The giant policy elephant in the room at the start of 2019

The giant policy elephant in the room at the start of 2019

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Well, another new year is upon us and the public policy landscape is, in many ways, more crowded and contentious than ever. Everywhere one turns, there are large, important and hotly contested issues to be examined and debated and yawning ideological divides to be confronted and overcome.

Name the issue – taxes, the economy, the growing wealth and income gaps, health care, education, racism, gun violence, freedom of speech, immigration, gender equality, LGBT equality, reproductive freedom, voting rights, gerrymandering, the relationship between church and state, the criminal justice system, the composition of the courts – and one can quickly identify several urgent and contentious matters that deserve our attention and hard work in 2019.

Now overlay onto this complex and challenging policy environment the hard reality posed by a President of the United States who is widely understood to be a mercurial and narcissistic serial liar and the situation gets that much tougher.

Daunting as this state of affairs is, however, there is still another overarching problem that looms even larger and that is in desperate need of as much attention as all caring and thinking people can muster in the coming year. I speak, of course, of the ongoing environmental crisis that threatens the fragile biosphere that we and all other life forms inhabit on this small, out-of-the-way planet.

Drowning in our own effluent

Climate change/global warming is, of course, the most visible and highest profile global environmental challenge in January of 2019 and for good reason. As Policy Watch reporter Lisa Sorg has documented on multiple occasions over the past year (most notably in an important November story), the climate situation is increasingly grim.

Simply put, by building a massive global economy for billions of humans that is based in large measure upon extracting fossil fuels from underground and burning them in the atmosphere, we humans are, effectively, drowning in our own effluent.

The impacts of this ever-more-apparent reality are and will continue to be massive in both the natural world – rising seas, increasingly severe weather, desertification, fast-rising extinction rates – and the human realm, where millions (if not billions) of humans will likely see the sustainability of their homelands endangered and face displacement, poverty, armed conflict, shorter lifespans and a host of other closely-related problems. (Click here to read Sorg’s story and a more comprehensive list.)

But, of course, climate change is far from the only daunting environmental crisis we confront. All over our finite planet, the hard realities brought on by human population growth, development and pollution – lost open space, deforestation, polluted seas, rivers and lakes, disappearing animal and plant species, mass human migration – send increasingly strong signals on a daily basis that our current models for living must change and soon.

Whither freedom and liberty?

The incessant and maddening critique voiced by many conservative think tank inhabitants (a huge proportion of whom are funded by fossil fuel interests) to those of us who sound the environmental crisis alarm is that we are all engaged in some kind of diabolical leftist scheme to limit freedom and liberty.

According to these naysayers, progressives simply hate modern consumer culture and the “freedom” it supposedly imparts and have therefore latched onto climate change and other environmental issues in order to force the adoption of state-mandated rules and sacrifices that will usher in some kind of neo-Maoist society.

As even a moment’s reflection confirms, however, the truth is just the opposite. It is, in fact, environmental decline that threatens widespread human freedom – not assertive public efforts to promote environmental sustainability.

What good will it do for our grandchildren to retain the unfettered right to drive giant fossil fuel guzzlers on ten-lane freeways 50 years from now if the planet on which they’re exercising that supposedly precious “right” is a hot, toxic and conflict-ridden mess? Where’s the “freedom” and liberty in that?

Progressives don’t dislike the comforts of modern technological society. Most of us like our electronic devices, ease of travel and air conditioning on a hot day as much as anyone. What we recognize, however, is that: a) there’s a lot more to life (and freedom and liberty) than mere unfettered consumption, and b) sometimes change is necessary to preserve what’s truly important (and can leave things better than they were before).

The heart disease patient whose doctor tells him that he must quit smoking in order to avoid early death might initially see that directive as an assault on his freedom. Ten or fifteen years later, however, when he’s bouncing a grandchild on his lap, his attitude will have almost certainly changed.

Let’s hope fervently that a similar attitude shift takes place in the modern public policy landscape. If it doesn’t, all of the other contentious and vitally important issues that confront us at the start of 2019 will ultimately amount to little more than the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic.