Friday, February 13, 2015

The Big Problems

Maybe it's the Presidents Day weekend, but I was thinking about the really big problems in our country and the world as I drove in to work today. Nearly ten years ago I decided to focus my political energy on my village. I saw a lot happening in the world, our country, and our state that I didn't like. But I didn't think I was in a position to change any of it.

However, I did think I could make a real difference in my own community. I like to think that's worked out pretty well. "Think global and act local," you know? It's pretty good advice if you'd like to accomplish some things.

I spend most of my time in politics worrying about relatively small stuff: zoning ordinances, budget details, neighbor disputes, special assessment districts, pathway expansions and even how we mow our parks. When I talk politics and mention "goose eggs" I'm not talking about zeroes. I'm talking about literal goose eggs, laid by geese in nests.

All that small stuff adds up to a big thing in one small place: making our village a better place to live.

It's also cool because I like the small stuff and seem to have more patience for it than a lot of other folks. (Believe me, local municipal governance involves no small portion of patience!) I like seeing things before me that I can fix or at least improve a bit.

But even though I like the small stuff, I sometimes despair when I look at the utter load of insider baseball and irrelevant crap upon which our national media and political process constantly fixates. And even when the big problems come up, it's usually as a source of much sound and fury preceding an arcane tactical battle for political advantage on an unrelated but more immediate topic, usually one of great financial interest to one or another special interests. (Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Keystone Pipeline.)

I wonder sometimes if it's not so much a conscious decision as it is a carnival fun-house reflection of my own choice to work on small stuff. The big stuff is too scary and hard, so everybody at every level chases down stuff they actually can fix. Plus, there are very few "silver bullet" solutions even for small problems. The truly big stuff is complex and takes a huge amount of work and political will to impact. I've spent my last decade working on smaller things I know I can improve, and even that takes pretty much all my available effort.

Maybe my finger-pointing should include a finger pointed at myself, too. I dunno. I like to think what I've done has helped a bit in the big picture, but I also know that there are some enormous problems that don't seem to get nearly enough constructive effort.

I thought I'd list a few of the ones that came to mind as I drove in to work this morning, just for ... well, probably just to depress myself on a Friday. Let's see what's out there.

1) The Environment, in three parts:

   a. The Great Extinction -- We are in the midst of one of the five largest extinction events in history. The other four were natural disasters (asteroid strikes and volcanoes, or so it seems.) This one is a man-made disaster caused by human predation, invasive species, pollution, global warming, and habitat loss.

   b.  Global Warming -- It's real. It's man-made. And putting 1/3 of Florida and much of the Atlantic seaboard under water will cost considerably more than reducing greenhouse gas emissions now. Yet, for all the noise around this one (at least it's not getting ignored!) the little that has been done to forestall it is vastly inadequate.

   c. The Toxic Soup -- Speaking of complex and difficult ... man-made chemicals, heavy metals, and other pollutants have proliferated everywhere over the last 75 years. Many of these substances are known carcinogens or causes of birth defects and developmental disorders. Many of them will be here long after us. In cases in which we do understand their effects we have studied those effects on the single substance by itself, not the cumulative "stacking" effect with all the other ingredients of our daily toxic soup.

2) Growing inequality and the erosion of the middle class -- Most of this country is growing poorer while an extremely small number of people are growing much, much wealthier. That's not just wrong. It's bad for the long-term health of our country. And yet the political will to do anything about it doesn't exist. The left wing scapegoats the wealthy, the right wing scapegoats the poor, and the incumbents of both parties seem to have little incentive to do anything about this worsening situation, possibly because of...

3) The decline of our democracy -- Political disenfranchisement via gerrymandering, campaign financing, restrictive voting laws, etc. has created a growing sense that our democracy is broken and unresponsive.

4) World Peace? -- Eh, that one may be too big even for this list. I sure wish I could figure out how to fix it, though. Even a small bit of it. I've grown awfully tired of the endless carnage that greets me each day in the international section of every newspaper.

I'm sure there's plenty of other big, awful stuff to think about out there. But I reckon that list is enough for one Friday evening. It's no wonder even a guy as rich as Bill Gates decided to focus a big chunk of his fortunate on something concise like "clean drinking water." You just can't fix it all.

But you know what I can fix on a Friday evening? I can fix myself a martini. That'll have to do for today.


  1. That No. 3 is almost local -- and therefore very worrying. Meanwhile we're so glad around here that You are handling the little problems in this neck of the woods!!!

  2. Wow, that's a well stated summary of the state of things these days, from a thoughtful man who does his part to have a positive impact on the world. It also explains, retrospectively for me, your mood upon arriving home Friday evening, John...

  3. Re: #1, the percentage of Americans taken in by "the best junk science fossil fuel interests can buy" is staggering.