To me there are two most central issues to face as a country and world — our behavior toward the environment, and the nuclear danger. They trump everything else in importance, because of their threat to life on Earth, including our own. In addition, I consider a critical issue to be our process of democracy, rebooting the electoral system — it’s dysfunctionality feeds all other problems. Together, these three are the most important areas to work on — first things first. It is easy to get sucked into conventional Presidential election issues such as education, the economy, war & terrorism, gun control, and immigration. I have strong opinions on all of them as well, but they are not as essential as the three issues I dive into on this page – see more about those in the blog and videos.
Global Critical Issue #1: Environment
Disconnection from the natural world [cause]
The perception of disconnection from nature is the underlying cultural reason for so much of our harm to the world around us, and therefore ourselves. Traditional societies have always recognized the inherent involvement of people in the workings of the environment; we are one species, interacting with many others, subject to the same laws of birth and death, gravity, weather, etc. Our culture has attempted to sever ourselves from the world – this is utterly impossible to do, but such a mentality allows us to see the world as merely a collection of resources to be used. It is no longer seen as sacred; adjusting our view to once again see everything around us as sacred and important is, I believe, a necessary step in eliminating the main motivation behind environmental abuse. Until then we are fighting symptoms.
The current human population of the U.S. and the world is the largest ever known in the history of this planet. A
graph through time looks almost vertical, a major red flag that something is going to change drastically, whether we want that or not. There are now 7.2 billion of us, with a net addition of two people every second [U.S. Census Bureau]. One undeniable fact of our environmental calamity is that there are just far too many of us; I believe a sustainable (i.e. could be maintained forever) human population is well under 1 billion. Some results of our excessive numbers are shortages of water, food, and space, enormous cities and greater conflict. The more crammed we get, the more I expect this to continue.
Overuse of resources per person [cause]
Total environmental impact is population multiplied by amount of resources/pollution per person. Thus both our total numbers and our lifestyle matter. I have heard many times that 4-5 total Earths are needed to support everyone on Earth at the level of consumption of the Global North. This is simply impossible to achieve; quality of life needs to be measured not in cars, big houses, and opulent diet but deeper, more traditional ways – health, family, lack of stress, and leisure time. Compounding our overuse of Earth’s bounty is our culture’s linear mentality of resource → consumption → disposal. This is in contrast to the usual human view of cycles of nutrients and cycles of time, such as returning at least as much fertility to the soil as is taken out. Looking at the world as a single-use object allows for huge waste (Ex. landfills) and great inefficiency (Ex. farm soil sapped of nutrients, requiring the import of purchased fertility). I believe we will return to working with the cycles of nature (not against them), either by need or by choice.
Global climate change [effect]
Two calling cards of our industrial lifestyle are deforestation and immense use of concentrated energy like coal, oil, and natural gas. In combination they have created global climate change. The simplest version is that our burning of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than the rate at which plants to use it and turn it into oxygen, especially as there are a decreasing number of trees worldwide to do this. The buildup of carbon dioxide and other components (at 400ppm now, in contrast to 275ppm as the norm, according to 350.org) causes the atmosphere to retain more solar heat and become warmer (global warming). It also causes other issues, like polar ice caps melting and oceans getting warmer and more acidic. Finally, it causes wacky weather, increased amounts of tropical storms, more flooding and more drought, etc. (collectively called “global weirding”). This description will turn out to be incomplete, because new symptoms of global climate change are popping up regularly; it is an unprecedented situation in known human history – we have put ourselves (and the rest of the planet) in uncharted waters.
Because this situation is unprecedented, it’s scientists’ best guess (and that of their computer models) what will happen over the coming decades and centuries. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations expects a 1-4 degrees centigrade rise in global temperature this century (in the industrial era global temperature has already risen 1 degree C, according to 350.org), with 1-3 feet of sea level rise. Climate refugees have already begun moving out of places such as the Maldives and California.
