I’ve spent a lot of time on Twitch since the pandemic started, most notably in the Pokémon GO Battle League sphere, and the phrase “Who was worried?” is a common refrain. It’s a sarcastic comment, uttered by the streamer or someone in Chat, indicating they were very much worried about the final outcome, but are jokingly playing it off as if it were never in doubt.
As far as the future of the planet and life on it is concerned, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I believe the long arc of the moral universe bends towards justice and that we will act in our best interest to avert a climate disaster. That said, am I worried? To say “no” would be a lie.
Not merely to pile on outside references, but in accounting, the term “going concern” refers to a business that will be able to meet its financial obligations and, well, survive for the foreseeable future. The presumption of going concern is fundamental to the concept of financial reporting. If a company isn’t expecting to be able to go on after a year’s time, that is, needless to say, important information for current or potential investors to know.
Planet Earth is, of course, not a business, but in terms of our ability to inhabit it for the foreseeable future, there is ample room for concern. Quite simply, we are not meeting our obligations as stewards of this big blue marble we call a home, and unfortunately, we are taking other species along with us.
As I’ve discussed in a post from last year, if our collective response to COVID is any indication, there is ample room for worry. That is, if our handling of the pandemic is to be considered a dry run for heading off a climate catastrophe, one can be forgiven for lacking confidence. Broadly speaking, in a time of great need for people, particularly those members of one or more marginalized groups, the response has been to double down on/accelerate the failed policies and systems which helped fuel our initially dilatory reaction to COVID’s spread. From a pure healthcare perspective, patient outcomes have been markedly worse for lower-class Americans and/or Americans of color.
Since the writing of that piece, the proliferation of various versions of the COVID vaccine is undoubtedly encouraging. Just the same, only about half of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. What’s more, with the rise of the Delta variant in this country, nearly every state is reporting increases in the number of cases. For all the talk of “getting back to normal” and the idea of the end of the pandemic, it feels like we are celebrating before we’ve crossed the finish line.
After all, outside of America, the COVID picture can be very different. Look at India. Look at the United Kingdom. Look at Brazil. With news of the spread of a Lambda variant in South America and elsewhere—in other words, another mutation—we’re showing that a lot of work still has to be done in terms of vaccination and of promoting behavior/policies designed to limit the spread of infectious diseases.
The degree to which COVID and climate change are interrelated, like many things surrounding this disease, is still being explored. Regarding how climate change impacts the spread of diseases like COVID, while there may not be direct evidence that climate change affects the spread, as animal habitats get destroyed, there is an increased likelihood that pathogens may be spread by different species coming into close contact. How humans raise livestock and consume meat also can contribute to the spread of infections, not to mention limiting our consumption of meat can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
As for the reverse, according to Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists devoted to researching and reporting climate change information to the general public, forced quarantines and a shift toward remote learning/work initially helped curb CO2 emissions, but an end to restrictions and a push to open things back up have all but negated those gains. While, as it must be emphasized, we would or should not encourage a deadly pandemic just to prove a point about climate change, there is a lesson to be learned about how changing how we live our lives can make a quantifiable impact. By focusing on implementing renewable energy sources and electric transportation systems, we can realize the environmental impact so many of us wish to see.
At this stage in the game, however, how we approach both COVID and climate change is not an issue of what we wish to see, but what we need to do. We’re at a tipping point for being able to ensure future generations will have a habitable planet on which to dwell, and right now, we’re not meeting our end of the bargain. Who’s worried? Me, for one, and I know I’m not alone.
If you’ve watched a nightly news program in recent weeks, you’ve probably seen the effects of accelerating and deleterious climate change. Drought. Extreme heat. Floods. Wildfires. Does climate change cause these disasters? No. We’ve had these phenomena on Earth since before the Industrial Revolution. It does make them more probable and severe, though. And it’s liable to only get worse.
As climate journalist Emily Atkin expresses in a recent post on her newsletter HEATED, it’s time for all of us to become climate activists in some shape or form. Telling the tale of Pakistani teenage climate activist Jaweria Baig, a woman who has seen the devastation of climate change in her home country and has consequently chosen the path of activism over her studies, she identifies this moment in time as an all-hands-on-deck scenario. She writes:
In more than a dozen interviews over the last two weeks, activists from across the climate movement have issued a common call to arms: If you have ever thought of becoming more involved in the fight for climate justice, it’s time to stop thinking, and start doing.
The proverbial writing is on the wall. A leaked report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed that we’re reaching environmental tipping reports sooner than expected, on top of those shifts which are beyond the point of no return. We can still meet the climate targets outlined in the Paris Agreement, but only if we significantly reduce our use of fossil fuels. This means fighting the fossil fuel industry, a collective which has lobbied and misdirected against environmental action, head on.
As Atkin stresses, even small actions on the part of individuals is needed in the interest of bigger systemic changes. Whether it’s asking Microsoft to reduce its carbon footprint by eliminating corporate flights through the use of its Teams software for meetings instead; pressuring members of Congress to support infrastructure legislation that insists on dramatic and transformational changes to benefit the environment; petitioning advertising agencies and social media platforms to stop working with fossil fuel companies/ban their ads; supporting indigenous groups opposing pipeline projects; or simply donating to causes that promote climate education rather than fossil fuel propaganda, there are contributions to be made without having to become a full-time climate activist. It’s about mobilizing people power and raising our voices to challenge those with the most power to do their part to act before it’s too late.
Atkin closes her post with these serious considerations:
Some people may read this and believe it is pointless. That we are too late. That none of it matters. The fossil fuel industry knows this is not true. Their fear of a determined, pissed off public is why they promoted campaigns of climate denial and “individual responsibility” in the first place. They knew if people were unsure about the problem, they’d waste time fighting about it instead of mobilizing to fix it. They knew if people were confused about the solution, they’d waste time trying to change themselves and each other instead of the system.
However worse the climate crisis gets now depends on how quickly society transforms. How quickly society transforms depends on how many people demand it. The most harmful lie being spread about climate change today is not that it is fake. It’s that nothing you can do can help save the world.
We all have in a stake in this, especially those of us who will still be around to see the impacts of a worsening global climate. The pandemic is an opportunity to start working together on an international basis and prepare for the bigger threat facing humanity, not to engage in tribalism and “America First” rhetoric, especially when our own human rights record and role in pollution is certainly not above reproach. If we don’t take that opportunity, the planet will survive, but our future very much is in doubt.
By now, you’re aware that Donald Trump, Melania Trump, three Republican senators, and other members of Trump’s circle have tested positive for COVID-19.
The president was hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and has since left. At this writing, though, he still seems to be pretty darn sick. It’s hard to know what to think when the White House is less than forthcoming on matters of his health and, you know, has a penchant for lying. Still, while the battle against COVID hasn’t been easy for Trump, it doesn’t appear that he will die from contracting the virus—much to the chagrin of liberals and other conscientious objectors to his presidency.
Noting how Trump and his enablers play fast and loose with the truth, some public figures, Michael Moore among the notables, suggested he could’ve been faking it, that this all could’ve been some sort of elaborate hoax. While I was not inclined to make that leap—mostly because I don’t think Trump et al. are competent enough to orchestrate something like that—I could pardon those dabbling in conspiracy theories, especially after the utter debacle that was the first (and hopefully last) presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
If you watched the debate, I’m sorry for your sake, though I suppose there’s some solidarity to be had in the shared pain we experienced. At only 90 minutes, it still felt too long, and watching with other leftists, we felt a communal longing for some sort of drug to make the proceedings more bearable.
If you skipped the debate to watch something with more redeeming value like, say, playoff baseball or paint drying, what was so bad about it? Well, dear reader, let’s delve into it, though I warn you, it’s not for the faint of heart.
The dashes on the transcript denote stops and starts
Before we even to get to the topics raised by moderator Chris Wallace of FOX News fame, let’s address the prevailing theme of the night: crosstalk. There was an untold number of interruptions during this debate, mostly on the part of Mr. Trump, and when he did insert himself in the conversation, it was usually for the purpose of digressing or redirecting the discussion in some disingenuous way.
Mr. Biden, though not rattled by Trump’s disregard for debate convention, was clearly irritated by it, referring to his opponent as a “clown” at one point and asking him point blank to “shut up, man.” If any children were watching, they certainly did not receive a lesson on how to interact with others in a respectful way.
