First off, let me thank Paul Haeder for his extended comment on a recent post. My heart is definitely in synch with the position he expresses, although my head is convinced that trying to sell sustainability by direct frontal assault won't work (indeed, hasn't worked). And expanding on that heart-vs-head thing . . .
Frau R recently went ballistic after reading an account of Mitt Romney's express spending priorities. "Do you have any idea how screwed our children are going to be if this idiot gets elected!?" She's a registered Democrat. I'm not -- I hate most Republicans and detest most Democrats. So my reply -- probably ill-chosen -- was to note that our kids were already pretty much screwed by the national and world situations in general; all Romney or any other candidate is likely able to do is to pick up the pace a bit.
A day or so earlier, a student at Greenback had approached me on the topic of student engagement. More specifically, why there doesn't seem to be much sustainability-related student engagement at Greenback. Initially, I just kind of tossed the question back to her -- she clearly knew more students, and knew them better, than I did. Why weren't her friends more interested in, more concerned with, more engaged on the topic of sustainability? Weren't they concerned about the predictable impacts that recent and current unsustainable behaviors are likely to have on them in the foreseeable future?
The conversation went downhill from there.
Before long, I found myself enumerating many (certainly, not all) of the ways in which we as a society have benefited the few while screwing ourselves, our descendants, and a good portion of the rest of the world:
- Climate change is not only going to make summers less comfortable and raise sea levels, it's going to promote drought, famine, mass migration, a decrease in global (not just local) food supply, pestilence, health problems (human, animal, vegetable) and an increased demand for already-scarce energy sources.
- Energy is going to be scarce because not only are we either nearing or already past peak supply of various fossil fuels, we've arranged developed societies almost as if we actually wanted them to be energy-inefficient.
- I mean, look at the way we manage (I use the term loosely) land use in the USA. We've built up an economic and a regulatory model that decreases agricultural production, increases use of chemicals and fuels (thereby increasing both water and air pollution), makes transport of goods and people inefficient, makes commerce inefficient, and makes delivery of utility services inefficient and expensive.
- And look at what passes for a food supply system in this country. It fills us up with simple carbs, unhealthy fats, calories, hormones, and antibiotics. It's inefficient except in its use of capital, it lacks resilience, it's decreasingly productive per unit area. And most of what it produces is even more devoid of nutrition than it is of flavor.
- And when our food makes us sick, where do we turn for health care? The US's "best health care system in the world" certainly isn't best for patients. Nor for taxpayers. We spend more money per capita in pursuit of health care than any other nation on the face of the earth. Yet the outcomes we achieve put us pretty much at the bottom of the list of developed nations. Indeed, lower than some less-developed nations. And then we're told that we can't afford the sort of health care that people in other developed nations get because they have "socialized medicine" which is just too expensive -- even though the US already spends as many public health care dollars per cap as does any "socialized" country, we just don't spend them as wisely. So we're left with a system that's expensive, ineffective, inefficient, unavailable to many people, and artificially controversial in terms of reproductive health care.
- The health care fiasco is just one symptom of the divide-and-conquer political mishegoss that's dominated national politics more or less forever. Constant preaching and prating has divided us by race, by class, by sex and gender and religion and a dozen other sets of artificial categories. Leveraging division for short-term political gain has left our society weakened, inflexible, empty of content.
- And that's not just on the national level. State and even local politics has been infected with gridlock and inefficacy. The opportunities for this syndrome to exert itself may be numerically greatest in the Northeast, with its long-embedded patterns of "home rule" and resulting multi-layered mosaic of governing bodies. But anywhere populist political theater draws a crowd, the story line is the same. The candidates most likely to appeal for your vote on the basis of being regular folks, genuine, salt-of-the-earth kind of people are generally the ones who make the decisions most likely to keep you face-down in well-salted (hence, totally unproductive) dirt (oops, I mean "earth").
- Where once we were a nation of citizens, now we're a nation of consumers. We consume not only bread, but also circus. The cult of celebrity most apparent in "reality TV" and YouTube videos is just consumerism with an (occasionally) pretty face and a high need for self-aggrandizement.
- So where does this leave our economy, on which the financial well-being of current and future generations largely depends? It's still based in large part on overpriced housing which creates both demand for unneeded stuff to fill the enclosed spaces and guaranteed long-term energy dependence. It's premised on maximizing the efficiency of capital rather than labor or raw materials, which pretty much guarantees that jobs will continue in short supply and pay raises will fail to keep up with inflation. It depends on consumption even in the face of declining real wages, hence on ever-increasing consumer debt. It increasingly declines to hire folks without college educations (while it sees education as almost exclusively a private good), so it pretty much guarantees ever-increasing student debt. Its most powerful players (individual and institutional) have rigged the political system so that their tax burden is low and their opportunity to lend money to the government is high, thereby pretty much guaranteeing an ever-increasing national debt. And approximately half (soon likely to be a majority) of public expenditures go to pay the costs of past, present and future military adventurism (in the past, considered a hallmark of liberal politics), a form of expenditure known to have the lowest of all possible multiplier effects.
So why aren't our students more engaged? Perhaps Lewis Lapham is right, and it's largely the cumulative effect of the interplay between technology and society. But nevertheless, I'd expect enough glowering reality to seep through into students' consciousnesses that a significant number of them should be outraged at the world they're being handed.. Enraged at the world they're being handed. Downright pissed at the shape of the world they're being handed. Mad as hell, and not going to take it any more. Insistent that pretty much every societal and industrial undertaking be managed from this point on with much, Much, MUCH more attention paid to future effects.
But that doesn't seem to be happening. And I don't know why.