Because the medium of change is the atmosphere, global climate change causes harm everywhere the sky touches, harming people and species that have done nothing wrong. This is a very sad and unjust thing; villagers, plants, and animals the world over will suffer more and more from our mistakes. And this will carry on for a long time – the IPCC says, “Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped. This represents a substantial multi-century climate change commitment created by past, present and future emissions of CO2.” We’ve made a deal with future generations that we didn’t even know we were making, and it won’t serve them well, let alone other species that aren’t as flexible as humans.
One of the roots of climate change is the inaccurate belief that the atmosphere is too big to affect. This is epitomized by the previously popular saying “the solution to pollution is dilution.” This has been proven terribly wrong. One lesson for us to learn from this is that our actions have impacts (often unexpected), especially when carried out at enormous industrial scale.
The Sixth Mass Extinction [effect]
We are causing huge changes in the natural world, and because they are so rapid (compared to evolution) species don’t have time to adapt to their changing circumstance. As a result, many of them die out. This is most commonly due to habitat loss for farming, grazing, or forestry (Ex. a species that lives only in prairies, which are 99% gone in the U.S.). Pollution is another cause. The situation has gotten so dire that many biologists say that we are in the process of the Sixth Mass Extinction in known Earth history. The last one was 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs famously died out. In a mass event, extinction rates are 100-10,000 times higher than normal. Indicator species that are especially vulnerable are dying even faster – the Center for Biological Diversity says amphibians are going extinct at 25,000 to 45,000 times faster than the natural rate. Every species dies out eventually, but we have turned the tempo way up; this is like a retirement home where all new residents, instead of living for years on average, usually die within a few days of arrival.
Mass extinctions are characterized by the loss of at least 75% of species within a geologically short period of time. This is the road we are headed down – at least ¾ of plant, animal, and others species around the world dying out as a result of our current excesses. Sometimes what takes their place is barrenness, but often it is more humans. As Amazonian rainforest is cut down to grow soy beans to feed to cows to feed humans, diverse forests are turned into more humans. In this way, biomass is being converted to human mass. Most species are in decline while our bloated numbers rise even more. It’s a conversion of everything else to us (plus a few of our preferred species like chickens and wheat). It is also the first mass extinction to be caused by a fellow species (as opposed to a geological event). Far from a shining moment for us…
Peak everything [effect]
The lifestyle of the Global North is dependent on a steadily increasing use of resources (as part of the economy of indefinite growth). Some of these are non-renewable; once they are used up, they are essentially gone forever – the core ones are fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, and coal. Because of this situation of increasing use of a finite resource, the theory of Peak Oil came about in the 1970s. At some point, we hit the highest rate of oil extraction, after which it will decline year-upon-year until the vast majority of it is used up. It’s similar to daylight length, getting longer and longer in the Northern Hemisphere until it peaks around June 21, then declines – except that with oil, there is no annual cycle to increase it again the next spring (like there is with day length). This situation portends badly for a national (and increasingly global) economy that uses oil as food, transport, electricity, and otherwise pillar of life – Richard Heinberg says, “The world is currently as dependent on hydrocarbons as it is on water, sunlight, and soil.” [Peak Everything, 20]. Something has to give.
This is not just a theory of a future scenario; it is happening now. By my reading, global peak oil likely occurred around 2009, whereas other peaks happen earlier or later – peak natural gas in the U.S. occurred about 30 years ago. There are other peaks, as well, that aren’t fossil fuels – for example, each year enormous volumes of exposed agricultural soil erode away down waterways and out to the ocean, so we have passed peak soil (which is essential for most food). Nutrients such as phosphorus are also being used up industrial/agricultural processes and lost, so that we have a forever-declining amount of it. Hence the term Peak Everything – it’s not just about oil.
Our appetite for the above-mentioned resources will be wane, either voluntarily with foresight, or by force of natural laws. Peak Oil expert Heinberg says, “The range of possible futures ahead of us is still wide, encompassing everything from (at one end of the scale) graceful industrial decline leading to a mature, sustainable world community of relocalized cultures, to (at the other end) human extinction, or something very close to it” [xxiii]. “The only real question is whether societies will contract and simplify intelligently, or in an uncontrolled, chaotic fashion” . It is physically impossible for our current trajectory to continue (or even stay at a plateaued level); alternative energy sources such as wind and solar are based on fossil fuel production and do not have the reliability and applicability to adequately fill the roles that oil plays in our society.