Re the Notorious A.C.B. (yes, some people are trying to make that a thing)
With that behind us, let’s get to the, ahem, substance of the debate. Wallace’s first question got right to the topic on the minds of many: the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.
Trump, speaking first, basically defended her nomination by saying that Republicans won and they had every right to fill that seat. He then stuck his tongue out and made antlers with his hands, waving his fingers in an instigative manner.
Biden, in his rebuttal, replied that the American people should have a say on how that vacant seat is filled by who they elect to be president and vice president. He didn’t really iterate why Coney Barrett’s nomination was wrong insomuch as he speculated what doom her confirmation might mean for the Affordable Care Act and the precedent set by Roe v. Wade (and deservedly so).
Trump and Biden then basically quibbled on how many millions of Americans would be disadvantaged by the other’s health plan until Wallace finally and mercifully moved onto the next topic.
Let’s talk about our crappy healthcare plans that aren’t Medicare for All
With the ACA already on the lips of the combatants, the moderator pivoted to their healthcare plans. Starting again with Trump, Wallace asked the Republican Party nominee, like, do you have a plan? Trump, taking umbrage was all, of course, I have a plan: lower drug prices. Apparently, that’s it. Cheaper drugs.
Biden wasn’t off the hook either. Wallace followed his pointed inquiry of Trump by asking the Democratic nominee why his public option wouldn’t destroy private insurance. Biden responded by saying that the public option would only be for those people who qualify for Medicaid. Trump tried to say that Biden was in cahoots with Bernie Sanders and his socialized (!) medicine, but Biden inferred that because he beat Bernie in the primary, he couldn’t be promoting such a plan. Because that’s how that works.
Trump replied by saying “Obamacare” is a disaster and that premiums are too high. Biden, in a nod to Wallace’s original question, pointed out that Trump still doesn’t have a healthcare plan. Trump countered by babbling on about the individual mandate and not wanting to be blamed for running a bad healthcare plan and wanting “to help people.” Evidently, that is why he killed the individual mandate and wants to tear the ACA down with nothing to replace it. Are you following? Good. Now please explain it to me.
On handling COVID-19, which totally has no relevance to Trump having to go to the hospital whatsoever
“Why should the American people trust you more than your opponent to deal with this public health crisis going forward?”
This was the question Chris Wallace posed to the debaters, and Joe Biden was up first. Biden, to his credit, gave a solid answer, though give Donald Trump an assist for, well, doing a terrible job. A key highlight was Biden’s attention to Trump’s admission that he knew how serious a threat COVID represented back in February, but that he downplayed the danger. Now, more than half a year later, his administration still doesn’t have a plan.
Trump, apparently of the opinion that more than 200,000 dead Americans is a great success, extolled his decision to close off travel from mainland China—a move that critics judged to be late in coming and haphazard at that. He went on to further toot his own horn, carrying on about how Dr. Anthony Fauci and various Democratic governors said he did a “phenomenal job.” I’m not sure who these governors are, but if they did feed Trump’s ego, they probably just said that so they would actually get the relief they requested.
From there, Wallace turned to talk of a COVID-19 vaccine and its potential availability. Faced with the insistence of CDC head Robert Redfield that a vaccine would not be widely available until summer of next year, Trump professed that, per companies like Johnson & Johnson and Moderna, a vaccine will be ready “very soon.” Biden was all, like, yeah, right, you dum-dum. And Trump was all, like, your college grades sucked. Really. He talked about Biden’s academic performance while in college. Because that’s relevant now.
Because this is 2020, the year without joy, even more about coronavirus
To reopen or not reopen? That is the question.
Trump said yes, citing hurting businesses, and expressed the belief that Democratic governors refusing to open their states back up are playing politics, intentionally hurting the economy to make him look bad. Biden, meanwhile, said no, not without a plan and without the money for PPE and sanitization measures.
Trump then said, well, Joe, why don’t you talk to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer? And Biden said, shush (literally, he asked if Trump would “shush for a minute”), if you listened to them, you might actually know what you’re doing. Biden, as we all know, sternly opposed to malarkey over the course of the campaign, was having none of it.
Following the shushing, Wallace steered the conversation to the topic of masks and rallies. Trump was all, like, masks? Masks? I love masks! If I need to wear a mask, I do! Right now, I don’t need one. That guy over there, though? He’s kind of a mask freak, if you ask me. And Biden was all, like, masks and social distancing save lives.
Which is when Wallace interceded on the subject of campaign events, underscoring the different approaches these men have taken. And Trump was all, like, hey, man, my supporters are packed together, but I have my rallies outside. Ol’ Sleepy Joe doesn’t hold big rallies because he can’t get anyone to attend. And Biden was, like, nuh-uh. And Trump was, like, yuh-huh. If it seems like I’m being hyperbolic, I am exaggerating, of course, but only to an extent. Many of these exchanges were childish, especially on Donald “My Rallies Are Bigger Than Yours” Trump’s part.
The point at which Trump was probably very glad the debate shifted to the economy
“You gotta open the states up. It’s not fair. You’re talking about almost like being in prison.”
So said Mr. Trump, who, if he actually had to spend time in prison, might not be so apt to use that metaphor. The debate shifted toward talk of the economy, with Wallace asking each candidate to explain their concept of the recovery, whether as a V-shaped recovery (Trump) or a K-shaped recovery (Biden).
In Trump’s mind, he was instrumental in building the world’s greatest economy—and then came along the “China plague.” No, seriously, he called it that. Now Joe Biden wants to shut down the economy. And what will that do? Depression! Divorce! Alcoholism! Drugs! Look, I care about the people. Let’s open things back up.
Amtrak Joe from Scranton, PA, on the other hand, spoke to the existence of a K-shaped recovery in which millionaires and billionaires have made hundreds of billions since the start of the COVID crisis and small-town, working-class Americans have felt the pinch. Also, that guy only paid $750 in taxes. The nerve!
Trump, taken aback by such an accusation, insisted he paid millions of dollars in taxes in the first two years of his presidency. Biden responded by asking, well, can we see your tax returns? And Trump was all, like, welllllllll, these are very complicated returns. And then Wallace chimed in to the effect of come on, dude, tell us how much you paid in taxes in 2016 and 2017. And Trump was all, like, I just told you: millions. Besides, don’t blame me for the tax code. Blame Senator/VP Biden over there, he’s the worst.
Biden said, no, you’re the worst.
Chris Wallace then smacked his head repeatedly on the table, whereupon he blacked out briefly before regaining consciousness and continuing to moderate the debate.
More on taxes, because nothing gets Americans fired up like talk about the tax code
Wallace moved to asking Biden whether his proposed tax increases for high earners would hurt the economy. And Biden, seemingly waiting for the chance, started unveiling his economic plan. Whereupon Mr. Wallace sprayed Biden in the face with water, shouting, “Taxes, Mr. Vice President! Taxes!” Biden, newly reoriented, vowed to raise the corporate tax rate. Trump countered by professing that when he lowered taxes, the economy boomed. BOOMED!
That was when Wallace smugly drew from a freshly-lit cigarette, paused for a moment, smiled, turned to Trump, and said, “Actually, Mr. President—Obama’s economy was better.” And Trump was all, like, the f**k did you just say to me? And Biden, with a twinkle in his eye, was all, like, you heard the man! And Trump was all, like, let’s talk about Hunter and Burisma. And Biden was all, like, you’re full of beans! And then the moderator blew an air horn, signaling the end of the segment, while Biden got his brass knuckles ready, silently and unobtrusively.
The segment in which a bunch of old white guys talk about race
“Why should voters trust you, rather than your opponent, to deal with the race issues facing this country over the next four years?”
Such was the question posed to Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Biden, answering first, spoke vaguely of equity, equality, and decency. (If you had “decency” on your presidential debate Bingo card, you can mark that space off now.) He, unlike his opponent, did not try to “both sides” the events at Charlottesville. He did not authorize the use of tear gas against peaceful protestors so he could have a photo op.
Trump responded by—look, I could tell you what he said, but it’s a bunch of nonsense. He’s supported by law enforcement (not helping your cause, bub). Biden’s a tool of the “radical left.” (Does anyone have a Bingo yet?) The people want law and order. Sleepy Joe’s afraid. Are you going to cry, Joe? Huh? Are you going to cry? Waaaaah!
