The Empty Faucet

There is an old saying that every society is just four square meals away from a revolution; I wonder whether it could also be said that our planet is only one cup of clean drinking water from catastrophe.

We have seen the problems that can arise from a lack of drinking water in other parts of the world; Cape Town in South Africa, a city of 4 million people, avoided running out of water for its residents this past year only by instituting the most draconian possible water restrictions and stringently enforcing them. Closer to home the city of Flint, Michigan was able to provide water—but it was tainted with toxic levels of lead. Many other towns and regions across the United States have dealt with water emergencies caused by contamination from agricultural run-off, industrial pollution, and fracking used for oil extraction. These are problem that appear briefly in the news and are often quickly forgotten, but those residents and their children are left to deal with lifetimes of fear and health problems thereafter.

Although we all prefer to believe a lack of access to safe water is a problem that occurs somewhere far away from us, it has been estimated that 20% of Americans have been exposed to contaminated drinking water at one time or another during the past decade alone. Given that no human can long survive without clean water to drink, these problems should cause more concern than they seem to right now.

It is rather pointless to debate whether the spate of droughts affecting many parts of our nation are due to cyclical climate processes or global warming—whatever the reason, the changes are upon us. As we continue to draw down our supplies of surface water and drain our precious aquifers to sate our vast array of needs for more and more water, we need to consider whether we must better utilize this life-giving liquid before it is too late. We waste immense amounts of water, and much of our waste is either thoughtless or invisible. We pamper our lush lawns, ignore our leaky municipal water systems, and pay no attention at all whenever we run a load of laundry or flush a toilet.

Moreover, few pay any attention to the unending flow of water that makes our daily lives possible, and most would be surprised at the amounts of water used for activities that we take for granted. For example, three liters of water are needed to produce a plastic bottle that holds only one liter of liquid. We expend between 3-7 gallons of water to produce a single gallon of biofuel. A coal-fired power plants uses 20 to 50 gallons of water to generate each kilowatt-hour of electricity. A family of four will use (depending on their shower head) from 400-700 gallons of water per month just to keep their bodies clean. Over 1800 gallons of water are needed to produce a single pound of beef. To grow but one pound of almonds, over 1900 gallons of water are required.

Agriculture is, by a wide margin, the majority of our water use—and, thank goodness, the rain occasionally does fall. However, modern agricultural practices often rely on extensive irrigation systems that draw enormous amounts of surface and ground water to grow the foods that sustain us. Industrial uses of water to produce that which makes modern life possible—electrical power, plastics, metals, electronics, fabrics, rubber, finished wood, paper, and so much more—are too numerous to even consider listing. Even the mildest and briefest interruptions in our ready supply of water would cause unimaginable disruptions in every facet of our daily lives.

If water disappears altogether, we already know what happens from looking at the historical record: Civilization collapses. We need only to glance back through the millennia to find many examples—the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt, the Mayan Empire in Mexico, and the Ming Dynasty in China being but a few—of highly developed nations and cultures erased from the earth by protracted droughts that ended their existences. Within our recent history the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s destroyed a generation of American farmers. Today’s horrendous civil war in Syria and the resulting refugee crisis in Europe can trace their beginnings to a devastating period of regional drought that began in 1998, which caused large scale crop failures, economic distress, and widespread hunger. The misery that results when the rains do not fall is a tale as old as humanity itself.

Drought and despair will, sad to say, always be with us—but we are now able to reduce their effects due to our globalized systems of production and transportation that allow for the shipment of foods and goods from areas that are unaffected to help those who are stricken. Moreover, although we cannot create water, we can renew what we have through the desalination of seawater and the treatment of waste in order to extend our supplies while we continue to look for more ways to conserve.

However, we can be certain that the continued growth of our planet’s population—and the relentless demands for safe supplies of water that will inevitably follow—will lead to societal, economic, and political stresses and crises that we cannot easily foresee. Those steps we take now to plan for the global challenges that most assuredly lie ahead will be the difference between problems that are manageable and those that bring death and destruction. We risk much if we fail to prepare today for our troubled tomorrows, and we all need to think more carefully about what we can do to reduce the use and waste of water in our own daily lives in order to make our personal contributions to helping others—and protecting our own futures.

