Civilizations collapse, we know this from the historical record. We know that the culture of Ur and Mesopotamia went away due to extreme changes to the environment. We also know of the more recent Maya civilization, who suffered an extreme collapse within the course of several generations. We also now know that it was a single event. There were at least two, and both included social instability, increased warfare, and droughts. Because of changing climate we are experiencing localized warfare, such as the Syrian civil war, refugee flows and extreme weather events. We realize what we are seeing. We may very well be on the leading edge of civilization collapse, not unlike the Maya. The difference is that they did not know. We do.
Climate change was a factor for the Classic Maya. We also know, that as sophisticated as the Maya were, they did not see it coming. We do, therefore we really have no excuses regarding our lack of action or pulling back from it.. We were warned by many scientists who at times despair at our almost infantile inanity to understand that possible future. They know what is coming. Some have even said in scientific papers, very much on the record, that it may be too late to avoid the worst effects, perhaps it is too late, period. We were told this by among others, Neil Degrasse Tyson. It might be time to apologize to your children, Hug them, and say your goo byes.
We are likely facing a similar collapse as the Maya. Never mind that Quiche Maya survive to this day but the glory that was once their civilization is almost confined to the mists of history.
We are experiencing unprecedented wild fires, heat waves, and other extreme weather events. The science of climate change is clear. We assume that Maya leaders were not warned, but the codices were burned en-mass by Father Motolinia and other Dominicans. Our knowledge of their history is fragmentary at best. So perhaps they were warned and chose to ignore those. What is the current administration excuse?
The Trump Administration is turning back clean air regulations passed during the Obama administration, meant to stimulate clean tech, and discourage coal. Those environmental, regulations are just one piece of the puzzle if we are to avoid collapse. Those clean air regulations also lead to less disease, and less admissions into emergency rooms. They are good intelligent policy.
So why is Donald Trump hell bent on tuning his back on the earth and solid science? Why is he determined to be a contrarian? Why does he doubt experts? It speaks to his values, and that of many in his political base. It speaks about the United States as a country as well.
According to the New York Times this relaxed set of environmental rules will lead to 1,400 premature deaths a year. It will do far more than just that. According to the New York Times:
The proposal, the Affordable Clean Energy rule, is a replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which was an aggressive effort to speed up the closures of coal-burning plants, one of the main producers of greenhouse gases, by setting national targets for cutting carbon dioxide emissions and encouraging utilities to use cleaner energy sources like wind and solar. The new proposal, issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, instead seeks to make minor on-site efficiency improvements at individual plants and will also let states relax pollution rules for power plants that need upgrades, keeping them active longer.
Trump administration officials say the Clean Power Plan illegally tried to force electric utilities to use greener energy sources in order to reduce carbon emissions. The new plan, they said, achieves much of the benefits sought by the Obama administration but in a way that is legal and allows states greater flexibility.
Here is the point. For people in Trump’s social class those 1400 premature deaths are the price of doing business. They likely will be the poor and middle class who cannot afford the state of the art medical care people in Trump’s social class have access to, and usually use. Trump is also trying hard to prop up a dying coal industry instead of pushing for the development of the next wave of industrial energy. This is renewable energy, weather it is solar, wind, geothermal, or forms not yet developed.
In the mind of people who are very wealthy, those premature deaths are disposable, lazy people. They are not fathers, mothers, children. In other words, according to Business Insider:
”Americans may be more narcissistic now than ever, but narcissism is not evenly distributed across social strata,” Piff wrote. “Higher social class is associated with increased entitlement and narcissism.”
Many in his base live in the suburbs of many small too medium sized cities, and are better off economically than the national mean. Those who are poor and still in his base feel a certain level of entitlement, and that someday they will be rich. They are not poor, but afraid of losing their status in a society where they are quickly becoming a minority.
“It’s much more of a symbolic threat that people feel,’’ said Diana C. Mutz, the author of the study and a political science and communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where she directs the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics. “It’s not a threat to their own economic well-being; it’s a threat to their group’s dominance in our country over all.”
Then there is the country as a whole. We are acting like entitled brats in front of the world who will continue to pollute like there was no tomorrow. Who cares if literally there will be no tomorrow for the species? We tell other countries, you first, never mind we are still the largest polluters. Trump complained that the deal allowed China to increase emissions and “do whatever they want” for 13 years, and India to double its coal production by 2020. However, the fact remains that the U.S. has more emissions of CO2 per capita than any other country in the world.
According to data from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, the U.S. emitted 16.3 metric tons per capita of CO2 in 2013, three times that of the world’s emissions per capita. The U.S. accounts for a mere four percent of the world’s population.
As a society we also act in very dysfunctional ways. Let me list some of our national choices.
We are the only advanced economy without a single payer universal medical system. Never mind that single payer systems are more efficient, cheaper to run and have better outcomes for populations at large. We prefer to think that healthcare is a privilege, not a human right. Since we live longer, we are also seeing that you zip code is destiny. Poorly served areas have less life expectancy than wealthier zip codes. Overall national life expectancy is starting to go down in the United States. In particular with white working class men.