Wallace then steered the discussion to the Breonna Taylor case and none of the officers involved being charged with homicide, asking Biden if there is a separate and unequal system of justice for blacks in America. And Biden was all, like, duh! Biden, to be clear, called for accountability for police who have done wrong but prefaced this by saying that there are “some bad apples” among the bunch. He conveniently ignores the idea that, as the saying goes, a few bad apples spoil the bunch, but we wouldn’t want to upset the men and women in blue, would we?
Trump fired back all, like, so you’re cool with looting and rioting and burning things down? And Wallace was all, not so fast, bruh. You directed federal agencies to end racial sensitivity training. To which Trump replied, “Because bruh, that shit is racist!” And Wallace was all, like, WTF, mate? And Biden, unprompted, tearfully recalled the prejudice he felt as a young Irish Catholic boy in Scranton. Tired. Poor. Yearning to breathe free. Biden then lifted his lamp beside the golden door. America.
And then—sigh—this went on for another eight minutes. I’ll give you some quick notes. Wallace asked about the increase in homicides this summer, which Trump again tried to blame on Democratic leaders, except that it has happened in Republican-led jurisdictions too. Wallace asked about “reimaging policing” and Black Lives Matter, and Biden started talking about community policing, but that got sublimated into arguments about who was or wasn’t calling for defunding the police and who would or wouldn’t hold violent offenders accountable. Oh, and fun times, Trump refused to explicitly condemn the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group. Cool, cool.
Oh, wow—they’re actually talking about climate change
Yes—this happened! Wallace, recounting Trump’s greatest hits, so to speak, on the subject of the environment (arguing against the influence of climate change on the wildfires in the West, pulling out of the Paris Agreement, rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations), asked the president what he believes on this subject matter. Trump answered with his usual word vomit, blaming California for not managing its forests better and not really addressing the issue at hand.
Wallace, it should be noted, pressed Trump on why, if he truly believes in the science on climate change, he would roll back standards published during Barack Obama’s tenure. Trump, saying the thinking part out loud, justified his actions with the lower upfront price tag associated with certain types of energy. Because who needs a planet to enjoy those savings, amirite?
Biden, when confronted with Trump’s insistence that ending the use of fossil fuels and reaching zero net emission of greenhouse gases would tank the economy, rejected his rival’s position, emphasizing how a commitment to renewable energy would create jobs, not cost them. It would also save money currently spent on disaster relief by mitigating the damage done by the effects of climate change. Alas, when Trump tried to pin the spooky, scary socialist Green New Deal on Biden, Biden flatly rejected any allegiance to that framework. But hey, this line of questioning was more than I could’ve hoped for from this debate before it began.
Trump doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase “election integrity”
“How will you reassure the American people that the next President will be the legitimate winner of this election?”
Oh, boy—that’s a doozy. Biden was up first and basically rambled his way to an exhortation of the public to vote. As for Trump, well, he—sigh. He said, in his rambling way, that there is going to be “a fraud like you’ve never seen” and that the election is “rigged.” You know, presumably, unless he wins.
After a brief interlude in which Biden waxed philosophical on potential involvement by the courts, expressing his concern that any court would be invoked at all, especially a Supreme Court with the likes of Amy Coney Barrett on it, Wallace dropped the question on the minds of many: “Will you pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified?” Trump did not. Biden did.
I referred to this debate earlier as a debacle. Other critics were even less charitable. Dana Bash of CNN notably referred to it as a “shit show”—on live TV, no less. Her colleague Jake Tapper called it “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.” Man, these CNN personalities are so dang colorful with their metaphors!
As one might imagine, some critical responses would seem to carry more weight than others. Professional lunkhead Sean Hannity seemed to relish a format that was more pugilistic than political. Journalist/author Jill Filipovic, meanwhile, grew nostalgic for the days when Hillary Clinton was the Democratic nominee, wishing she could’ve been the one to tell Donald Trump to shut up. #feminism
Regardless of who won—if you ask me, it was Biden in a landslide, carrying the day by not self-destructing—the whole affair was an ugly one. At one point, Chris Wallace had to reproach the Republican Party nominee for not adhering to the rules established for the debate. At another point, Trump went after Hunter Biden for personal issues he faced while Biden mourned the loss of his other son, Beau. If that’s not ghoulish behavior, I don’t know what is.
In all, the first presidential debate was widely panned, including its moderator’s performance. In deference to Mr. Wallace, however, I don’t know how much he could’ve done anyway. He didn’t have a gavel to bang or the ability to mute Trump’s microphone when he violated the rules. The man’s a reporter, not a miracle worker.
At the end of the day, President Trump’s health is still the biggest story of the past week and change. The disastrous parade of interruptions and digressions that was this debate, however, shouldn’t get buried, for it was an insult to the American people. We, the American people, deserve better, and sick or not, Trump deserves the lion’s share of blame for how it turned out.
If you think the ongoing global pandemic is bad, wait until I tell you our planet is hurtling toward an environmental disaster.
It’s been about two weeks or so since Americans across the United States have been hunkering down en masse to try to limit the spread of coronavirus, and in that time, numerous people have made the connection between confronting the wrath of COVID-19 and addressing the deleterious effects of climate change on our planet. In a recent piece for the Los Angeles Times, energy writer Sammy Roth outlines what a coronavirus-like response to the climate crisis would look like.
Roth’s article is not a strict explanation of what large-scale future intervention to tackle the climate emergency would entail, but rather a compendium of responses from activists, clean energy company executives, energy advisers, legal experts, organizers, researchers, and scientists. The following are some of the common observations made between the eight authorities surveyed for the piece:
Science is important
As it turns out, studying and working within scientific frameworks tends to lead to better outcomes because people tend to understand things. (Who knew!) It can’t be emphasized enough that listening to scientists and placing value on medical/scientific consensus is of critical value to our survival.
Much as epidemiologists had been sounding the alarm about the havoc a global pandemic could wreak prior to coronavirus becoming an imminent threat across the world, the vast majority of the scientific community has been sounding the alarm on climate change, warning that drastic action needs to be taken to avert a catastrophe, assuming anything we do now will be enough.
These people know their stuff, to put it mildly. It’s time to put them front and center in helping marshal an appropriate public response to looming disaster.
Emergency responses need to address systemic flaws, not just the symptoms
There are obvious clear and present dangers concerning COVID-19 and its symptoms. Older individuals are particularly vulnerable herein, but younger adults not only can be carriers, but can be killed outright as a result of infection. We’re talking 30s, 40s, and younger with no co-morbidities. In other words, even if you’re not a senior or an infant and in good health, you could die from this disease. It’s a sobering thought.
Even for those who haven’t been directly impacted by COVID-19’s ravages, however, the ripple effect is no less substantial. With widespread closures of businesses and public gatherings effected in attempts to “flatten the curve,” the economy has plunged into a tailspin, resulting in record numbers of Americans filing for unemployment and otherwise unable to meet their obligations, esp. on the medical and homeowner/rent side of things. Fears of recession are giving way to resignation that this is an inevitability.
Our coronavirus response, lacking as it has been, has laid bare the holes in the social safety net that have been visible as cracks leading up to this current precarious state. Accordingly, any substantive approach to handling the climate crisis must involve provisions like guaranteed paid sick leave, jobs, and livable wages for workers, not to mention affordable and reliable health care for all. In addition, and with high relevance to investment in “green” solutions to public dilemmas, infrastructure-based solutions to transportation and utilities shortfalls will be essential to meeting the needs of everyday people.
Act early and in solidarity
As of this writing, the United States is number one in presumptive COVID-19 cases in the world. That’s a rather dubious achievement and owes much to evidence Donald Trump and his administration were aware of the nature of the coronavirus threat and the potential scope of the problem as early as January but failed to act in deference to this forewarning. Reports suggest, moreover, that pandemic response protocols were either in place or suggested, but that President Trump and Co. ignored the risks and did not take the exercise seriously.
As Shane Skelton, former energy adviser to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan observes, “Confronting a crisis is far more difficult and expensive when it’s already on your doorstep.” Preventive measures will thus mitigate our losses, and following our reaction to the spread of coronavirus, he proposes that we use federal stimulus money to address shortcomings in clean energy infrastructure.