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Our Many, Many Addictions

This year the World Health Organization decided that playing too many video games is a bona fide addiction deserving of medical treatment. This newest certified addiction is tagged onto a very long list of daily behaviors and activities that have over the years joined alcohol and drug use as problem behaviors. We can apparently now be addicted to eating, collecting, cleaning, gambling, anger, sex, golf, clutter, work, pornography, sunlight, sleep, exercise, shopping, guilt—and so much more. However, our many “addictions” raise a variety of questions regarding our self-perceptions and how these impact our own lives and the lives of those around us.

In addition to the more recognized addictions to drugs and alcohol, which have spawned massive rehabilitation industries that provide little in the way of actual long term cures, we seem incredibly anxious to define more and more of our daily lives and life outcomes as the inevitable results of one addiction or another. Although many behaviors provide pleasure or reward and can readily turn into habits that are difficult to break, I worry that our ever-expanding list of addictions is a symptom of our society’s pernicious flight from the concept of personal responsibility. Although it is certainly more comfortable to blame our failures on forces beyond our control—particularly when “experts” absolve us of all blame—our desires to shrug off our individual responsibilities is ultimately both self-defeating and self-destructive because it excuses a willful avoidance of adult behavior that continues to infantilize our nation and culture. Moreover, an inability to take responsibility for oneself also paralyzes the ability to take responsibility for the well-being of others—which has had a catastrophic effect upon our nation as a whole.

It is impossible, for example, for an irresponsible man or woman to be a responsible parent. If a parent is irresponsible, the burdens of child rearing are typically transferred to grandparents and government—often working in desperate tandem to ameliorate the damage done by parents who are unable to adequately care for themselves or their suffering children. By the same token, those irresponsible adults will be disasters as neighbors, spouses, and employees because they will continue to perceive themselves as being unable to take full control of their own lives.

As unpleasant as the truth may be, most of the time people screw up their lives because they excuse their own immaturity and stupidity on the grounds that self-control and self-regulation is unachievable. This lack of personal agency—continually reinforced by cultural norms that insist on framing basic irresponsibility as an outcome of addictions—is a prescription for wasted lives that lay further waste to everyone else with whom they come into contact.

It is no accident that the Golden Age of Addictions and the Golden Age of Big Government have arisen simultaneously—each serves the interests of the other. The more irresponsibility is excused by our supposed addictions, the more government programs must be created to “cure” those addictions and lessen their real world consequences. On the flip side, the more government programs that are created to shield individuals and families from the irresponsible behaviors caused by their “addictions”, the more entrenched government becomes in the daily lives of our families and communities in order to hide the continued consequences of childish self-absorption. It is the perfect symbiotic storm of waste and stupidity—and taxpayers foot the bill.

There are, of course, addictions that are exceedingly difficult to break, and great personal struggles are involved. However, the signal difference between addictions and diseases is that you can stop engaging in bad or self-destructive behavior. One can, for example, stop drinking too much, but you cannot simply stop having cancer. However, now that we routinely conflate addiction and disease (these two words are even now linked in Google searches), this distinction is often lost in our day-to-day discussions of ruinous personal behaviors.

This confusion also serves the interests of our nation’s many incredibly lucrative rehabilitation programs—and the corporations and agencies that run them. These have embraced and promoted medicalized models of irresponsible behavior because they can both offer the prospect of a “cure” and demand that private and public insurance programs pay for “treatment”. Unfortunately, the treatment will typically fail because the “patient” is continually told they are in the grips of a disease instead of plainly speaking a harsher and less welcome truth—you’re screwing up your own life and the only one who can change your life is you. However, given there is money to made with extended and expensive courses of monitoring and care that offer little prospect of a cure, and which are often repeated multiple times over that individual’s lifetime, it is little wonder that addiction treatment programs continue to spring up like poppies after a heavy rainstorm. The business model is a license to print money.

