I wish to draw attention to several issues which I think are of paramount political and humanitarian importance but which are unlikely to be discussed seriously by any of the politicians running for office this year.
The human population now exceeds six billion on this planet. More than half of the world’s population is living at a bare subsistence level and some of us are starving. Darfur is an example. Starvation is common in Africa and has been for some time. The causes of famines are often political as is the current famine in Darfur today, but this illustrates that our resources are very unevenly distributed and that a large part of the Earth does not produce enough food, let alone goods and services, for the local population to have anything approaching a good life. Indeed, many die in childhood of diseases and starvation, both of which are largely preventable with modern technology, if it were better distributed.
Then there’s the other half (actually much less than half) of the human population that consumes resources and creates waste on land, in water, and in the air at an alarming rate. The average citizen in the United States consumes resources at a rate about six times higher than the average citizen of the Earth. In so doing, Americans have created an unsustainable consumption rate requiring us to import energy from abroad, largely in the form of oil, which leaves us hostage to the machinations of those sitting on the oil. Our adventure in Iraq and the boiling cauldron that is fundamentalist Islam should convince us that we do not want this dependency to continue one minute longer.
Added to our pollution is that of China and India who are rapidly moving forward to high-consuming and polluting societies. The USA has a population of only three hundred million while India has almost a billion and China in excess of a billion. Think of how much we have polluted our environment with just three hundred million of us consuming as much as we can. Now multiply that by a factor of seven. The television news in the US already carries stories of choking air pollution and rivers turned to sewers in China today. Imagine what China and India will be able to accomplish when they are no longer third world countries.
Controlling human population and its attendant consumption of resources and production of waste is absolutely critical to our future health and well-being. Not one presidential candidate has mentioned it.
Somehow global warming has been renamed “climate change.” Climate change covers a lot of possibilities: warmer, cooler, wetter, drier. The problem is global warming and the evidence is solid that humans are making a lot of it happen. Somehow this problem has become a political, conservative versus liberal issue. Global warming is a world-wide, human issue. Conservatives soft pedal global warming, and are the ones responsible for renaming it “climate change.” This implies no causation or specific problem. Their idea is that the costs involved in reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be bad for business so we should wait for further technological progress and better studies before we become alarmed at problem. White House censors have edited good scientific studies to make it seem like we don’t know what’s happening to the Earth and why it is warming up at a rate that justifies alarm right now. And, we have the technology to solve the problem right now. Birth control, renewable fuel resources, particularly solar, wind, and hydroelectric, (even nuclear,) more conservation, better public transportation, smaller, more fuel-efficient cars: all of these can help and all need to be used to maximum practical capacity. Some of these remedies may be bad for some current businesses but they will foster growth in other sectors of the economy. Innovation always works this way. The alternative is to have most of the state of Florida under water in a relatively short time. This is too high a price to pay for our inaction even if Katharine Harris drowns.
The current civilized, industrialized human population evolved from tribes of hunter-gatherers starting about 10,000 years ago. Read “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” by Jared Diamond for a brilliant description of the evolution of modern societies. Even though agricultural, city-based society has almost eliminated hunter-gatherers, as Jacob out-foxed Esau for his father’s blessing, we still retain a lot of our old tendencies to tribal affinities. Though a typical hunter-gatherer clan comprises from 50-100 individuals who are mostly related to each other, our modern tribal affinities are now defined by alliances of our own invention: religions, political parties, nation-states, and so forth. And though we invented all of these, we adhere to them fiercely and even kill each other over our conjured differences. There is something about humans that makes us want to belong to a group much smaller than all of humanity and want to feel that our particular ideas about religion, politics, and country are uniquely correct to the point that we feel justified in forcibly converting others to our point of view. What is laughable and cryable about this state of affairs is, though we are genetically about 99.9% the same the world over, most of us are very easy to convince of several, diametrically opposed philosophies of life that do the common man very little good at all. The only beneficiaries of maintaining our divisions into artificial tribes are those who preside over the divisions: the priesthood and political leaders. An irony in all this, as pointed out by Diamond and other anthropologists, is that the nuclear, hunter-gatherer tribes have rather puny gods that they don’t count on for much of anything. Consistent with their view of the gods, hunter-gatherers don’t really have anyone in the tribe that makes a living solely as a priest or politician. The tribe doesn’t generate enough food, goods, and services to afford to have such non-productive folks around. I guess that’s progress for you.
The second definition of “faith” in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary is “belief which is not based on proof.” I wish to modify this definition a little for this discussion to define “faith” as “belief maintained in spite of evidence to the contrary.” Thus, Mike Huckabee’s profession that he does not believe that evolution happened qualifies as the faith of which I speak. Bill Maher’s ideas about antibiotics and other modern medicines are another example. There is currently an outbreak of measles in San Diego that started in children whose parents had refused to have them vaccinated against the measles virus. School authorities are recommending that all the children who have not been vaccinated be kept home until the disease has run its course. I am willing to guess that very few parents of intentionally unvaccinated children will change their minds as a result of this disease outbreak and have their kids immunized. When Edward Jenner developed the cowpox vaccine for smallpox in 1796, he was actually criticized by some people of faith for interfering with God’s will.
In Europe, faith played a strong part in the persistence of effort that led to the construction of the magnificent gothic cathedrals in France, England, and Germany. Faith has led to beautiful painting, sculpture, and music but not to any scientific advance. It also led to the Crusades and contributed to the Holocaust. In the current presidential election race, Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith won him a lot of votes in Utah and cost him a lot everywhere else. Mike Huckabee’s evangelical protestant faith helped him carry the Deep South and probably hurt him elsewhere.
We say that faith can provide comfort in time of need. Before modern medicine, all we had was faith to comfort us when we or our loved ones were sick or injured. Prayer was a crap-shoot. Now we have vaccines, antibiotics, insulin, digitalis, surgery, and so forth that actually cure many previously fatal illnesses. It is strange that these products of rationalism and the scientific method are not considered comforting by people of faith. But perhaps the most dangerous aspect of faith is not that it will let us passively watch a child die of an infectious disease but that it will drive us to murder our fellow man over our invented differences. What, after all, is the struggle in Iraq about, other than Christian, Capitalist Democracy versus Fundamentalist, Muslim Totalitarianism? I firmly believe that our society is a much better way of doing things than the Iraqi society under Saddam or the society in Afghanistan today, or at any time in the past. And, were it not for faith, I believe that we could approach these differences in a far less bloody way.