Alongside proactive measures to confront the climate crisis, the reality is that we’ll also need to work together to achieve ambitious goals. This includes young and old alike making lifestyle changes to benefit the other’s welfare, demanding policy with teeth from our lawmakers and other political figures, and pressuring industry leaders to commit to carbon taxing and other forms of remediation specifically designed to limit emissions and curb our reliance on non-renewable fuel sources and products.
As these past two weeks have illustrated through approval of trillions of dollars of stimulus spending by Congress and a loan injection into short-term markets by the Federal Reserve, what is lacking for progressive solutions to economic and societal problems to succeed is not the money to do so, but the political will. To the extent we can influence corporations and officials to act in the public interest, we are responsible too.
You might have guessed that while America’s theoretical climate change response might be modeled on how we’ve engaged the current global pandemic, the topics are more intertwined than we might otherwise realize.
As Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, a national organizer for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action cited in Sammy Roth’s article explains, a warmer planet is more conducive to the spread of disease, particularly because it makes Earth more hospitable to insects like mosquitoes that are known disease transmitters. In turn, a hotter planet with reduced air quality could force more people inside akin to what people are encouraged to do now to avoid spreading coronavirus. These matters are related.
The connection between infectious disease and climate change becomes all the more apparent when examining possible origins of novel coronavirus and its rapid proliferation across states, regions, and international lines. In a piece for CNN by Nick Paton Walsh and Vasco Cotovio, while bats are potentially a source for the coronavirus as pathogen carriers that possess specialized immune systems based on their level of activity, humans’ destruction of natural habitats and people spreading out and moving from place to place faster than ever have brought our species closer together, exposing us to diseases normally only found in bats or among other animal groups. Perhaps most significantly, infected bats may be more likely to shed viruses when they are stressed. This may occur in situations such as when they are hunted, their habitat is destroyed, or they are held captive in markets.
What does all this suggest, to Paton Walsh and Cotovio? Bats are not to blame for coronavirus. Humans are. By this token, we need to reassess how we care for our planet. Deforestation, exploitation of animal species, and faster travel have made life convenient in many respects for us, but these changes come at a cost. COVID-19 may be but the tip of the iceberg regarding the ill effects of climate change. Other infectious diseases may be just around the corner and harder to fight, at that.
Amid the world’s collective response to the global pandemic, there are signs of encouragement as well as reasons for concern. Sure, our self-consciousness is high now and platitudes conveying the notion “we are all in this together” are pervasive. What happens when things return to relative normalcy, though? And what about the bad actors undeterred by apocalyptic conditions? The Trump administration has used the current emergency as a pretext for further rolling back environmental protections and for moving ahead with slashing CDC funding once more. If how America handles the climate crisis in the coming years is anything like how it’s dealing with coronavirus, we may be in for a world of trouble.
Clearly, political leadership at various levels of government will have to accept responsibility for ensuring Earth is habitable for decades to come and longer, and that includes holding countries and corporations liable for putting profit over the public welfare. We have a say in this, too, however, and not just with respect to whom we vote for, though that is significant.
As it must be stressed, few would or should wish a plague like COVID-19 on the world’s population. In rising to this challenge, on the other hand, we can observe the clear silver lining to be found: that we might be better prepared to do so the next time, when it counts even more. Some data obtained from this early quarantining points to a reduction in emissions as a direct result of behavioral changes. Let’s hope more of us make this connection and that it jump-starts a movement to foster a more equitable and sustainable world for all.
On behalf of the billionaires of the United States of America, I would like to request that you, the reader, refrain from any talk of a wealth tax or tax increase on the super-rich.
While we’re at it, you should abandon all notions of supporting the Green New Deal or Medicare for All. None of this is politically feasible, and what’s more, you’d be taxing job creators, thereby hurting employment and the U.S. economy. In other words, just go back to enjoying the status quo.
You big meanies.
Dispensing with that bit of pretense, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pretty sick and tired of billionaires telling us what we can and can’t do in a political sense and why taxing them “to the hilt,” to borrow their verbiage, is so blatantly unfair.
The intertwined issues of personal finances, wealth, and taxation have gained new resonance with the entry of Michael Bloomberg into the 2020 presidential race. Evidently, having one billionaire on the Democratic side of things already (Tom Steyer) isn’t enough.
Also, there’s the matter of safeguarding certain ideologies. With progressives Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders more than relevant in the Democratic primary and Joe “I Got Along Fine with Segregationists” Biden not the sure bet to win the nomination that some establishment Dems might have envisioned at the start of his candidacy, Bloomberg’s late-start bid can be seen as the last gasp of old-guard centrists trying to cement their place in the American political landscape. You know, unless Hillary Clinton jumps in too, which in that case, just go ahead, shoot me, and be merciful. I just don’t think I can bear to watch that a reprise of that fiasco.
Because money equates to power and political influence, Bloomberg is not the only billionaire who is wont to gripe about plans to claw back dollars from the super-rich or lament Sen. Warren’s ascendancy in polls and have media outlets ready to listen. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, when recently asked about Warren’s proposed “ultra-millionaire tax,” joked about how much he’d have left under such a policy. Gates also highlighted how much he has already paid in taxes as well as given in a philanthropic sense, effectually debating whether or not a tax hike might depress charitable contributions.
All kidding aside, Gates realistically has more money than he or his family will ever need. The notion Warren’s tax plan or that of any similar framework could jeopardize his finances or his ability to donate is absurd. What’s yet worse is his response or lack thereof to a question about whether he would vote for Donald Trump’s re-election over Warren or any other Democratic candidate. For someone who has slammed Trump and his policies in the past, Gates appears to be putting his money where his critical mouth and thinking should be. The result is not a good one.
Before Gates cracked wise about being placed into a whole new tax bracket, there was former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who not only has similarly derided Warren’s ultra-millionaire tax as “ridiculous,” but once had visions of a presidential run dancing in his head as he went on a promotional book tour. Schultz’s “run” ended before it began, seemingly generating more scorn than praise from the general public. Hell, the man didn’t even make it past September.
Schultz’s decision to mount or not mount a campaign certainly garnered a lot of media attention prior to his opting for the latter, however, if for no other reason than the existential dread which accompanied the possibility, even if remote, that he might vie for president as an independent. And while he may have been heckled at stops on his tour and ratioed on Twitter, news of his political contemplation made the rounds on cable news and in major newspapers in much more favorable terms.
His both-sides-ing of Democrats and Republicans despite the GOP harboring honest-to-goodness white supremacists earned him not condemnation, but a platform by which to dispense his ridiculous comparisons. As it does too often these days, the world of political punditry largely failed to diagnose Schultz’s shortcomings prior to his abandonment of his aspirations for the time being. Though if you’ve been paying attention to the Bret Stephenses and the Donny Deutsches of the world, this may come as no great shock to you.
Which brings us now to Michael Bloomberg, presidential candidate, who has derided the GND as “pie-in-the-sky,” has insisted M4A will “bankrupt the country,” and who possesses a—shall we say—complicated political legacy dating back to his time as mayor of New York City, including but not limited to his repeated switches away from and later back toward the Democratic Party, his push to extend the city’s term limits law so he could serve a third term in office, and his support for much-criticized policies such as stop-and-frisk. In many respects, he appears to be out of step with his chosen party of the moment, not to mention prospective Democratic voters.
Try telling to this to the talking heads at MSNBC, however. In an on-air segment shortly after Bloomberg’s filing to get his name on the Alabama Democratic primary ballot, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd rather nauseatingly argued that Bloomberg is not only a “serious contender,” but is among the more progressive candidates on the core issues appealing to leftists. Bernie Sanders already had fired shots at Bloomberg’s candidacy, saying that the former NYC mayor “ain’t gonna buy this election.” Tom Steyer, fellow billionaire, suggested Bloomberg should agree to the idea of a wealth tax if he were serious about running for president. Todd’s own panel guests didn’t even seem to be buying this analysis.
And yet, here was Todd, trying to make the case for Bloomberg because of his, um, supposed appeal to suburban Republicans? While I’m all for Chuck Todd embarrassing himself on live television, these talking points do nothing but insult the intelligence of the viewer. Michael Bloomberg is a “serious” candidate because of his personal finances. End of story. He may have better electoral prospects than his successor, Bill de Blasio, but that’s not saying much considering de Blasio (who doesn’t believe Bloomberg should be running in the first place, by the by) ended his run not long after Howard Schultz suspended his ill-fated quest for glory in 2020. In an era in which the status quo is being scrutinized and flat-out rejected, Bloomberg seems like a prototypical bad candidate. All this before we get to his past comments on women and alleged inappropriate conduct toward them, which make him look like the center-left’s version of Trump. This is who Democratic Party supporters should back?