Very costly treatment programs are typically justified as being less expensive than the prison sentences, healthcare needs, or job losses that might result from an addiction, but it might be reasonable to ask whether spending vast sums of money to shield people from the consequences of their irresponsibility or poor choices actually impedes the development of the self-examination and self-control that is a necessary precursor to positive personal changes. Pain is a powerful motivator, and having to deal directly with the train wreck that you’ve made of your own life is about as powerful a wake-up call as life can provide. Although a night spent in jail and a screaming spouse the next morning are infinitely less pleasant than a sympathetic addiction counselor carrying a plateful of banana-nut muffins, it could well be the case both of these are far more efficacious pathways to long term improvement than any soothing, blameless, and protracted course of expensive counseling and treatments could ever be.

Adulthood is rough, maturity often comes after a few hard knocks have been delivered, responsibility occasionally gets in the way of sleep, failures are the fuel for success, and sometimes a good kick in the pants is the most effective lesson possible. All this is true, and we forget life’s realities at our own peril. Perhaps, as awful and wrenching as it might be for some, now is the time for our nation to ditch our addiction to our many, many addictions and resolve to finally grow up.

Spy Games

It feels a bit like 1950….

Back in those panicky early Cold War days, the biggest show in town was the investigation of Alger Hiss, an American government official accused of being a highly placed spy working on behalf of the Soviet Union.  Over the past several weeks of today’s spy scare, it was revealed that a foreign policy advisor during Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign was placed under government surveillance due to suspicions (as yet unproven) that he was a Russian spy, a Russian woman who is here on a student visa was arrested and charged with being a spy, and a recent magazine article even explored the idea that President Trump himself is an agent of Russia.  All we need to round out the picture is an updated version of the House Un-American Activities Committee, some sweaty new version of Senator Joseph McCarthy at its helm, grilling terrified witnesses and loudly accusing them of espionage and treason.

However, before going any further with this discussion of spies and spying, two salient facts must be acknowledged.

The first is that every nation has spied on every other nation from the dawn of civilization.  It is both prudent and smart to make every effort to peek at the inner machinations and motivations of your neighbors, who might, sad to say, not always have your best interests at heart.  Given the terrifying weaponry washing around the world today, to not spy on other nations in order to divine their decision making would be both foolhardy and irresponsible.

In addition, it is both obvious—and understandable—that American politicians are always accusing their rivals of being un-American.  Wrapping yourself in the flag to win political and—even more importantly—moral advantage is as tried and true a method of winning votes as kissing babies.  Our opposition to Russia after the end of World War II in 1945 (Who now remembers that the Soviet Union was one of our most important allies in the fight against Nazi Germany?) only added a new twist to this old ploy, and Presidents from Truman to Trump have been accused of being Russian dupes by political opponents who saw advantage in making this charge.

I am not certain the ferocity of the attacks are any worse than they used to be.  President Truman was, for example, regularly excoriated by Republicans for having “lost China” to the Communists, and Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater continually barked that President Lyndon Johnson was “soft on Communism” during his own failed campaign for the Oval Office.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the red-baiting disappeared for awhile because the Communists suddenly seemed like they wanted to become compliant capitalists, but the ascendancy of Vladimir Putin, his KGB credentials flying, signaled there were limitations to the goodwill that could be bought via a McDonalds dishing out Big Macs in Moscow

 What makes today’s iteration of the Cold War political attacks so difficult to understand is that it is now the Democrats accusing the Republicans of being blind to the Russian threat.  Even as they are busily embracing “Democratic Socialism”, which sounds like some focus group phrase concocted to make Communism palatable in Cleveland, Democrats are furiously lobbing accusations of treason at President Trump for having the temerity to attempt to de-escalate superpower tensions at the Helsinki summit.  Given that only a few years ago Democratic leaders like Senator Chuck Schumer and former President Clinton were best buddies with Vladimir Putin, the resurrection of this harsh and uncompromising Reagan-era “Evil Empire” rhetoric is apt to give one a bad case of whiplash.  What is not new are the old charges of treasonous intent that are on Page One of the “I’m more of a loyal American than you” handbook for demonizing your political opponents.  

None of this is, of course, connected with any tangible reality.  Many of the actions Donald Trump has taken as President have been the opposite of what any actual Russian agent would have done.  Whether he was pushing through a stupendous increase in U.S. defense spending, sending arms to Ukrainian separatists fighting for their freedom from the Russian Federation, or pushing rules of battlefield engagement in Syria that have already resulted in hundreds of Russian casualties, President Trump has been a much harsher adversary of Russia than his predecessor ever was.  

