The Earth will have its Revenge

March 15, 2016

One of the major drivers of global warming is the greenhouse gases we emit by burning fossil fuels. Another major driver of global warming and one of the ways in which we are making our earth unsustainable for human life is the population explosion. When I was young the earth’s population was around 3 billion. It has more than doubled. When we talk about the growth of population, the crucial issue is about the time it would take to double. Population can double in as little as a generation. We are on the way to an earth with 12 billion people and counting. The devastation that is causing and will cause is incalculable and will make the earth inhospitable in short order, contributing to the overuse of water, the over fishing of the oceans, the deforestation of the jungles, the overuse of carbon based fuels even while we try to flush them out of the atmosphere and every other form of damage to the earth we depend on.

That makes population policy a tremendously important issue worldwide. Years ago we used to talk about ZPG, zero population growth. The idea had been talked about for centuries but a best-selling book, The Population Bomb, written by Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich, helped make it a movement in 1968. Just a few years later, the movement was hijacked by the national battle over abortion. But population growth did not suddenly become unimportant. It remains at the root of the unsustainability of the world we inhabit.

We have a choice, we can curb the growth of population voluntarily, or an angry earth will do it to us, reducing our children and grandchildren to refugees, beggars, and marauders and leaving them to die of thirst and starvation or gasping for oxygen, if they are not killed by armed bands looking for the scraps of the earth.

Naysayers like to point out that Malthus’ prediction of worldwide starvation has not yet come true. But the evidence that Malthus’ prediction is coming true is all around us. Lands once fertile are becoming deserts. Trees once crucial to a sustainable atmosphere are being chopped down at alarming rates in the southern hemisphere with worldwide consequences. Fish stocks have been shrinking and even more important, the coral reefs that are at the base of the oceanic food chain are dying. May Malthus rest in peace, but we are seeing what he feared. Human beings have never been good at listening to prophets. Those of us living now can’t claim we were not warned. We can only claim that too many people scoffed as they scoffed at the prophets of old. The earth will have its revenge.

I do not want to treat abortion as part of this problem because it raises so many separate issues and debates. But I do want to treat almost every other method of birth control as very much part of the issue. Whatever your faith, we have an obligation to life, to treat our world with the respect it deserves. Religious proclamations about populating the earth made thousands of years ago have been accomplished, and must now be subordinated to religious and secular claims about life, about treating each other as required by the Golden Rule, about protecting the soil and the air and the water that give us all life. There is no escape from that injunction. Or the earth will have its revenge. Make sure the people you elect start protecting us from world-wide disaster.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 15, 2016.


Environmental Time Wasted

July 28, 2015

A news director at this station, about a decade ago, wanted me to engage in what some call pack journalism, to talk about whatever was occupying the press’s attention. I understood his point; people’s interest was already peaked. Plus the more people talk about the same things, the more it tends to sink in. But I’ve never liked piling on. If you heard it elsewhere, I feel no need to restate it. I like to bring up something else, or a different perspective. I feel more useful that way.

This week I’d like to bring up a case much less talked about than the Supreme Court term’s blockbusters on same-sex marriage and medical care. Those are very important decisions. But here’s another worth examining. On June 29, the Supreme Court decided Michigan v. EPA. According to Justice Scalia and the conservative majority, the case was about whether the EPA needed to consider the costs of regulation. According to Justice Kagan and the liberal dissenters, the case was about whether the EPA needed to consider costs separately before considering specific regulations.

Sometimes court decisions lead one down the rabbit hole with Lewis Carroll. According to Justice Kagan, the EPA did consider costs. It took costs into account in the specific regulations for each type of power plant. It considered costs by adopting ways to mitigate the cost of the required measures to catch up with up-to-date emissions control systems. It decided against more stringent controls because it decided they would not be cost-effective. And it elaborately examined the quantifiable costs and benefits. The problem: it did all that in the wrong order. The result – the rule is on hold now; the agency will have to do some work to show it studied cost the way the Court wants it done before it can reimpose regulation.

That’s one of the main purposes of taking administrative agencies to court – delay can be worth a lot of money to business and industry even if they will eventually have to comply. In other words, regulations can protect the public, but courts can delay them.

Barely mentioned was how much mercury and other toxic pollutants coal fired power plants could send into the air we breathe. Scalia and the industry said there were merely several million dollars damage to the public per year. Kagan and the EPA said the damage was in the tens of billions. Of course much of the damage cannot be measured in dollars anyway – it is about lives damaged and destroyed by mercury and other toxic pollutants.

Republicans have been fighting for years against regulation of mercury emissions. Democrats just as long have been fighting to clean the air of the kinds of things that could damage our health and our ability to lead productive lives. But consistency is the hob-goblin of little minds: Republicans would do everything possible to control addictive drugs that damage our lives, health and minds – they are used by bad people. But Republicans would not control pollutants that damage our lives, health and minds – they are emitted by good people. Democrats, of course, the reverse.