An era of change is coming, and this may feel disruptive, but also opens the door to more satisfying ways of being. Heinberg says, “We must focus on and use the intangibles that are not peaking (such as ingenuity and cooperation) to address the problems arising from our overuse of substances that are” . As life becomes less centered around machine-based corporate work, local community and feelings of equality are ripe for a resurgence – “reversion to lower rates of resource consumption should lead to a more than than less egalitarian society” [Heinberg, 95]. As people grow more of their own food (like occurred with Victory Gardens during WWI and WWII), they will feel more connected to natural cycles, see the gratifying fruits of their labors, and likely have an increased sense of meaning. Instead of looking at Peak Everything as looming doom, we can see it as an opportunity to improve our local, family-based quality of life. Either way, it is a major factor.
The toxification of everywhere [effect]
We are currently straining the capacity of the natural world to absorb human impacts. Part of this is on the resource end, using up finite stores (see Peak Everything above). On the other end is “waste”, refuse, what is spit out afterward. I say “waste” because in nature there normally is no waste; everything gets recycled into nutrients that something else (like a plant) can use – the cycle of life is resilient and amazingly efficient. We, though, have created detritus that is not biodegradable like palm leaves and wood – examples are concrete and plastic. These materials are often piled into mountainous landfills, burned, or dumped into the sea. Such pollution is sometimes intentional, and creates such phenomena as gyres of innumerable floating bits of plastic in the oceans. Other times pollution is accidental, such as aerosols causing a 24,000,000 square kilometer hole in the ozone layer, and fertilizer runoff (nitrogen and phosphorus) combining with fossil fuel burning to create oceanic dead zones where there is no oxygen and therefore no life (405 of them worldwide as of 2008, says Scientific American). Speaking of no life, some pollution decreases the Earth’s capacity to support life, like dioxin (read more) and the mercury that is appearing in large amounts in what fish species remain (see Sixth Mass Extinction above).
The toxification of everywhere includes our own bodies; I believe the poisoning of the complete environment is unintentionally a major cause of diseases like cancer. I see lots of attention put on cancer cures and awareness, but hear virtually nothing about inquiries into the causes of this growing phenomenon – I believe that is because it would call into question our industrial system. Our advanced chemistry (for example) can create new substances that have never existed, but they end up hurting us, such as the asbestos mishap of recent decades. Our science outpaces our knowledge of what is safe and therefore our ethics; I think it is time to slow down and focus on what the natural world shows us works, for the benefit of ourselves and all other life.
Global Issue #2: Dual Nuclear Threat
This issue consists of two components — nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Power will be treated first, then weapons.
Nuclear energy is not safe enough to use. The volume of material required for nuclear fission is very small because it is so concentrated in potential energy, but when something goes wrong it can result in widespread damage. Despite the fact that nuclear power plants have been in operation for decades and have increasing safety standards, it’s still not safe enough to use. Examples like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima are the largest pieces of feedback we should pay attention to. Nuclear materials are dangerously hot during use (hence the term “meltdown”) and dangerously radioactive at many stages. If power is cut to a plant and diesel generators run out, plants that need active cooling won’t get it, and are susceptible to major accidents, including meltdown that can irradiate enormous areas. Used fuel (a.k.a. waste) has to be stored indefinitely, and the U.S. Department of Energy already has over a billion pounds of depleted uranium in storage.
The risk of the nuclear process is socialized to society, especially those living near processing, power, or storage facilities. Plant operators also have limited liability, which socializes the potential cost of evacuation, treatment, and cleanup, putting the government on the hook.
One lesson from Fukushima is that environmental disasters (likely to increase as a result of global climate change, and which are only somewhat predictable to begin with) can cause nuclear catastrophe with little warning. Coastal areas and earthquake-prone regions are especially susceptible. There’s even a special word for this in Japanese – Genpatsu-shinsai.