Indeed, if one flashes back to 2012 and President Obama—who was unaware that the microphone was on—timidly asking Russian President Medvedev to inform Vladimir Putin that he would have more flexibility to deal with difficult issues “after my election”, you have to wonder where all the Democrats and overwrought media were at that time.  Was Barack Obama colluding with Russia to swing the Presidential election in his favor?  Not surprisingly, there was no breathless inquiry regarding this question.

Of course, reality and rage do not have to necessarily coincide—what would be the fun in that?—and painting a hammer and sickle on President Trump’s back is a handy tool for escalating the anger necessary to drive Democratic voter turnout in 2018 and 2020.  Whether voters believe any of this or not is hardly the point.  The accusations that Donald Trump is a Russian spy or agentprovide a uniting issue for fractious Democrats, lend fresh legitimacy to Robert Mueller’s endless investigation, and hopefully distract voter attention from historically low unemployment and a roaring domestic economy.  Whether this will translate to Democratic electoral gains in the midterm elections and beyond is anyone’s guess, but it does not mean that we have heard the end of this discussion—and the many baseless theories it will spawn.

The Roots of American Despair

We have long assumed that America is the “Land of Opportunity” for all. Our national belief that everyone is free to succeed—or fail—based on their hard work and personal initiative is a key component of both our self-perceptions and our perceptions of those around us.

However, international rankings of social mobility show that many other nations now surpass the United States in terms of their citizens being able to rise above the socio-economic classes of their births. This increasingly obvious disconnect between our preferred myth and harsh reality is likely one of the root causes of the political and social discontent that has pervaded our nation for many years. Americans, who are generally very hardworking, are perfectly willing to sweat and sacrifice—if there is a payoff. If, however, we are simply treading water or, worse yet, falling deeper into debt and dysfunction each day, our frustrations are likely to boil over.

Although there are many reasons for our extraordinarily divided politics, perhaps we fail to properly acknowledge the role of stagnated social mobility in driving American anger regarding our lives and our leaders. Whether it is the case that our futures are more and more being circumscribed by government that is too activist—or are harmed by government that is not activist enough—is a topic for a very long discussion that will likely do little to sway opinions entrenched on either side of this issue.

It can plausibly be argued that a great many problems that impede social mobility—rampant drug use, single parenthood, poor work habits, lack of personal initiative, the relocation of manufacturing jobs overseas, escalating public and private debts, and a disregard for personal responsibility—have been encouraged by government programs and policies that sometimes seem designed to produce the most destructive possible consequences for individuals and society. However, others argue that it is precisely a lack of more expensive and expansive government programs that leaves so many Americans without the tools they need to improve their lives.

Although I agree that we do sometimes need targeted programs to alleviate local and national problems—I would, for example, love to see more attention paid to our crumbling infrastructure—I also fear the many well-intentioned elected officials, bureaucrats, and policy wonks who seem to excel at producing the least possible benefit at the highest possible price. Anyone who has, as I have, watched a half-century of progressive educational dogma produce generation after generation of students who know very little—but feel really, really good about their ignorance—has to seriously question why any rational person would ever listen to a politician or PhD who claims to be able to improve our lives. Self-esteem, as I have often pointed out, can easily cross the line into self-delusion—and sheer stupidity is one of the most powerful precursors to lifelong poverty.

Access to a quality K-12 education—and the lack thereof—is both one of the persistent challenges now suppressing social mobility and a possible solution to this problem. Effective public schools are probably our single most important mechanism for promoting social mobility. Their continued failures over the past fifty years or so are both very visible and very depressing. We hear the outcome of public schools that fail to educate when employers consistently complain of high school graduates who lack the basic skills necessary for work. We see the consequences of public schools that fail to educate in our packed “developmental” classes at colleges and universities—and the many students who slink off after flunking out their freshman years because they lack the basic skills necessary for academic success.

If you want to cripple the futures of your nation’s people, just be certain they can neither read well, write fluently, nor compute accurately when they finish public school. Next offer them a vast array of social programs that discourage independence and encourage irresponsibility. Be certain that you also promote a range of government policies that drive well-paying jobs out of your communities and country while saddling everyone with frighteningly unsustainable levels of debt that will further retard economic growth and opportunity for all. Repeat this process year after year—and generation after generation—and watch Americans become more angry and less hopeful until they finally turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain. Does any of this sound at all familiar?