Ah, but this is what privilege looks like. It affords you ample opportunity to publicly lament the concept of a wealth tax and have other people give you free press and do your dirty work trying to convince the public of your legitimacy for you. It gives you a ticket to the dance without having to do any of the hard work of building a political profile or raising the funds to mount a campaign. It lets you create a toxic work environment that encourages the open objectification of female employees and emboldens male leadership to make sexual advances and inappropriate comments with impunity. The potential loss of this privilege and criticism of the above may be interpreted by people like Bloomberg as unfairness. But it’s a bit of the scales tipping in the other direction—and perhaps they haven’t tipped quite far enough yet.
For a progressive like myself, what is so frustrating about the existence of presidential wannabes like Michael Bloomberg and Howard Schultz—aside from the notion they are glaring examples of why we need to get big money out of politics—is that they only serve to amplify the voices of other centrists like them, making the case to Americans that there is no way we can achieve the kinds of policies the Bernie Sanderses and Elizabeth Warrens of the world envision. They’re too unrealistic. They’d be a disaster for the country. They’re akin to the pony that children ask for for their birthdays or Christmas. You’re not a child, are you, prospective voter?
Presumably, Bloomberg and Schultz are smart men. They might be prone to delusions of grandeur, mind you, but who isn’t from time to time? But yes, this is why their take on issues like the environment and health care are so disappointing. If someone like Bloomberg is such a visionary leader, why can’t he think of a way to make initiatives like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All work?
For that matter, why can’t other moderates see the light? In mathematics, students are taught to work backwards to solve problems. Sure, the potential solutions for the United States might be more complex than with a sixth-grader’s homework. The mechanism, though, is the same. Before saying no to an idea, why not play around with it? What meaningful societal advancement has ever arisen from defeatist capitulation?
The obvious complication herein, of course, is that Bloomberg and others may be aware of how to work to solve these problems, but actively choose to ignore these avenues. Then again, maybe they simply are blinded by a mindset that refuses to let them envision the full range of possibilities. One might argue that there are no conditions by which men like Bloomberg and Schultz could appreciate the big picture. They are so far removed from what life is like for average Americans they simply can’t acknowledge their situations.
Sure, this critique can be leveled at politicians of all make and model to a lesser or greater degree; Bernie supporter that I am, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that he is a millionaire in his own right on the strength of his book sales. For the likes of these billionaires, however, it rings especially true. What’s more, it can’t be ruled out that they aren’t panning Elizabeth Warren’s ultra-millionaire tax out of self-serving interest. Even when they have more money than God like Bill Gates does.
Could Michael Bloomberg make an impact on the 2020 presidential race? Perhaps. Is he what America needs, though? No, and you can bet Donald Trump is licking his chops at the prospect of facing him in the general election. Democrats, there’s too much at stake to entertain thoughts of what President Bloomberg might do for the country.
It’s hard not to be impressed with climate activist Greta Thunberg. Well, that is, unless you’re a climate change denier.
In that case, her clarion call to stronger action apparently gives you carte blanche to call her all sorts of names and demean her, a girl of 16 with Asperger’s syndrome. Because, evidently, that’s what adults do.
Take Rich Lowry of National Review, who insists we not listen to Thunberg because she is a “pawn” who, as a kid, has “nothing interesting to say to us.” Or Kentucky governor Matt Bevin, who panned Thunberg as “remarkably ill-informed,” despite being an abject blockhead who, among other things, tried to advance the notion his constituents were being “soft” for wanting to close schools despite dangerously low temperatures in his state. Or conservative commentator Michael J. Knowles, who dismissed Thunberg as “mentally ill” amid his ranting against the left’s “climate hysteria” during a recent FOX News segment. When your fellow, ahem, FOX News contributors are admonishing you for your conduct, you know you’re behaving badly.
Even President Donald Trump, never one to shy away from a war of words, mocked Thunberg’s warning of widespread suffering, death, ecological collapse, and mass extinction in the service of maintaining the bottom line of the world’s wealthy, tweeting, “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”
Under usual circumstances, we might look at a sitting president taking a sarcastic jab like this at a young woman and consider it an instance of punching down. But this is 2019 and that president is Trump, a man-baby who wouldn’t know decorum if it were dressed like Frederick Douglass and bit him on the ass. On a maturity level, he’s punching at eye level—if not looking up at Thunberg.
What’s telling in all of these responses—aside from the fact these are all older men talking down to a younger female—is their utter lack of substance. Lowry pivots to talk of a declining global poverty rate and an increase in life expectancy, professing that today’s youth will have ample resources and technology to deal with tomorrow’s problems. These trends say nothing about the actual state of the climate crisis, though, and seriously undercut the urgency of Thunberg’s and others’ messaging. Gov. Bevin has already disqualified himself from discussion of climate change and weather patterns by virtue of his callous “kids are too soft” rhetoric. Trump speaks in the sarcastic, dismissing tone of a bully. Again, no mention of the scientific consensus surrounding the warming of the planet and humans’ role in contributing to it. Not that I totally grasp the science behind it, but you can bet Trump doesn’t get it.
And Knowles’s deflection on the subject of Thunberg’s supposed “mental illness” is uniquely loathsome. Asperger’s syndrome is a neurodevelopmental disability. This diagnosis does not imply, however, that Thunberg is mentally or intellectually incapable of understanding the threat the planet faces; in fact, while acknowledging it makes her “different,” she nonetheless has referred to it as “her superpower,” Going back to Lowry’s discussion of technological advances, Thunberg, like many students her age, has access to untold stores of information regarding climate change. She has done her homework. Knowles evidently wasn’t paying attention the day they addressed global warming in class—that or he was and he simply chose not to believe it.
This, presumably, is why self-professed climate “skeptics”—which is a funny way of saying “climate change deniers,” but we’re all prone to euphemisms from time to time—feel the need to attack one teenage girl with such acrimony. She represents an existential threat of a different kind: that of a rebuke to their insufficient explanations and ad hominem attacks. Thunberg and other concerned youths like her are smarter, better-informed, and, frankly, more well-liked than them. Lowry et al. cater to a conservative crowd characterized by a rapidly-shrinking demographic. Thunberg et al. have a growing worldwide audience fueled by worsening planetary conditions. The former group knows this is and is clearly scared of the latter group. They should be.
Such is why musings on Thunberg playing the part of the impetuous child pawn or the hysterical individual ring hollow. As Thunberg herself underscored in her latest impassioned speech to world leaders, she should’ve been in school, not telling the world’s so-called “elites” to do their job as responsible stewards for a planet on the brink of catastrophe. When the adults behave and think like children, however, the kids apparently have no choice but to fill the grown-ups’ void.
Greta Thunberg is not the only young activist to be sounding the alarm on the climate crisis facing Earth. This article on Mashable identifies five other climate activists who are making an impact beyond their communities and who haven’t even reached 20 years of age. Twice as old as them in some cases, I feel all the more unaccomplished and unproductive by proxy. Gee, thanks, kids! In all seriousness, I am glad these kids and young adults are sounding the alarm on an issue that demands immediate, substantive action and for which ego and strict geographical boundaries (i.e. “They are the biggest polluters, not us!”) should have no bearing.
For men like Donald Trump, Matt Bevin, Michael Knowles, and Rich Lowry, however, they clearly don’t share the same sense of gratitude, and I wonder exactly why. Are they beholden to the designs of the fossil fuel lobby and thereby compelled to help spread its disinformation? Do they go against the consensus as a means of making a name for themselves and despite what they truly believe? Do they loathe these teens as a function of generational distrust and reflexively refuse to value their ideas as the products of attention-seeking and entitlement?
On the last count, I feel as if, owing to preconceived notions about young people’s character, they should be celebrating these children for being so outspoken and politically active. These kids aren’t spending too much time on their phone or playing video games all day. They’re making an impact by raising awareness of a critical issue facing our planet. This is a good thing, right?