If we had a national health care system, we would have the drive and resources to deal with the opioid epidemic in a far more effective way. . Yet, we hold on to the myth that a public health care system is substandard. We also hold to the myth that this is socialism, and somehow bad and un-American. Or that it can take many forms. We like to tell ourselves the story that if our neighbor cannot afford that health care, it sucks to be him. Never mind that at times it might put us at risk, if they happen to have the flu, or other infectious diseases. Public health is a public matter, and not something to use morality tests on.
We defy expert opinion, regularly, no matter what field. This is a cultural marker. We like to think that our lack of knowledge equals that of actual experts. It is part of a cult of ignorance that is pervasive in the culture. Climate science is the best example of this dangerous trend, at this moment. Vaccines and other public health matters are another. And for the current Administration, even inauguration crowd size data is what they say they are, not what they were. This has become an Orwellian manipulation of language and facts. It is to the point that facts were replaced by a post truth reality, where even things such as taxes are seen as evil. It seems public goods are paid with pixie dust, almost by magic.
This is a dangerous attitude, that has prevented fast action at other crisis points. Whether this was the AIDS epidemic, or a series of conspiracies that deny facts. In an age with incredible access to information, it almost defies common sense that Americans celebrate ignorance for its own sake.
When traveling abroad, the ugly, entitled American is pervasive. We are a nation that refuses to speak more than one language. Except of course for the very well to do, who understand that they need to know more than one language because this is expected in the international circles they move in. Their children are prepared to live wherever opportunity may be, not where they were born. We, as a culture, despise those who are multi-lingual, in a sense of false pride. But it is curious that this is not the case among a selected group of Americans.
According to The Atlantic, this is the situation at present:
Less than 1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom. That’s noteworthy considering that in 2008 almost all high schools in the country — 93 percent — offered foreign languages, according to a national survey. In many cases, as Richard Brecht, who oversees the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language, said on Thursday: “It isn’t that people don’t think language education important. It’s that they don’t think it’s possible.”
We also want others around the world to adopt our ways, even when they are quite destructive. Partly this is the philosophy of globalization that adopted American values. This is quickly changing, with among others, the Chinese Silk Road, but most Americans are blissfully unaware. With the growth of the road, so are the ever expanding mercenary services, not just limited to the west any longer. They are also not aware that at one time we cared about ties around the world. We are at a destructive moment of turning inwards.
We spend ten times more in defense than the next seven to ten nations combined. It truly depends on the budget year, and the data point. Therefore social safety nets that we depend on are severely underfunded. In fact, conservatives (and by this I include members of both political parties) want to get rid of those weak safety nets. This is why Medicare and Social Security are under attack . According to the Washington Post:
The Republican budget confronts this enemy by taking a whack at entitlement spending. Lawmakers of both parties agree that spending that is not subject to Congress’s annual appropriations process is becoming unsustainable. But Trump has largely taken it off the table by refusing to touch Medicare or Social Security, and Democrats have little interest in addressing it except as part of a larger deal including tax increases — the sort of “Grand Bargain” that eluded President Barack Obama.
This will increase insecurity, and deepen poverty. But the very rich have nothing to worry about. And what they have amassed is never enough. It also increases the national paranoia we live through. We fear outsiders, instead of working with others. It has led to a weird dynamic. Americans want to spend as much as we possibly can in defense, but not in public infrastructure, education or health care. Nor do we want to invest in basic science. All these decisions are making us poorer and our children will see less opportunities because of this.
We have placed market values above all others, including the survival of our children. This is baffling to me. Most animals care for their young. Parents abroad also deeply care for their children. Individual Americans do as well. However, especially among the American elite, they want more wealth and goods to signal that wealth. Children have become objects to be shown off to others. As objects they become items of social signaling, not unlike the expensive car, or computer system. They believe they are entitled to exploit the earth to concentrate more wealth. It’s not like they will take any of this with them. But it is never enough. To a lesser extent we as a society do the same, ever consuming more goods. It is never enough.
We are increasingly rejecting the values of reason and the Enlightenment, replacing them with ghosts, phantoms and fantasies. Have you heard of healing crystals? If not Chrystal’s, how about meditation pyramids? Maybe it is the latest fad diet? Or perhaps the promise that you will remain forever young if you take a new form of snake oil?
We live with national myths that hide our ugly realities, such as increasing income inequality and deepening poverty. Let’s be clear about this. Most wealthy people started on third base, and most (like the president) inherited their wealth. They are not that special, nor are they more intelligent or gifted somehow. They were very lucky. We need to stop worshiping them.
These myths prevent Americans from understanding the serious trouble we are in as a culture. It also inhibits us from seeing how we are perceived around the world. Many people around the world were not particularly surprised the United States left the Paris accords. While their national leaders were dismayed, they were hardly stunned. Nor will they be especially amused by our turning back on climate regulations that were just a start in fixing the climate crisis.
We are perceived around the world as selfish, self absorbed narcissist. We export our culture in the form of movies and tv. It is popular, don’t get me wrong. It sells well. It is fantastical and detached from reality. We are in deep trouble. We seek to escape what we have created with a series of delusions that avoid our present. This is why we accept somebody like Trump. He is a good reflection of the current state of American culture. He is fantasy, and he is a narcissist. He is self absorbed, and considers those not loyal to him…traitors.
He also distrust authorities, science and other critical matters for our collective survival. He rejects what could make us better as a society.