I don’t worry about Russia; I worry about our own government. Our leaders are much more likely than Vladimir Putin to destroy America—because they want so badly to justify their existence by “helping” us. However, given that the national unemployment rate is currently trending down to levels not seen in half a century, perhaps those who have had their lives sidetracked by decades of government assistance, which has primarily served to assist them into lives of quiet despair, will now have opportunities available to rejoin the labor force, develop a sense of self-confidence heretofore cruelly stripped from them, and begin to reduce some portion of the income inequality that is a legacy of so many decades of government help gone awry.

Divided We Fall

The late United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously observed that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” This perfectly reasonable bit of wisdom seems lost upon our perfectly unreasonable age. Those with opposing beliefs see no event the same, so we are now defined by our disagreements and revel in the different and—as far as we are concerned—superior nature of both our own opinions and the sometimes questionable facts that inform them.

My worry is not only about our degree of political atomization, which is now so abundantly visible that it has almost descended to cliché. I also worry about the regional divides that have been building for many years—and which were starkly revealed on Election Night in 2016. Today’s Democratic coalition is mostly located on the coasts, college towns, and urban areas—elsewhere it is largely a sea of red.

This harsh reality explains a good deal of the unreality of the expert predictions leading up to Donald Trump’s thoroughly unexpected election victory. Pundits always live in big cities filled with like-minded Democrats on the east and west coasts—a scant 4% of voters in Washington, D.C., for example, cast their votes for Trump—so they were stunned down to their socks by the outcome. Call it the revenge of “flyover country” if you will, but the slack-jawed and occasionally tearful shock of the talking heads on network television spoke clearly and loudly on Election Night. We are, unfortunately, two nations living in two entirely separate worlds.

These divisions are exacerbated by media coverage that demonizes and denigrates those who hold opposing opinions. I am rather exhausted from reading articles that entirely skip reasoned analysis and instead focus on how someone has (these are, by the way, just from a quick browse of today’s online articles) “attacked, burned, scorched, destroyed, clapped back at, called out, or fired back at” another human being because they are a “kook, crook, dupe, hater, fascist, criminal, Nazi, fool, or idiot.” No wonder so many people now shudder when they see the front pages. Hurtful and harmful invective is now so thoroughly woven into our daily conversations that it is remarkable when we encounter grace and consideration, which is as about as sad an observation about the state of our nation as I can possibly imagine.

Inflammatory headlines and copy, sad to say, attract viewers and readers, so there is a built-in economic incentive that benefits media that are routinely rude, insulting, and unfair. In addition, the political interests of the most extreme are well-served by dehumanizing their opponents in order to attract equally outraged donors and followers. The unfortunate synergy that consequently arises between hungry media and angry partisans reinforces the worst in each, and those who adopt more moderate positions can expect to be ruthlessly and endlessly attacked by those at both fringes of the political spectrum—which serves only to squeeze the moderation right out of them.

My concerns have been increased by hearing accounts of people ditching social media because they simply cannot stand the levels of venom and vindictiveness that so many routinely display in their posts. The net result is to leave the dialogue to those who have the least interest in actual dialogue. What we see today is that famous couplet from William Butler Yeats poem, The Second Coming, in real life: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

We are lost if thoughtful and fair-minded Americans, who are those most likely to forge and support the consensus solutions our nation needs to survive, retreat from our public forums. The grim solitary comfort to be found in growling at our glowing televisions pales in comparison to taking part in a national conversation that involves listening intently, speaking respectfully, and caring intensely. As much as we may sometimes be discouraged by the wild anger of others, we cannot allow ourselves to be driven to the political sidelines by those who care for little beside the sound of their own brittle voices. A chorus is most robust when everyone sings their parts together, and we should not be afraid to raise our own voices to create America’s song.

For those who frown upon such foolishness, please forgive my little flight of poetry. It is an outcome of my fears regarding the foreboding path ahead if we do not—I hope—find it within ourselves to remember that we are all Americans.