It is, unless you’re a conservative/Republican whose influence is predicated by and large on dissuading younger, smarter people (especially women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and every intersection therein) from political involvement. These men must sense that a cultural shift is underway, one which challenges their absolute authority and which makes their proverbial place in the sun (getting hotter with the passing years) not the guarantee it once was. Simply put, we don’t need them. That must shake them and their regressive outlooks to their core.
So, armed with faulty science, they resort to the kind of name-calling you witnessed earlier. Greta Thunberg is a pawn. A brat. A mental case. If you’re especially an asshole who somehow got elected to the highest office in the United States, a very happy young girl. Such are the tactics of schoolyard bullies, not adults. They should shut up, get out of the way, and let the real adults get to work.
There’s so many crises around the world, it can be genuinely difficult to know where to start. In many respects, we’re still recovering from a global financial crisis (and may well be on our way to another one). On a related note, the United States economy is saddled by debt. Medical debt. Credit card debt. Student loan debt. Homeowner debt. Debt, debt, debt. And this is all before we get to the national debt. Guns and school shootings. Opioids. Housing crises. Water crises. Humanitarian crises. It’s a wonder more of us don’t spend our lives in a state of constant crisis—not to mention there’s a mental health crisis facing many Americans.
With so much to worry about, there wouldn’t seem to be much room for anything else, and yet, we still haven’t mentioned potentially the biggest crisis of them all: the climate crisis. I’m not even going to get into the debate about whether or not we’re contributing to climate change. If you choose to ignore an overwhelming consensus within the scientific community, that’s your business. You can decry my liberal bias and skip past this piece, no hurt feelings.
If, like myself, you do accept that we’re hastening the warming of the planet and the degradation of habitats across the globe, then there’s an aspect to global pollution that deserves its fair share of attention. I’m talking about the plastic pollution crisis, especially as it pertains to the world’s oceans.
In terms of what we need to do to avert a climate catastrophe—assuming too much damage hasn’t already been done—while not to dismiss recycling and cleaning beaches and rivers and such, it’s clear that these efforts alone will not suffice when addressing this issue. Dame Ellen MacArthur, retired professional yachtswoman and one-time record holder of the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe, and thus someone very familiar with the seas and their condition, is one of the many voices who recognizes this state of affairs.
In a recent op-ed piece, MacArthur details the gravity of the plastic pollution situation. The reality is indeed grim.
In the few minutes it will take you to read this article, another five truckloads of plastic will have been dumped in the ocean. The consequences of this are far-reaching, and evidence is growing that people around the world are ingesting microplastics through their food and drinking water. We have reached a point where even the air we breathe can contain plastic, and if we fail to act, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
“More plastic than fish?” That doesn’t sound particularly appetizing, let alone good for Mother Earth. Nor does ingesting and breathing in plastic sound appealing. However you slice it, the abundance of plastic in our world today is a problem. There are health and fresh water concerns, and not just for fish but other water-dwelling animals and those that prey on contaminated food sources (like us, potentially).
In addition, and if these concerns don’t move you, there’s the matter of the economic waste alongside the physical misuse of resources. As MacArthur explains, citing a report by the World Economic Forum, the global economy loses an estimated $80 billion to $120 billion a year because of plastic waste. That’s a fair bit of cash lost at the expense of plastic pollution.
As MacArthur underscores, we really need to stop plastic at the source. This includes companies changing product design and otherwise producing less plastic. It also involves governments of different scale investing in better plastic collection infrastructure and enacting policies and strategies to specifically curb plastic use. And this is just a start.
What’s paramount at this stage late in the game is, coinciding with the broad scientific consensus on the need to act in response to the global climate crisis, a comprehensive approach to reducing our reliance on plastic. Such a unified front must obviously span nations and fields. MacArthur touts the creation of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, an agreement that lists governments, industry groups, NGOs, private investors, universities, and other organizations as signatories. The Chilean, French, and UK governments are included in this group. Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, H&M, Johnson and Johnson, L’Oréal, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, and Walmart are members, too, as is the World Wildlife Fund.
An accord like this, of course, means nothing without standards. The Global Commitment evidently comes with stipulations attached to participation, with 2025 as a target date for meaningful action on its terms. Adherence to the commitment’s terms will also be regularly reviewed, and as such, continued involvement with the project is conditional. The themes herein are accountability and transparency, qualities not automatically associated with national governments and multinational corporations.
The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment is one that reflects the kind of ambition necessary to adequately confront the plastic pollution issue as a subset of the climate crisis. It’s still in its relative infancy, too, so this public-private agreement has room yet to expand and attract more attention. Whether as a precursor to a larger accord or as a model for legislative efforts, the emphasis regardless is on a large-scale commitment along the lines of the Paris climate agreement. In truth, it makes sense. A majority of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, after all.
As you might imagine, other activists and people outspoken on this issue share Dame Ellen MacArthur’s sense of urgency about acting to ameliorate the ever-growing plastic problem. Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, also penned an op-ed stressing that recycling alone will not fix the issue. As she argues, cleanups, recycling, and bans on items like plastic bags, cups, and straws are great, but real accountability for companies like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Starbucks, and Unilever is essential because they are big drivers of plastic waste. With drink companies producing over 500 billion single-use plastic bottles a year, and with over 300 million tons of plastic being produced back in 2015 and expected to double by 2025, Leonard points to these leaders of industry as possessing the onus to act. Their scale of production is simply too large for individual campaigns alone to fight.
Emily Atkin, staff writer at The New Republic, meanwhile, looks to primary political players on the world stage to act in the interest of the planet. Part of the solution, she finds, involves saying no to fossil fuels, which comprise and are used in the making of plastics. (And, you know, are kind of a big part of this whole climate crisis.) Otherwise, agreements containing specific, legally-binding targets for pollution are of paramount importance. Atkin cites a UN resolution from late 2017 on eliminating plastic pollution, ones to which countries like China, India, and the U.S. are signatories, but of which they also refused to sign an earlier draft with more teeth to it.
In the case of America with Trump at the helm, it shouldn’t surprise you to know we were active in trying to kill that earlier draft. Sure, China is far and way the biggest producer of plastic waste, and other Asian countries are more prolific than the U.S., so to speak. Regardless, much of the rest of the world looks to America as a leader. Trump’s America is unquestionably failing the international audience on matters of environmental responsibility.
Looking back at the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, it’s worth assessing how exacting its requirements truly are. The language of the Global Commitment makes reference to companies and other signatories “taking action” or “setting ambitious targets.” These are not defined in detail, and in terms of accountability, the agreement only specifies that individual commitments “will be reviewed” and that the proverbial bar will be raised “after consultation with signatories.” What happens if a signatory reneges on its responsibilities? Indeed, it might be excommunicated from this group, but is public shame alone enough to compel it to act more responsibly? Short of economic incentives or legal consequences, it seems doubtful.
It’s tough to know what exactly will constitute a breaking point more than what we’ve already seen. There’s an estimated 80,000 metric tons of plastic (and growing) in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a loose assortment of debris within the North Pacific Gyre believed to be over a million square kilometers in area. The Atlantic has its own garbage patch, and there are others to be found in other gyres around the world.
These patches might be hard to see even with the naked eye, but they’re there. The plastic we throw away doesn’t just disappear. In an increasingly interconnected world, it’s not someone else’s problem either. If you’re OK with microplastics in the water we drink and the food we eat and the very air we breathe, again, chalk this all up to scaremongering and dismiss it, no hard feelings. If that’s not your idea of a fun future, however, there’s way too much plastic in the world’s oceans. It’s time the corporations, governments, and people with the most power to effect change did their fair share to clean up our mess.
That’s the story we get from our beloved president, Donald J. Trump, at least. As many of us can attest to, though, what he says may not be (or is rarely) the gospel truth.
In an August 13 post in his nascent online newsletter, Popular Information, journalist Jedd Legum discusses how, indeed, GDP growth is strong and unemployment is low. Sounds great, right? While not to discount these trends, the issue is that wages aren’t rising to accompany them. Legum writes:
There is something fundamentally broken about the United States economy and no one is doing anything about it.
Unemployment is low. GDP growth is strong. But official government data released on Friday show that real wages for American workers have gone down over the last year.
Nominal wages, the dollar amount workers see in their paychecks, have slowly crept up, increasing 2.7% between July 2017 and July 2018. But that has not kept up with inflation, which rose 2.9% over the same period.