Another safety threat is that nuclear power plants are common targets during military campaigns – for example, the U.S. military bombed reactors near Baghdad, Iraq in 1991 and Israel did the same 10 years earlier. The fact that a nuclear power plant (and other steps in the fuel chain) need to be defended by fences & armed guards at all times is a red flag by itself, indicating that we probably should not be doing this.
In addition, they are a gateway drug to nuclear weapons, the other chamber of the double-barrel shotgun that continually endangers us. These two nuclear problems feed each other, which is why they need to be addressed and removed at the same time.
Furthermore, nuclear power requires an intense, high-tech production chain, which is subject to disruptions. Such disruptions (which I think will significantly increase in the future) will also make the maintenance of international standards much harder, with regulation likely to suffer across the 31 countries that currently have nuclear power plants.
Zooming out, nuclear power is a strange phenomenon. High-level scientists have figured out how to make energy at an atomic level, and do this at enormous scale. It’s a very white man thing to do, including not thinking about spent fuel storage for the next seven generations or hundred thousand generations.
Finally, such energy systems merely facilitate further energy dependence that we could call Infinite Energy Affliction, using exponentially larger amounts of energy than humans ever have. Keeping this up delays our getting more responsible & humble. In the United States, 20% less electricity use would mean no more nuclear. By using less air conditioning, heating, refrigeration, and entertainment equipment we eliminate the desire for this impressive but dangerous energy source.
Cleaner types of nuclear energy are in discussion, but I think we’ve already gone far enough down this rabbit hole. The wise move is to shut down nuclear plants, temporarily redirect money to processing the waste to make it as innocuous as possible forevermore. Then close the chapter. Several governments have already made the move to prohibit civil nuclear – this is the case in Austria, Italy, Denmark, Uruguay, and the state of Minnesota. Let’s wise up and do so at the federal level and encourage others around the world to do, to take care of this self-made problem.
It is easy to see the upside of nuclear weapons. They are an ace in the hole for militaries, the ultimate tool of ‘hard diplomacy.’ The deterrent effect is real, causing opponents of a nuclear state to think twice before aggressively engaging. And deterrence can be effective with very few nukes, for example the U.K. with merely a handful of nuclear-armed submarines (as opposed to thousands of warheads the U.S. and Russia each still have). Some would say their threat has ensured a relatively peaceful past 70 years on a planet overflowing with both people and munitions. And, ultimately, nuclear weapons are a great geopolitical tool for governments to get their way in the board game that is international power politics.
But there are major drawbacks:
- Easiest to quantify is cost. According to PNAUSA, the average cost to the U.S. government per year over the next ten years is $64 billion. Imagine what that huge amount of money could be used for instead, like social programs cut due to “lack of funding.”
- Nuclear weapons are a revolution in military armament, in the same way guns were a few centuries before. They are qualitatively different from everything that came before them, therefore requiring different thinking from everyone involved. Though they’ve been in use since the 1940s, many international agreements and protocols were not finalized until the 1960s and 1970s. This makes me wonder, “What is still being overlooked?” Because nuclear weapons are so different, they require a higher level of ethics and wisdom, which always lags behind technological innovation, creating a very dangerous gap. This is a liability of the system, requiring each state or actor that acquires nukes to also acquire full knowledge of their unique characteristics and huge threat. As the number of nuclear holders inevitably grows, this will become more of a danger.
- Any war becomes a potential nuclear war, by means of escalation. This sometimes creates situations in which a nuclear-armed state voluntarily accepts defeat by conventional arms while choosing not use their nukes. Michael Quinlan, British nuclear weapon expert, says, “We could never take it as sure – whatever might have been said beforehand – that losers would accept non-nuclear defeat in obedience to treaties, promises, or international law” (Thinking About Nuclear Weapons, 11). Imagine, for example, being head of the Pakistani military as your country is overrun by the Indian army, and choosing between going nuclear or admitting complete defeat. The longer these weapons exist, the sooner this hard decision will be faced.
