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The White House / Flickr

The importance of 2℃ is difficult for the average person to see, but 2℃ was established as the point where normal economics ends and survival economics takes over.

Most Americans agree that the American political system isn’t working as well as it should. But why should we be talking about politics and culture on a site dedicated to the environment, global warming and sustainable development?

Because of a human-dominated global ecology, we now face the climate consequences of our global population and an economic system based on unregulated consumption.

American democracy is failing, taken over by special interests at the expense of public and environmental safety. To attain a sustainable future we must understand humanity’s footprint. We must consider human psychology, politics and the affairs of state in the calculus. Misguided ideologies have brought America on a trajectory where drought, water shortages, floods and extreme climate events threaten to become America’s greatest economic expense.

How did this happen?

Sinclair Lewis presciently wrote about an imagined takeover of representative democracy in America in his political novel It Can’t Happen Here. The premise is often summarized like this: When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.

Lewis’ protagonist, Buzz Windrip, appealed to voters with a mix of crass language and nativist ideology. Once elected, he energized his working-class base against immigrants and a liberal press. Often there was the suggestion of ubiquitous, unseen forces threatening local or national patriotic values.

It’s an old formula. There are variations on this theme in the archives of every despot and dictator in history. The formula lasts because it works. There are innate patterns of human psychology that allow it to work.

The least patriotic will preach patriotism. Blatant sinners will preach fundamentalism and cite the “word of God.” They will accuse those “others” of heresy and call them evil doers who worship false gods. The most greedy will make a pretense of compassion and philanthropy; the same noblesse oblige of feudal autocracy. Meanwhile, the usurpers of democracy plot to advance self-interests with deceit and lies. They cry foul and accuse those who might oppose them with spreading fake news. The accusers become the accused. When lies go free there is no truth. This sleight-of-hand tactic to advance an ideology diverts public attention with outrageous hyperbole and a Gish gallop of circular logic. Promise the moon to everyone, especially the loyal.

Meanwhile, the titans of Wall Street grab the cash in a pyramid scheme of unregulated capitalism, bonded and entirely paid for by the working classes.

The web of life is dynamic, interactive and complex. Ecological relationships aren’t always obvious at first. Ask an Inuit and they will tell you that the wolf keeps the caribou healthy. The wolf keeps an excessive caribou population from eating all the lichen, new stream-side sedges and grasses. The streams can then run cooler in the shade of richer foliage.

I’m a scientist who has looked at the ecology of sustainable development and climate change for over 30 years. I grew up in the country where it was easy to see the economic relationship between soil fertility, plant and meat production. When the weather was too wet, molds and disease might make forage unhealthy for the cattle. Cattle with weakened resistance were prone to other problems. Today, humankind marches over these living systems with a heavy foot.

America has turned away from responsible dominion. Instead of leading the world, America is tipping the balance away from sustainable development and security. Nationalism is not leadership on the world stage. It leads to borders and protectionism. President Trump recently went to the United Nations (emphasis “United”) and suggested every nation work only in their self-interest. That was not helpful in facing global issues.

America is being financed and led by a narrow group of self-interested oligarchs. Coherent policy seems to be made of vapor. Fundamental and easily verifiable facts are in direct conflict with carnival barker promises from the Bully Pulpit. Some may see President Trump as an example of the Peter Principle, but it may be far more pervasive and sinister.

Compromised politicians argue that sustainable energy development will destroy the economy and kill jobs. U.S. data simply does not support that position. Job growth in sustainable energy is substantially greater than job growth in fossil fuels. Sustainable development is thriving in Europe and so is the economy. China is spending hundreds of billions of dollars on sustainable growth and transitioning away from fossil fuels, and China’s rate of GDP growth is triple that of the U.S.

In just 15 years, Scotland, Great Britain, France and China will no longer manufacture or sell fossil-fueled cars.

The numbers simply don’t make rational sense. Cutting funding for scientific research for NOAA, NASA and EPA in 2017 might save a few billion dollars. Losing their expertise will quickly negate those gains. The science is clear; droughts, floods and extreme events are the new norm. Warmer oceans put more moisture into the air. More heat means stronger hurricanes (not necessarily more frequent), droughts, changing weather patterns, extreme weather events and floods. In 2017, the cost to the economy and disaster relief will exceed $300,000,000,000.00. 

Most conservatives admit the climate is changing, even if they don’t accept rock solid science. For some, their home states are being devastated by climate extremes. How can politicians accept that the climate is changing, causing enormous human strife and exploding FEMA debt; and at the same time defund the very agencies that investigate climate change?  The trends point clearly to losses of trillions of dollars in the next few decades.

Most of Congress consists of a wealthy, lawyer class that is immune to the disaster they sow. They don’t feel shortages or experience devastating emergencies. They do not know how a single medical bill can mean losing your home. Both sides of the aisle appear locked in a rigid and uncompromising worldview of autocratic entitlement. Both are threatened by talk of free education, healthcare as a right, the breaking up of monopolies and regulating banking (The Bernie Sanders independent platform).

A staggering 40 percent of Americans make under $22,500.00 per year. Removing The Affordable Care Act means that 40 percent would have to pay over $12,000 a year for equivalent health insurance. Which do these Americans give up, food or shelter?

Over 80 percent of homes destroyed by Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Maria were uninsured. Industries, agriculture, fisheries, and the entire ecosystem of several coastal areas will take decades to recover. There have been more major Atlantic hurricanes (Category 3 or above) in the past 50 years than in the previous 120 years (three Category 5s this year).

Forest fires rage through the west and northwest. Droughts and water shortages in the southwest cut agricultural production. Groundwater contamination and fracking threatens already reduced supplies to farmers.

The economic numbers and environmental damage just don’t support the present ideology of this Congress and Presidency. If we don’t address American politics, there is less hope for a sustainable and secure planet.

Pogo was right. That is why this environmental scientist is compelled to understand the psychology and politics of the dominant species on Earth.

W. Douglas Smith is an environmental scientist, environmental diplomat, explorer, educator and a retired Senior Compliance Investigator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked for 36 years.

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