So which congressman, and which justice, is in whose pocket? Some of them apparently define good and bad people by the money in their pockets instead of the things they do to others. Whatever happened to equal justice?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 21, 2015.


Libertarians on and off the Court

December 2, 2014

Most Supreme Court justices are libertarians in some sense. But what kind and for whom varies widely.

We all believe we have rights to decide lots of things for ourselves. But what are the limits? The more “conservative” the justices and others are, the closer to the Tea Party, the only limits they recognize are force and fraud. Various conservative philosophers have been very plain about that. Regulations, almost all regulations, interfere with that freedom of action.

People sign contracts every day that have draconian consequences for them, but, say the far right, you agreed to that. You signed a contract for which the only remedy is a stacked deck, arbitration in front of an arbitrator arranged by the company, and you have no right to unite with other people in the same situation to fight expensive battles together and share the costs – that’s called a class action, and the Court’s conservatives forbid it in arbitration, won’t allow the states to try to protect consumers from such restrictions on their rights. That protects the company’s liberty. And of course you had the liberty not to sign – if you read and understood the contract and had a realistic choice.

You signed a mortgage with a lender and it had all sorts of hidden costs, fees, rates and traps that put a lot of people underwater and helped to build and then break the housing bubble, and with it the economy. But, tough, you signed, say the conservatives.

Most states used to forbid usury, interest rates that no one could reasonably pay but that piled up so quickly bankruptcy was inevitable. Not any more – the Supreme Court made sure states could no longer forbid usury.

And where the conservatives on the Supreme Court couldn’t block federal law, like the antitrust laws which were intended to give us the benefit of competition and protect us from monopoly, they made it impossible to prove.

There are an endless set of examples. The company gets the liberty and you get the shaft.

But when you get the shaft, that doesn’t just affect the liberty that judges and legislatures say you have. Getting the shaft affects your real liberty – liberty to make wholesome life choices for yourselves and your families. Most of us think our liberty is limited by the effect on other people’s liberty. Giving people the shaft deprives people, ourselves and lots of others, of our very real liberty.

Most states tried to limit legal liberty to do things that harm others. There should be no liberty to foul the water we drink or the air we breathe. There should be no liberty to bury costs in fine print legalese, or propose terms that the company knows will do damage. There should be no liberty to put people into unsafe working conditions when the company could have saved their lives, saved people from collapses and explosions in coal mines, oil rigs, and similar disasters. It doesn’t matter that the workers agreed, signed a contract, took the job – the company knew and we should be able to stop it.

We too believe in liberty, but it is liberty bounded by what’s good for everyone. We have a choice between freedom for those who have the money and power to exercise it, or freedom for everyone based on some realism about what’s going to happen.

Do we care? The protectors of corporate legal liberties on the Court have a child’s idea of liberty – without responsibility. Children throwing tantrums at civilization have no place on the Court.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 2, 2014.


Band-aids or Systemic Change

July 1, 2014

Let me try to put some things in perspective. I spent a decade in the Legal Service Program which provides lawyers for the poor, first as a store-front lawyer, then in the management of programs or running a clinic. One of the recurring issues we used to debate was whether to focus on what we called “band-aids” or systemic change.

Band aids were individual relief for individual clients, generally much easier to get, but taking quite a lot of time for the few people we could help. It was important work, very satisfying and very frustrating at the same time because we could never make a dent in the needs most of our clients had that way. Read the rest of this entry »


Cooperation Required for Major Health Threats

June 10, 2014

First, it’s so good to have WAMC back doing regular programming. Congratulations all.

Many stations try to give us “news you can use,” by which they mean the things we can do for ourselves. But the things that really matter are the things that require our cooperation.

If we look at our major health threats, I think most people would name heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity. I sympathize with that position. With the help or advice of my doctors I’m keeping diabetes and my heart under control, partly by getting closer to what I weighed in college. So now we have a national health care system. Got those licked. Read the rest of this entry »


WAMC – An Oasis Of Sanity

June 3, 2014

This station is an oasis of sanity in a suicidal world.

So many people refuse to let the reality of climate change seep into their comfortable thoughts. But sealing their minds against reality will not keep it at bay. Changes are coming, and the more we close our minds and eyes the more serious it will be. We and our children and grandchildren are the hostages to the foolishness of our generation. This has got to stop. Read the rest of this entry »


Is Environmental Catastrophe Ringing from the Pulpit?

May 27, 2014

Let me lead with a question – Is the threat of environmental catastrophe ringing from every pulpit and ethical organization in the country? If not, why not? The Bible records many prophets and the price of ignoring them. Surely making clear the moral and religious imperative of preventing catastrophe is a basic function, a duty of the clergy. Read the rest of this entry »


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