- Furthermore, “a nuclear state is a state that no one can afford to make desperate” (Quinlan, 30). This is very alarming, because most states will eventually – by odds – find themselves in a desperate situation, or as they lose grip on their populations (which I think will happen in a relocalized future). This is like big banks in 2008 – nuclear states are ‘too big to fail,’ which means there becomes a global responsibility to sustain their wellbeing. We have thus far seen only one nuclear state contract (the USSR); when many more actors have them, the likelihood of dangerous decline increases.
- This connects to my next point – proliferation is inevitable. As of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 there were 5 weapons possessors; it now sits at 9. Attempts by Western governments and the United Nations to limit independent development or acquisition slow the trend but are not a solution. The only solution is nonexistence.
- I like to say, “Put enough people in a room with a gun and someone’s going to get shot.” The more people, governments, and nuclear weapons there are on Earth, the quicker this will be. Even if nuclear deterrence does work an astounding 99% of the time, the final 1% may kill us all. The continued existence of nuclear weapons ensures their eventual uncontrolled use, in the next 10 years, 100 years, or 1000 years.
- The current situation smacks of hypocrisy. Only the countries that have them first are allowed to keep nuclear weapons (by international agreement). Western powers invented this global liability, yet are the same ones that now claim moral higher ground in deciding who should be allowed to possess them and who not. Granted, almost all governments in the world have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, codifying this double standard, apparently judging that hypocrisy is better than proliferation (Quinlan, 80). That softens the blow but doesn’t change the point – for example the only known use against an enemy to date was by the United States military, which by a certain logic means our country is last that should be trusted with them.
- Nuclear weapons are controlled by small teams of high-level military/government, not the general population. That raises two flags. Firstly, if the general population can’t be trusted with something (which I think is a wise move in this case), should it exist at all? Secondly, this is a concentration of an immense amount of power in a small group that essentially can decide who lives and who dies, while the risk is socialized out to the whole society, and indeed the whole world.
- Nuclear weapons share some of the downside of nuclear energy (see that section) in the need to mine, enrich, further enrich, and dispose of fissile material. This is a minor point compared to detonating warheads, but is to be considered in their value exchange.
- The desire to develop and maintain the biggest gun on the block is based in fear. The fear is of not being in control, an affliction that is sadly very common in the Global North. Nuclear weapons exist partly for strategic military defense, but because they exist partly to satisfy the psychological need for control of certain leaders, their validity is questionable. Instead of fear-based control, a certain amount of release into faith can be used – faith in our fellow humans, fate, or the God that we hear touted by most mainstream candidates. It takes courage to put down ones deadly weapons, in trust that the “enemy” puts his down at the same time.
- Use of weaponry, like anything, can be affected on both the supply side and the demand side. The standard tactic is to lessen the opportunity for the Other to do us harm, but unless we want to forever limit and control people, the motive must be lessened (and the counter-motive, to protect us from harm, heightened). For example, the act of the United States military occupying portions of the greater Middle East creates new enemies simply by its occurrence, exactly what it ostensibly seeks to solve. If instead we choose to treat people well across the world, this seriously decreases the desire to harm to the U.S. or its citizens and instead elevates us to the status of a good role model.
Every organism on this planet, including you and I, lives every day under the (mostly-unknown) threat of nuclear destruction. Citizens of the West knew this a generation ago, and felt the cold shadow. Though we’ve been largely lulled to sleep by government supplications, lack of nuclear war for 70 years, and the invisibility of nukes (as opposed to stepwise environmental damage all around us), the threat is present everyday.
Wise leadership would recognize the threat nuclear weapons put the entire planet under and make a mature decision to bow out of this ongoing arms race, for the good of all. This may be a difficult sell to government leaders and regular citizens accustomed to unbounded military, science trumping morality, and decisions based in fear, but wisdom and reason bid it a necessity.
Abolition of nuclear arms will take strength, and is very difficult on the logistical front, but it is the only long-term option. Plan A for dealing with nuclear weapons was to never have invented them. Plan B is eliminating them now (or in the past 70 years). Leaving Plan C, what to do about their continued existence, to future generations is equivalent to leaving them with a denuded, toxic world. Nuclear weapons are just too dangerous a wild card to be allowed to exist any further.
