In the 1980s, to help awaken people to the danger of thermonuclear holocaust, the organization I volunteer for, Beyond War, used what is now a scientifically discredited metaphor: if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it would immediately leap out, but if you put the same frog in a pot of cold water and gradually heated it, it would sit passively in the pot and slowly boil to death—the point being that if citizens continued to sleep and nations to drift, we would all get overtaken by nuclear war.
Unfortunately a metaphor can remain apt even if its literal source is untrue. This came involuntarily to mind as we sweated through the latest heat wave in our third floor walkup in Boston. We’re right under the roof of the building; meaningful survival is not possible without at least one room with AC into which to retreat. Yet there’s something about air conditioning that comes around to bite us in the butt. We are cooling ourselves against the very same hot air that our ACs are expelling, while the power to run these machines is generated by climate change-inducing fossil fuels. Taking the dogs out for their midday walk and feeling them pull toward shady spots, I put my palm on the asphalt pavement and understood their concern. It burned.
This particular wave of mercury-busting high temperatures has been paralleled by the rising tension in Washington over whether to raise the debt ceiling. Is there is a connection between our unsustainable debt and the almost unendurable heat that grips much of the nation in its molten fist?
It is getting awfully difficult to pretend that global warming isn’t intensified, if not caused, by human activity. There are still too many who would stridently deny it, but whether the skeptics like it or not, fundamental economic assumptions may be melting away in these waves of heat. I fail to understand the oddly pinched version of self-interest that apparently motivates some of our wealthier citizens. As they corrode the strength of the middle and working classes by exercising ever-greater lobbying power over all three branches of government to keep their own tax burden light, are they not killing the very markets that are the ultimate source of their wealth? In their rejection of public servants of integrity like Elizabeth Warren, are they not spurning the very transparency and perceived fairness which ultimately allows the system work to their own, and everyone else’s, benefit?
Where in the heated discussion about whether or not to raise the debt ceiling is a comprehensive view of where we are headed, comprehensive enough to include our own effect on the biosphere upon which we, wealthy and poor alike, depend for life? The Treasury may print more dollar bills, but the ceiling of the debt due to Nature is as unyielding as the steel in our ever-higher skyscrapers.
Just as capitalism only works if it includes some kind of fairness compact between producers and consumers, there is need for a new societal compact that takes into account our radical interdependency with larger systems. Our leaders ought to be debating how to change the tax code not only to make it simpler and fairer, but also to massively incentivize energy conservation and sustainable alternative sources of power. We are presented with the opportunity to measure economic growth by quality of life over quantity of goods. But this requires the kind of far-sighted creative thinking that kills not just two but ten birds with one stone. For example, the biggest polluter and user of fossil fuels on the planet is the U.S. military. Meanwhile the Pentagon is preparing to fight wars over scarce resources, while that very scarcity is worsened by—hello—pollution and the use of fossil fuels.
Escaping from Boston to Cape Cod to beat the heat, we found ourselves at a bazaar where native arts and crafts from around the world were being sold under the sponsorship of a worthy organization called Cultural Survival. As they shopped blithely among brightly patterned clothing, rugs and jewelry made by threatened indigenous peoples, what were the well-fed natives of the Cape thinking about the survival of their own culture?