The economy is growing. Workers, however, are falling further behind.
This sounds awfully doom-and-gloom coming from Legum, but as he indicates, he has the data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to back him up. What’s more, he identifies key reasons why workers aren’t reaping the benefits of a robust economy through their take-home pay.
First of all, before we get to why wages are stagnant or declining, there’s the matter of the Trump tax cuts. After the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was signed into law, the White House promised that “the median U.S. household would get a $4,000 real income raise.” That hasn’t happened, though.
To make matters worse, Trump and his advisers are apparently not interested in revisiting their policies to assess their potential flaws. Instead, Trump has—in characteristic fashion—doubled down on his assertions. He has ignored any evidence to the contrary, boasting that our paychecks are bigger and America is booming like never before. That’s especially not true in the case of our “booming” nation, but why let facts get in the way of a good story?
As Legum is keen to point out, however, trends in wage stagnation relative to inflation are bigger than Donald Trump. (But shh—don’t tell Trump that. In his mind, he is the sun around which we revolve.) Regardless of who is president or which party is in power, wages have been effectively stagnant for decades.
Based on this phenomenon, Legum insists that if people are complaining of an economy “rigged” against them, they are, well, right. Despite America’s status as one of the richest countries in the world and in an era of increasing profits, fewer people are enjoying those additional rewards. Cue the conversation about the 99% versus the 1%.
Accordingly, as Legum asks in his introduction, what gives? The answer is a complicated one, though there are some major culprits in the eyes of economic analysts. The first is employer-based health insurance, of which costs are on the rise. Because of escalating health care expenses, employers are less likely to raise wages. Because they are concerned about coverage and costs, employees are less likely to seek employment elsewhere. Consequently, employers are less inclined to negotiate on wages for fear of a departure. It shouldn’t surprise you to know that lower-wage workers also are disproportionately affected by these rising health care costs.
Speaking of negotiating for higher wages, a decline in union membership mediated by deliberate attempts to undermine organized labor has weakened the bargaining power and wages of union and non-union workers alike. Without significant union membership, there is insufficient reason for non-union employers to raise wages to compete with those of union firms. This is to say that it is not a zero-sum game involving the wages of union and non-union workers.
Compounding the problem of wages in America is that productivity is lagging despite advancements in technology. Legum speaks to the theory that American companies are simply not investing enough for the long term, instead opting to turn revenues into dividends or stock buybacks that inflate stock prices. Meanwhile, as he also indicates, wages have increased more slowly than productivity, so this is “only a piece of the puzzle.”
All of these factors lead up to Legum’s central point. While wage stagnation is obviously complex, there are yet remedies which can be effected. On the health care front, Medicare-for-all and other single-payer models at the state level have been suggested as ways to make employer costs more manageable. For unions, there are possible interventions like majority sign-up or multi-employer bargaining. For productivity’s sake, where private organizations fail, public investments in infrastructure can help pick up the slack.
The problem with these remedies is that they aren’t being implemented, or as Legum puts it, “no one is working to fix the problem.” Re the Trump administration, in many cases, these solutions aren’t just being ignored—they are forsaken for policies that deliberately move us backward.
We all remember the attempts by the president and a Republican-led Congress to kill the Affordable Care Act. They haven’t yet proven wholly successful, though this doesn’t mean the GOP will stop trying. Trump also celebrated the ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, characterized by many as a major blow to public-sector unions. As for infrastructure, Trump promised it would be a priority of his tenure in office. Heretofore, like most of Trump’s promises, it has yet to come to fruition.
In closing, Legum writes, “Politicians of all stripes speak incessantly about the American worker. But until they tackle the wage crisis head-on, it’s hard to take them seriously.” The absence of references to a specific political party here implies that both Republicans and Democrats should be taken to task for their role in subverting the wage growth of the labor force in the United States.
For the GOP, which has long kept the interests of big business close to heart, this is no big surprise. On the other hand, for the Democrats, the putative party of the people, the charge is that they have failed workers by not more vigorously defending organized labor, not to mention too eagerly embracing corporate lobbies/wealthy donors and their influence. This is the sort of inaction from lawmakers that the average voter is arguably justified in raging against. With the criticism from the left, there is an added sense of disappointment that a party which traditionally has embraced working-class Americans appears to have so readily abandoned them.
As Judd Legum underscores, these trends which have contributed to wage stagnation amid a growing economy were in motion before the rise of Donald Trump. His ascendancy is perhaps an all-too-logical consequence of their elaboration. As numerous publications and pundits observed, working-class whites, who came out in force for the business tycoon in 2016, were a key source of his support.
Before the election, the voting bloc of whites without a college degree was reportedly shrinking, and polling data had Hillary Clinton with one foot in the White House. Meanwhile, a group of individuals who disdain professionals because they perceive themselves to be disdained, while holding fast to the aspirational model embodied by Trump, was instrumental in swinging the election to the Republican presidential nominee. If Democratic strategists were convinced they could all but ignore this subset of the electorate (and key segments of the Rust Belt), it turned out they were wrong.
It’s political realities like this which make the recent decision by Tom Perez and the Democratic National Committee to reverse a ban on donations from fossil fuel companies rather alarming. Ostensibly, this was a move made because input from labor suggested a ban on fossil fuel money was an “attack” on workers. In reality, and as the activist community has observed, this 180 is designed to allow fossil fuel executives to keep donating to (and buying influence within) the Democratic Party.
The DNC’s about-face is particularly galling given that the prohibition on fossil fuel contributions—which specifically targeted corporate PAC donations—only came about this past June. Defenders of Perez’s proposal might be wont to point out that the Republican Party accepts substantially higher amounts of cash from the fossil fuel industry than the Dems do. There’s also the aspect that Democrats in contested districts/states feel they need to take a more moderate stance when it comes to energy production.
Still, as Kate Aronoff, contributor to The Intercept, quipped, “There are no jobs on a dead planet.” The DNC’s recommitment to an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy is a regressive turn of events at a time when more urgent action on climate change is needed, and when the Trump administration is doing its part to reverse as many regulations designed to safeguard the environment as possible (see also Scott Pruitt as the original pick for the EP-freaking-A).
Moreover, the rationalization of taking fossil fuel PAC money as a defense of organized labor is an altogether cynical one. Apparently, being a rank-and-file worker/Democratic Party supporter and having enthusiasm for an energy plan based on renewable sources are mutually exclusive. If you care about your job, evidently you give f**k-all about the planet.
To reiterate, the problem of stagnant and declining wages in America is a complex one mediated by a number of factors. At the same time, a little leadership from our elected representatives could go a long way in convincing us we are on the right track in trying to ameliorate the situation. Unfortunately, legislative gridlock and intentional concessions to corporate interests inspire little confidence we’re moving in the right direction on this issue.
An excellent piece by Caroline Winter, staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek, helps shed some light on just why Nestlé’s use of water resources in the United States and elsewhere has become so controversial. The crux of the article, which explores the production of water bottles at one Michigan plant, the genesis of the company’s experience with bottled water dating back to the 1800s, and the domestic and international demand for Nestlé’s and other companies’ bottled water products, surrounds the monolithic entity’s monopolization of water supplies, either through the promise of economic benefits for communities or due to their desperation for funds. Winter lays out the essentials in a particular passage relating to said bottling plant located in Mecosta County:
The Michigan operation is only one small part of Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage company. But it illuminates how Nestlé has come to dominate a controversial industry, spring by spring, often going into economically depressed municipalities with the promise of jobs and new infrastructure in exchange for tax breaks and access to a resource that’s scarce for millions. Where Nestlé encounters grass-roots resistance against its industrial-strength guzzling, it deploys lawyers; where it’s welcome, it can push the limits of that hospitality, sometimes with the acquiescence of state and local governments that are too cash-strapped or inept to say no. There are the usual costs of doing business, including transportation, infrastructure, and salaries. But Nestlé pays little for the product it bottles—sometimes a municipal rate and other times just a nominal extraction fee. In Michigan, it’s $200.
Putting the weak resistance of municipalities, counties, and states aside for the moment, what aids Nestlé in its bid to capitalize on control of water resources are trends involving water consumption. First, there’s the demand, fueled by concern for contaminants in tap water, even though, as Winter suggests, bottled water’s superiority in purity and taste may be overstated (more on this later).
