy industry, the one industry that we have built a protective wall around, the industry that knew back in the 60’s that it was creating climate problems and didn’t care.
I have pointed out before that the population of the world will increase by a number equal to 30 times this country’s current population in the next 36 years. (1) This may cause an issue or two for those who live that long. In 36 years we will have 9.6 billion people, all needing food, water, and a place to live. They will need electricity, transportation, and communication.
The world will need more of everything, especially energy. Unfortunately, resources are finite.
But with the advent of climate change and the recognition that it is the consumption of fossil fueled energy itself that has caused the problem, we are at a bit of an impasse. Those who favor long-range thinking and systemic solutions will have to overcome the interests of the most embedded and protected industry in existence to make any headway.
Our capitalist economy, based on the subsistence idea that the ideal is more of everything for those who are strong enough to take it, does not offer a logical path to survival in the future. The short-term view of the world where nothing is important if we don’t see any individual profit in it within our own lifetime will ensure the demise of the species. Something will have to change.
Politicians are now railing about trade agreements that have caused American jobs to be outsourced to other countries. Some of those same politicians promise to bring those jobs back. Those jobs will never come back. They are gone from our shores forever. Poof. Kaput. As a matter of fact, there is a very real chance that within less than a lifetime, they will cease to exist altogether.
It is now true that technology is eliminating more jobs in the world than creating them for the first time. (2) Advances in robotics, computers and artificial intelligence will make manufacturing jobs too costly for corporations to keep human workers in large numbers in the relatively near future. A 2014 article in the Washington Post claimed that “at best we have another 10 to 15 years in which there is a role for humans. (3) “The Bank of England believes that machines might take over 80 million American and 15 million British jobs over the next 10 to 20 years.” (4) I would suggest that we have a bit more time than that, but, perhaps, not much. CNN claims that the jobs that will be affected are not only manufacturing, but others like marketing, cashiers and toll booth operators, customer service, journalists, lawyers, and phone workers. (5)
You will not hear politicians talking about this.
Americans do not want to hear about such things. Americans are busy with trivial pursuits. They are eagerly awaiting the next episodes of “My 600 Pound Life” and “Naked and Afraid.” They spend 8.5 hours a day staring at screens. (6) They have demanded that real news-gathering and journalism be replaced by outright pandering to their various opinions to bolster their egos while destroying their intellects. And they have dumbed-down their educational system so that no one notices any of this.
By 2050 we will have 2.4 billion more people on earth. Technology will have made human labor less necessary than ever before. Almost certainly, the results of not addressing climate change earlier will have resulted in a huge increase in natural disasters that will cost the world untold resources.
The subsistence economic mindset where the highest goal is to amass more of everything and the worth of a person is based in how hard they work – that is receive inherently worthless currency for manual or mental labor – will not serve in the future.
Calling people lazy for not having a “job” will fail to hold meaning in the not-very-distant future when there are billions more people and millions fewer jobs than there are today. Those who feel government is too big already will have to come up with an alternative to government to handle the coming situation, and allowing the subsistence economy more time to prove that wealth will simply trickle down from above is not an option.
Unless we rethink our approach to government and what a government needs to provide for its population, how governments and corporations work together, and the economy and how that economy works to provide opportunities for survival, the current level of income inequality will be rapidly dwarfed by a population that has no jobs and no income while we continue to throw away billions of dollars of food every year so that the top, wealthy hoarders can create more wealth for themselves, and the result of planetary neglect continues to make life more difficult to maintain at all.
So long as health care is provided as a for-profit industry, we will see increasing numbers of people without it.
So long as the manufacture and distribution of life-saving medications is provided as a for-profit institution, there will be an ever expanding number of people who cannot afford to stay alive.
The great depression of the 30’s will seem like a picnic.
When people who have a few resources suddenly have no resources as a result of flooding, drought, and increasingly violent weather events, and then have no prospects of “working” to earn new resources, how much does that “cost” the rest of the world?
When the rhetoric which despises the idea of “giving people free stuff” meets the reality that there is no other way most people will get anything, what happens? Do we simply let them die, thereby lessening the population growth problem? This is not a frivolous or trivial question. It is starting to happen already.
We spend too much time worrying about trivial issues. We need to face the obvious fact that a paradigm shift will be required to survive beyond this century, and that over half the people in this country don’t know what a paradigm shift is.
It is no longer true that we live in a subsistence economy. We throw out over $165 billion dollars’ worth of food every year in this country (7). That is not a subsistence economy. Congress insists on spending hundreds of millions of dollars on equipment that the military itself says it doesn’t want and can’t use (8). That is not a subsistence economy. We could feed the world tomorrow, but not while maintaining our current priorities.
We have a subsistence mentality, and we have institutions and an economy based on subsistence ideas, but the technology we have created has eliminated the need for them and is rapidly eliminating the need for what we perceive as productivity at all. The reality of our current position with regard to our planet’s well-being suggests, logically, that we can no longer afford to allow either the mentality or the institutions to govern our actions.
We need to stop talking about trivial things.
It is always easy to criticize something and point out problems without offering solutions. In this instance, no one seems to have any solutions. No one really knows what to do. Every solution creates new problems, both foreseen and unforeseen.
The one thing that is very clear, however, is that energy is the key. Eliminating the fossil fuel industry as we know it and providing the world with an abundance of clean, renewable energy is the key to survival. Not only does it take the human element out of the forces behind climate change, but it offers the best hope we have for meeting the strain that the population increase over the next half century will place on our dwindling resources. And that’s going to be inconvenient for a great many people.
It is only through creating an unending supply of easily accessible energy that we can get past the subsistence, zero-sum mentality of our current economy and create one based on what provides the most benefit to the entire population, no matter how big it may become.
It is not a long-range problem.
It’s right at the top of the wowser list.
It’s more important than the next episode of “Duck Dynasty.”
But people will have to be convinced. They will have to be educated.
Your Humble Servant,
Roger A. Shipley, The Willowbrook Curmudgeon
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