Complex systems are failing all around us, but it’s madness to think we’ll fix them by clinging to culture war issues that deflect blame and solve nothing.
“It’s astounding, time is fleetingMadness takes its tollBut listen closely (not for very much longer)I’ve got to keep control…”-Richard O’Brien, Time Warp
It’s madness all over the place these days, isn’t it? As highly complex systems unravel and cause cascading failures that affect still other systems (and the people that depend upon them), it’s increasingly clear that nobody has the answer, or even a real plan to fix it. Then again, what would be a real fix for our predicament? A return to normal? Normal wasn’t great for that many people, and a return to the same practices that led us here is a pretty good indicator that we haven’t solved anything.
Here’s a quick (and necessarily incomplete) rundown of converging disasters that are adding up to far more than the sum of their parts.
Ongoing climate chaos, for one. It’s past fixing, and now it’s time to consider what places will be abandoned and how to go about leaving the unlivable. Disasters vary from place to place, and so does each area’s – and family’s – ability to adapt. In the Northern Mariana islands, a U.S. territory much closer to the Philippines than to Hawaii, the last few years of typhoon damage and slow, expensive, and progressively difficult rebuilds are forcing people to decide whether to stay on ancestral land, or move to the mainland United States where they might be able to get by through low-wage jobs, public resources and the generosity of relatives. There’s a kind of security living where one cannot be evicted (and the land itself can help feed you), but when storms destroy your home every couple years, the madness of migration makes more sense with each passing year.
U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaking in Detroit, MI in 2019. Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0It’s a long way from Saipan to Kentucky, where last week’s storms may have spawned the longest-track tornado in U.S. history. Whether the Quad-State Tornado formed alone or as part of a swarm thrown off by a deadly thunderstorm that crossed four states in four hours is irrelevant, though, to those whose homes were destroyed and who lost loved ones in the darkness. Although Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) requested the same aid for his state that he would deny so many others, the point remains just as true in the aftermath of the rare December tornado as after the typhoons, hurricanes, floods, droughts and wildfires that a destabilizing environment will bring: how often can we rebuild before it becomes madness to keep doing the same thing over and over and freaking over?
Then there’s resource depletion. Those burning forests in western North America, some of which served as carbon offsets for industry, may not return as the climate toggles to warmer and drier states that won’t support woodlands. In the American breadbasket, more than a third of the topsoil has eroded away from industrially farmed land. We’re running out of phosphate, a vital input for growing food. Too much of the synthetic nitrogen applied to those crops is washing out to sea, carried along by rain and water from rapidly-emptying aquifers that will not be replaced in any meaningful time frame. In the last three decades, no country on Earth has been able to meet its citizens basic needs without consuming more natural capital than can be replaced. Nothing about this is sustainable, and it’s madness to think this can continue indefinitely.
There are no good answers coming from the energy industry, either. Producing energy means accepting the sacrifice of a certain amount of land and people, allowing them to be poisoned without too much complaint because doing so keeps the lights on and the cars running. Risks are never going to be equally spread among populations, but that’s saying the quiet part out loud, isn’t it? ProPublica recently published research showing that in the United States, most of the burden is borne by those in low-income neighborhoods and in southern states with more relaxed environmental laws, especially Texas. Places where most of the residents are not white are usually hit with more toxic pollution, often far in excess of that found in majority-white areas, but deep down, you probably already knew that, right? Ethylene oxide, the colorless, odorless gas that contributes the highest cancer risk of this country’s air pollution problem, is mutagenic, meaning it can alter DNA. How long do you expect fellow Americans to accept such toxins in their neighborhoods? How long would you?
No, solar panels aren’t going to be the answer. Sure, they’ve come down in price year over year, but they might be harder to find in the near future. In a rare move, the Senate unanimously voted to ban imports from Xinjiang. a province in western China where a multitude of goods are made cheaply using forced slave labor from imprisoned Uyghurs, a heavily oppressed Muslim minority ethnic group. Seriously, despite major corporations asking the government to please, please, not to do this, only one member of Congress voted against it (Rep. Thomas Massie, R-KY). Since about 50% of the world’s supply of polysilicon, a raw material used to manufacture solar panels, comes out of Xinjiang, and China made 80% of the world’s supply of solar panels (as of 2019), you can guess why those prices are so painfully low, and whose pain subsidizes them.
I could go on and on, but I’ll cut to the chase.
Because the lifestyle changes required to actually remedy, or at least mitigate, the situation are too much for most people to seriously consider, we’re unlikely to do anything about the root causes of the madness around us. However, because people are hurting, and it’s easier to give them something else to blame than to fix anything for real, pundits and politicians are delivering by ratcheting up the culture war and the politicization of, well, just about everything. As long as they can keep us divided, they and their cronies can keep control.
People distraught over losing their homes to climate-fueled disasters? Let’s talk about mask mandates instead: don’t let anyone take away your freedom! Are prices higher due to resource depletion, higher corporate profits and a pandemic that could have been mitigated by it was more politically expedient not to? Time to start limiting the way teachers can address racial disparities and American history. Can’t afford to avoid COVID yet can’t afford to get sick, either? How about a timely abortion ban! People starting to agitate for more rights, higher pay, better working conditions, and a real future? Nobody wants to work! Think we’ll vote the bums out in the next election? Think again.
The longer we fail to address the conditions underlying our pain and, instead, give into the distractions being thrust upon us to keep us from looking behind that particular curtain, the worse it’ll get. Our collection of predicaments may not be solvable, but they can be more equitably mitigated. Yes, it’s difficult. The work ahead is hard, and there is no guarantee of success. Surrendering to the ignorance because it’s easier than doing the work? That’s less than helpful. And madness takes its toll.
Related: The Slow Drain of an Expensive Collapse
Examining the Role of Climate Change in a Week of Wild Weather
‘Quad-State Tornado’ crossed four states in four hours, a rare December tornado
Sen. Rand Paul’s aid request for tornado damage faces backlash
What if the forests won’t grow back?
One-Third of Farmland in the U.S. Corn Belt Has Lost Its Topsoil
Our Losing Phosphate Wager
Nitrogen: The environmental crisis you haven’t heard of yet
Farmers are depleting the Ogallala Aquifer because the government pays them to do it
Nations are overusing natural resources faster than they are meeting basic human needs
Poison in the Air
Senate passes Uyghur forced labor bill
The United States Can’t Afford the Brutal Price of Chinese Solar Panels
The climate response cliff
Oklahoma Republican introduces bill to limit how slavery is taught in schools
Why America Is at War Over the History of Slavery
Voter Restriction Bills and Laws Around the Country, Skimm’d
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