There are also concerns with supply, though, particularly in areas where the infrastructure for water maintenance is poor, thus lending itself to Nestlé’s ability to swoop in and market an alternative that appeals to consumers and government officials alike in that neither feel obligated to fix or rely on public utilities. In addition, uncertainty about whether or not water is a human right, in part fueled by statements of the latter persuasion by company executives, serves to undermine public outrage over the commodification of this resource by Nestlé and its competitors. For those well-versed in the debate over universal health care in the U.S., for instance, such is another iteration of the larger push-and-pull between progressive activists and corporate agendas.
Still, at the end of the day, it’s up to these would-be hosts of Nestlé facilities to decide whether to let the thirsty wolf in the door, so to speak. As Winter tells, the company tends to target areas where water regulations are inconsistent/lax or where it feels it can effectively lobby to weaken restrictions, and while towns in some states have said no to Nestlé, elsewhere and in a majority of cases, the conglomerate has been able to impose its will despite opposition. In perhaps the most disturbing example of San Bernardino, California, for a nominal yearly fee paid to the United States Forest Service, Nestlé has been able to extract tens of millions of gallons of water, even during droughts. So much for the greater good.
The remainder of Winter’s piece is spent reviewing two case studies in the state of Michigan in which residents and environmental activists were or are pitted directly against Nestlé. The results are not too heartening, either, for evidently, when Nestlé wins, they win big, and even when they lose, they still manage to win somewhat. Going back to Mecosta, in 2000, Nestlé purchased the Ice Mountain water brand from Pepsi and relocated facilities there. State and local officials, all too happy to be doing business with Nestlé, offered the company a one-time $13 million tax break. When residents got wind of this, however, they formed a grassroots water conservation group of Michigan citizens opposed to Nestlé opening up shop in their backyards, and enlisted an environmental lawyer to challenge the Swiss multinational in the courts. The outcome? After eight years and $1 million+ in legal fees, the two sides settled for a reduced water-pumping rate and seasonal restrictions. Um, hooray?
More recently, in Evart, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality caught flak for their clandestine near-approval of an application by Nestlé to more than double its water extraction rate. It took a 2016 investigative report by Garret Ellison which appeared on MLive.com to break this news to the public, whereupon people were justifiably and demonstrably distraught. At a subsequent public hearing held by the DEQ on Nestlé attended by upwards of 500 people, numerous speakers assailed the Department’s overall resource management record, notably invoking the Flint water crisis. So too did they question Nestlé’s ability to essentially pay pennies to extract ungodly amounts of water while residents of cities like Flint and Detroit are forced to use bottled water and cough up a disproportionate amount of money for tap water tainted by lead or shut off at times. For all this outward show of dissatisfaction, Winter mentions, the DEQ representatives “shuffled offstage, refusing to comment.”
Accounts of the extent of the environmental impact of pumping increases like the one proposed in Evart imaginably vary depending on the source; in the case of the Michigan DEQ, officials overruled the computer model used to help assess the effects of water consumption in the state, finding its calculations “overly conservative.” Meanwhile, at the heart of this discussion is more than just whether or not 400 gallons a minute is too much, but whether or not large corporations like Nestlé should be able to claim ownership of necessities like water in the first place, “renewable” as they may be. It’s the same sort of right-vs-privilege dynamic that characterizes, again, the health care debate in this country, and which informs principles like the public trust doctrine that reserve certain resources or specified amounts of these resources for public use. For many of us across socioeconomic statuses, it is critical to know that not every bit of land in America is subject to being bought by and sold to the highest bidder.
From a conservationist and environmental standpoint, it’s clear the implications of Nestlé’s global footprint exceed that of exploitation of water resources which threaten to diminish as a result of climate change. After all, this is bottled water we’re talking about here. According to information provided by the company itself on its Nestlé Waters website, the average global bottled water consumption is 50 liters per capita per year. It requires a lot of plastic, to the estimated tune of over 200 billion bottles annually worldwide. It would be one thing if most or all of those containers were being recycled. Domestically, at least, however, if recycling rates have remain unchanged from about a decade ago, we are simply throwing away close to 90% of the water bottles we buy in the United States. To make matters worse, the very production of these bottles expends precious resources. It costs millions of barrels of oil to make the world’s water bottles used for drinking, and three times the water that goes into these bottles is consumed by the process. That’s a lot of pollution contribution for one industry.
At least the product is worth it, right? That is, at least bottled water tastes better and is better for you, right? Perhaps not. On the side of the taste of bottled water vs. tap water, numerous tests have shown people’s inability to distinguish the two, with psychological experts attributing the difference simply to the expectation bottled water will taste better. As for how safe bottled water is relative to tap water, there is also a significant amount of research which suggests the idea that bottled water is a safer and healthier alternative to tap water is propaganda perpetuated by the bottled water industry to sell its product. This is before a recent study by Orb Media found more than 90% of water bottles contain microplastics we are likely consuming as we drink, the health impact of which is uncertain because it hasn’t been studied extensively. By all means, though, enjoy that bottle of Poland Spring.
It should be emphasized that Nestlé, while a leader in bottled water production and a company known for—how shall I put this?—a remarkable zeal for acquisition of water resources and litigation thereafter, is not the only player in the business of marking up and reselling water from people’s backyards back to them. Aquafina and Dasani, brands owned by PepsiCo and the Coca-Cola Company, respectively, notably created controversy when they were forced to admit that their product is glorified tap water, filtered through reverse osmosis and further purified with the help of minerals or other processes like ozone sterilization. In light of the statistics on bottled water and how much is used or wasted on their disposal and production, however, it’s worse that there is an entire industry responsible, and thus a myriad number of companies of which to ensure their accountability and transparency.
Accordingly, it’s tough to find silver linings with respect to the issue of bottled water companies and water usage. Since Caroline Winter’s piece for Bloomberg Businessweek was published, Evart has apparently denied Nestlé’s request to build a boosting station to augment its water-pumping output. The town’s predictable reward for this? A lawsuit from Nestlé. As for the global proliferation of bottled water, while the news of ingesting microplastics could, in theory, curb consumption, at the end of the day, assuming people have even heard or read these reports, they still get thirsty. Bottled water, in its seeming ubiquity, is convenient for those of us living an on-the-go lifestyle. After all, how many of us frequent fast food restaurants despite knowing how bad their offerings are for our bodies? At the very least, and even if we do care about limiting our plastic consumption, we may, say, forget to bring a reusable water bottle with us when we get to where we’re going. For all our good intentions about living a healthy, sustainable lifestyle, it requires discipline and practice, and for those moments when we falter, Nestlé and its competitors are waiting.
Despite all these obstacles, the conversation about standing up to the bottled water industry (Big Water?) and insisting on repairs/upgrades to our water utility infrastructure as well as preservation of the human right to water—and yes, like health care, this is recognized as a human right and not a privilege—is one we need to be having, especially as access to clean, drinkable water becomes less and less certain here and abroad. Back in May of 2016, in response to a drought at the time, Alissa Walker, in a piece for Gizmodo entitled “Stop Drinking Bottled Water,” addressed the importance of big-picture thinking that transcends scrutiny of individual corporations and municipalities when it comes to this topic:
We can’t stop at the municipal level. We have to think bigger. Eleven percent of the Earth’s population does not have access to safe drinking water. There are people in this country who are currently facing a groundwater contamination crisis. Instead of throwing our Great American Problem at people by the plastic-encased-in-plastic case, we should be focusing on designing and building comprehensive, permanent water systems for every person on this planet. Each bottle of water purchased is a vote against that goal.
Giving up bottled water also means thinking long-term about preserving water security. You may have reservoirs near you brimming over with fresh rainfall right now, but the truth is that the amount of potable water on this planet is growing more scarce every year. The bottled water industry is one of the fastest-growing on the planet. Last year it made $100 billion, an amount that is expected to double within five years. Now consider the fact that it actually takes the equivalent of three bottles of water to make a single water bottle. Every swig from a plastic blob in the name of convenience moves us closer to a world without any clean water at all.
Because like I said before, it’s not about this drought—it’s about every future drought.
Walker is right. Whatever your angle, whether it’s concern for the people of small-town America and others in preserving their way of life, or for the planet’s future, or simply to stick it to big corporations like Nestlé, there is a reason to get invested in this issue. Choose one, and make sure to have your reusable water bottle handy while you do it.
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