Saturday, January 28, 2012

Fatal Optimism

President Obama's recent State of the Union address came across as the unveiling of a plan to reestablish the status quo, circa 1990, albeit with much better technology and natural gas replacing oil. This shouldn't have been surprising: It is his job to manage government resources to provide the social and physical infrastructure necessary for the kind of life most citizens expect to be able to have. In this, a presidential election year, he needs to at least give the impression that he's capable of doing that job better than anyone else.

Unfortunately, his vision of what's possible is out of synch with what our much-fuller and ailing world will allow. Thirty years of exponential consumption and concentration of social and economic power have sabotaged Earth's natural life support systems and society's resiliency, respectively; this is a fatal combination, since as a consequence of the former we will require a huge amount of the latter if we are to survive. The world needs to consume half as much natural resources as it does now, an amount that is one-fifth what the U.S. currently consumes. Rather than increasing the economic production and consumption of our population's majority, we should be working as hard as possible to increase the efficiency of how all of us use everything, from energy to water to minerals, resulting in a net decrease in the amount we use while increasing its ability to keep us and the rest of the world's population alive in the rapidly changing world we face.

The time for an easy transition from the life we know to something radically different is practically gone. A confluence of impending critical resource shortages and accelerating climate change are likely to force us into a much more austere lifestyle, if not a global death spiral, well within two decades. The world's population can't afford for us to waste any of that time by taking a "drill, baby, drill" stance, even if it does appear to be much more politically feasible (though improbable).

As disappointing as the president's proposals are, his political opposition has far worse ones. While he acknowledges some of the problems (such as climate change), if not their magnitude, they speak and act as if none of the problems exist at all. They are focused on taking even more of the actions that created the problems in the first place, and creating additional problems in the process.

It is tempting to just give up on the political process altogether, to try to go it alone (or at least with as many like-minded friends as we can find). However, the changes we make to ourselves must match the changes we face, and enough of us must change to keep the storm that's coming from totally overwhelming us. Such organized effort requires government, both as an enabler and as protection against the forces whose power derives from the current system and who will try to preserve that system, no matter who or what else may die as a result. Those forces specialize in squashing the most local of efforts to control personal fate, and know full well that a strong government is the best protection people have against their predations. Strong government requires political involvement and participation in the constant fight against its corruption. Meanwhile, the people must attempt to steer the government toward taking action that will truly preserve the commonwealth, and to determine that action they must also take the local actions many would prefer.

We have a big job with a short timeline, and the State of the Union just added some valuable resolution to just how far we are from achieving it.

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