Critical Issue #3: Quality Elections
Free & Fair
Elections are supposed to be “free and fair.” The amount of money candidates spend in their attempt to win has spun off to ridiculous levels, going even beyond sports salaries. It is estimated that Hillary Clinton’s campaign will spend around $1,500,000,000 (1.5b) on this election. Elections that cost so much money are not free. This restricts the pool of candidates from roughly 100 million Americans to an elite handful with access to enormous amounts of money. Furthermore, this money is spent on advertisements and other campaign expenditures that are not of public benefits; imagine if that money were instead put toward government programs that go underfunded because “there isn’t the money.” Finally, the clear pattern over the last half-century is that the candidate that spends the most on the Presidential election gets the White House. Following this logic, Hillary Clinton has already won, and at this point it’s all just for show. Hopefully not…
Private money has become so much the fuel of elections that one a single pair of brothers – the Kochs – and their allied donors plan to spend $889m on the 2016 Presidential election [NY Times, 1/26/15]. This is the size of a third major political party by itself, and vastly more than a regular citizen with their friends can come up with. Given this information, the claim that the election is “fair” certainly cannot be true. So our elections are neither free nor fair.
Selections, Not Elections
Given this private selection of candidates via large monetary donations before it comes to a public vote, it more reasonable to call it a “Presidential selection” rather than a “Presidential election.” A citizen going into a booth and voting in primaries and the general election is the final step in the process; everything that has led up to that point has already largely decided the outcome. Voting matters, but far less than how it was designed. Thus it makes sense that so many citizens (especially younger ones) choose not to vote; many call the system “rigged” by big money and the party system.
For decades, the Republican and Democratic Parties have dominated government leadership, politicizing it into the a toxic domain. I see minimal differences between the Ds and the Rs; consult the Core Questions on this site to see why. As a result, I consider there to be one dominant political party in the U.S. – the Republicratic Party, with two squabbling and slightly different branches within it. Thus, we do not have a plural democracy – one party runs the show. This has been codified into law in various ways (such as FEC funding for Presidential primaries), limiting second party candidates (and independent, party-free candidates like me). The mirage of the two-party system still fools most Americans, maintaining the facade of democracy. And because the Republicrats are so powerful, the American public is effectively constrained to choose between a person with a D next to their name and one with an R next to theirs. This is hardly freedom.
Winner Take All
Finally, in true American style, our (s)elections are winner-take-all. If a candidate receives 49% of the votes, he or she loses and gets nothing, whereas the candidate that got 2% more votes wins everything. This is very reminiscent of sports contests, like the Super Bowl. In that entertainment context it is good fun, but when it comes to leadership in real life (i.e. governance) this winner-take-all system breeds resentment and weak mandates. Many countries have more refined systems such as instant runoff voting, the #2 candidate automatically becoming the Vice, or multiparty coalitions. These might serve the U.S. well in terms of citizen involvement, quality of elections, and general evolution of thinking.
Given these huge shortcomings of the current electoral system, reforming is insufficient. Campaign finance reform, a hot topic today, is a necessary component, but I believe will never solve the inherent structural dysfunctionality of our current system. If we want to get anywhere beyond mediocrity-at-best, major change is needed.
The first step toward this is a deep and honest examination of the current electoral system – what parts work well and what parts don’t. I desire this throughout society (and the world, because what is decided in Washington has global effects) because governance is a two-way street. One direction is elected (or appointed) leaders, and the other is the citizenry. It is easy to castigate politicians, but we the citizens acquiesced to them being in power. It’s like deforestation – the supply side of logging companies and their associates are to blame, but the demand side of wood and paper users are to blame also. I want people everywhere to turn off the TV and talk to each other about what they really want in their leaders (which aren’t restricted to government officials) – imagine if all the energy that went into celebrity watching and sports fanaticism went into active democracy – our leadership would improve almost overnight. A public foment of discussion is a necessary ingredient for functional democracy. This would activate the apathetic in this country, tapping millions of people who have chosen to check out of a system that doesn’t serve them. This is what grassroots democracy looks like, whether the post to fill is the local school board or the national President. What do you really want to see?