This election may be the biggest rip-off of America’s democracy in recent memory.
Sure, we have choices between blue and red. Our candidates claim to offer stark ideological differences and visions for our country. Vast swaths of Americans will enthusiastically pick their man and hope for the best, and many others will swallow their disappointment and opt for the lesser evil.
But let’s be clear: when it comes to Planet Earth, our only home, we have a patently false choice.
While both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have advocated sustainable forms of energy, neither has mapped out a legitimate approach to living in a world with finite resources. In all three presidential debates, there was no mention of climate change. From a foreign policy standpoint, there was no appreciation that America’s shining example of consumption and wealth has motivated the rest of the world to try to live like us, and that our planet cannot support such habits indefinitely.
This omission points to a serious failure by our various communities of knowledge to convey to one another the gravity of our circumstances in language that each side can understand. I use the term “failure” because these presidential candidates are supposed to represent the grand sum of our country and culture to the rest of our world; that is the definition of leadership. Although both men are politicians and therefore have to evade the hard questions and sell empty promises as part of their campaigns, they are still faced with an enormously difficult job, and based on our democratic process, they are supposed to be the most qualified candidates we have.
Nevertheless, neither has consistently espoused concern or awareness for some fundamental, disturbing challenges that confront us as a species. I am not talking just about more CO2 in the atmosphere. Since 1945 alone, 11% of the earth’s vegetated surface has been degraded—an area larger than India and China combined—and per capita food production in many parts of the world is decreasing. We already consume 40% of the planet’s terrestrial net primary productivity, which renders us a more powerful force of nature than a volcanic eruption, earthquake or–you said it–a hurricane. And our influence on the biosphere is still increasing.
In fairness to President Obama, the current administration has tightened emissions standards on vehicles and has made investments (though not all that successfully) in green energy. But such action is piecemeal reform compared to the pollution we still emit for energy and transportation, the precious water we consume, the food we waste and our unsustainable demand for meat, the living space we require, and our harmful mass consumption of goods that cause extensive ecological damage in the developing world. We could do so much more, and as Mayor Bloomberg’s recent endorsement of Obama indicates, all of our elected leaders ought to take immediate, non-partisan action.
However, thanks to interest groups, the 24-hour media echo chamber, a broken primary system that favors radical fringe groups, and the compression of policy into 90-second sound bytes under the guidance of savvy political consultants, our national debates have become hopelessly warped and impractical. Such a poisonous environment does not permit a presidential contender to conduct realistic assessments of the consequences of human actions, let alone acknowledge that our single habitable home is just a “pale blue dot” in an almost infinite, inky black space. As one of the world’s biggest polluters per capita, we have a moral and practical responsibility to show our fellow man that we can and will do better if we want to leave behind a world intact for future generations of humanity. Thus far, our efforts to that end have been woeful.
What kind of pathways are realistically available to us? A recent personal visit to Washington, DC, offers some clues.
At the end of this summer, some Stanford students and I met with Mathew Burrows, a senior analyst at the National Intelligence Council (NIC). We were there as part of the CISAC thesis program, and Dr. Burrows let us examine a draft of one of his department’s most important publications, Global Trends 2030: A Transformed World. This book highlighted for policymakers the predictions that the best minds in American intelligence could put together, and it included three scenarios at the end of how the world might look: one positive, and two negative.
Of the many topics covered in each scenario, the following are relevant to this post: human population growth, resource consumption, and climate change. The most positive view predicted that the U.S., Europe, and emerging markets had managed to work together on the world’s biggest resource-sharing and environmental issues and were actively sharing technology to increase qualities of life. The human population was close to stabilizing at nine billion, and the world’s middle class had expanded significantly. The other two scenarios were much darker. One featured a more isolationist U.S. and a breakdown of negotiations over the most pressing resource-sharing and climate change issues, and another featured a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and a worldwide epidemic of a virus that had required the isolation of all of Southeast Asia due to the homogeneity of the region’s crops.
From Stanford, CA in 2012, that all may sound like pure science fiction. However, these views come from officials at the top of our intelligence community. Their predictions indicate our world faces some extraordinarily divergent paths in the next few decades, and those paths will likely be determined by the next few years.
From my perspective, we may have only one way to summon the initiative necessary to avoid one of the negative scenarios: when our predicament becomes an actual crisis. One could argue that it already has, but I disagree. The financial crisis has been deleterious and its effects are still being felt, but that crisis has not shaken the foundations of American society like the global natural disaster that awaits us. Other societies around the world are arguably in a more legitimate crisis (Spain, Greece), but their denial persists as long as the European Union holds together, and that crisis still does not address the harrowing problems we humans have created that ultimately will determine whether or not we can exist, as opposed to whether or not we have jobs and can live better than our forebears. A situation with parallels to The Day After Tomorrow just occurred across my beloved Northeast, but I doubt that even a horrific super-storm like Sandy is going to change fundamentally the way people from my home state or any other state in the region live once those states have recovered.
This view sounds rather pessimistic, so let me clarify: I do not want our existence to come down to a crisis. I would love to be proven wrong. But even growing up, I have never stopped doing something that was bad for me until I got in really big trouble, or hurt myself badly, or embarrassed myself so fully that the shame acted as a powerful deterrent. I have had positive reinforcement all along, but from my childhood, I remember best the times that I really messed up and felt compelled to change my behavior. I would be foolish to perceive myself as the grand representative of all of human behavior; nevertheless, I look at our politics, decision-making processes, and societal incentive structures, and I see a lot of self-interested players looking for the best deal and perceiving the world only out of their own narrow-minded blinders. With so much white noise in the human experience, how else can a person function?
Real change will require sacrifice, both by those who have benefitted the most from our current system of consumption and by the masses who try to live like them. To be sure, if the top 1% does not lead the way to change, we will all suffer. For every day that forces like the Koch brothers bring down a politician who dares to challenge their interests, we lose another battle in the fight to preserve our planet. Our legislature is a veritable millionaires club, and their lack of connection to the majority of the electorate has insulated them from the realities of our challenge. But we need other solutions, such as increased efficiency in our businesses and homes…if nothing else, than for the pursuit of profit and pure self-interest. We humans may not be forward-thinking enough to see the end of the world as a result of our own growth patterns, but we are more than happy to embrace efficiency if it makes our livelihoods more affordable and our businesses more profitable.
Shared sacrifice will result either from an apocalyptic crisis or a voluntary embrace of reality. As a democracy with every tool at our disposal to be well-informed and active, we ultimately get the candidates we deserve, despite the many flaws of our system that distort the democratic process. More than anything else, that is why we face such a dismal choice for 2012. At this point, the best we can do is let this election be a lesson for all future elections. For those who believe there is a real distinction between the parties, we can also elect the candidate with the greatest chance of creating a more sustainable America…I’ll leave it up to you decide whether or not such a distinction exists.
Ultimately, though, Mother Nature will cast the decisive vote on our future. As a species so far, we have run a spectacularly lackluster campaign.