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Bruce E. Johansen Borrowed time, borrowed money: Who’s concerned about future generations?

April 8, 2019

The late Carl Sagan, one of our most insightful scientific public intellectuals, had an interesting theory about highly developed civilizations. Given the number of stars and planets in the vast reaches of the universe, he said, there must be other highly developed forms of life. Distance may keep us from making physical contact, but Sagan said that another reason we may never be on speaking terms with another intelligent race is (judging from our own example) could be their penchant for destroying themselves after reaching technological complexity.

On Earth, the damaging side-effects of our own ingenuity may finish us off barely two centuries after we have developed the wonders of fossil fuels, electricity, atomic energy, plastics, and deficit financing. That’s less than 1 percent of human beings’ tenure on Earth. Only in the last half-century have we discovered that our civilization may not be sustainable without major changes in our way of life.

We are living on borrowed ecological time and borrowed federal money.

The federal debt is growing faster than at any time in U.S. history. Witness the battle over President Donald Trump’s cherished Wall. Congress refuses funds, so he declares a national emergency and pledges to pilfer Defense Department construction funds for billions of dollars. Problem is the military needs the money for necessary repairs after such disasters as this year’s Midwest floods.

The annual national deficit, even in a time of general prosperity, soon will reach more than $1 trillion per year. The entire debt (now about $22 trillion, racing upward at about 17 percent per year), first passed $1 trillion in Ronald Reagan’s first term. In theory, at least, future generations will pay these bills, just as they will face a planet ruined by climate change.

In a world living on borrowed time and money, who is concerned about future generations? Trump and Mitch McConnell laugh at efforts to restrict growth in greenhouse gases attendant wild weather. Trump tells the Republican Congressional Committee that noise from wind turbines causes cancer. In the meantime, a pregnant whale is found near Sardinia, Italy with 48 pounds of plastic jamming two-thirds of its stomach, unable to eat calamari, its natural food.

Even as Trump lies about wind power, its capacity and that of solar are exploding in capacity, having reached market prices in some cases nearly equal to those of oil and coal for electricity generation. Even so, such changes are not occurring fast enough to turn the corner on greenhouse-gas emissions that have increased nearly non-stop since the steam engine was invented.

Our ecological clock is ticking faster than most of us realize. Mind the natural laws of thermal inertia, which indicate that we are now harvesting the climatic consequences of fossil fuels emitted into the air 50 years ago, and the oceans about 150 years ago. Can human beings who react to nationalistic and religious stimuli much more viscerally than environmental challenges come to understand what will really be important 100 years from now?

At a time when cooperation across borders on climate change and trade has become more necessary than ever, desperation seems to spawn spasms of nationalistic greed and orgies of fear-driven ugliness, as the rich get richer and the poorest become climate refugees, feeding a political frenzy that ranges from Trump, with his border wall and trade tariffs to Brexit (against immigration from Africa and the Muslim Middle East), to nationalistic regimes in the Philippines, China, India, Brazil, and elsewhere, all characterized by what Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker (April 1, 2019, p. 18) calls “a vocabulary of intolerance, insult, and menace.” Ugliness is in season.

Carbon dioxide has no political party and no religion. It merely does a very efficient job of sequestering heat in the atmosphere. With the certainty of a ticking clock, its atmospheric level rises each year, as our politicians spout and squabble, ignoring the intensifying plight of coming generations who will wonder where we were when their dye was being cast.

Bruce E. Johansen, the author of “Climate Change: An Encyclopedia of Science, Society, and Solutions,” is the Frederick W. Kayser University Research Professor in Communication and Native American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.