To Be or Not To Be (It’s not just a question anymore)

Well, you roll on roads
Over fresh green grass
For your lorry loads
Pumping petrol gas

And you make them long
And you make them tough
But they just go on and on
And it seems that you can’t get off

Oh, I know we’ve come a long way
We’re changing day to day
But tell me, where do the children play?

-Cat Stevens

“Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”

– U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken

Hey farmer farmer
Put away the DDT now
Give me spots on my apples but
Leave me the birds and the bees

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Til its gone

  –Joni Mitchell

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ascent to the Oval Office in 1933 occurred under the storm clouds of a historic financial crisis. At his first inaugural address he accepted the challenges before him and advised an apprehensive nation that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”. In 1930 alone over 700 banks failed, taking with them all their depositors’ assets. Banking often resembled a poker game managed by less than scrupulous dealers using depositors’ money for chips as they made shady stock market investments, often without the  knowledge or permission of customers, while facing no prospect of penalty for losses. Deposit insurance did not exist at the time. Mere rumors inspired bank runs and resultant bankruptcies. Moreover, the Great Depression rippled through global economies as well.

Corporations, the nation was assured, were beneficent guardians of the economy but there was little embedded in the law to account for humanity’s inherent greed, and for too long government had exercised minuscule control over the markets. Investors were bilked while people lost their homes and their livelihoods.  The new president proposed a New Deal to propel the savaged economy forward.

Conservative critics of the era mocked the plan, some even called the new president a communist and a fascist. But fast forward to the present and how many of you regret the creation of Social Security ?  The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation secures up to $250,000 per bank account. Is that a bad thing? The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 prohibits exploitative and oppressive child labor and calls for a 40-hour work week and for wages to be paid at time and a half for every hour over that. Should that legislation be repealed? The 1935 National Labor Relations Act calls for the freedom to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions, is this un American? Consider this…

Not long before, in 1911,  a garment factory fire in New York City resulted in the deaths of 146 human beings, mostly immigrant women and children. Fire safety regulations were negligible. The owners of the Triangle Waist Shirt Factory locked the doors to the stairwells and exits to prevent unspecified breaks.  Those who weren’t burned alive or who perished from smoke inhalation leapt to their deaths from high above the awaiting streets. The owners were acquitted of first- and second-degree manslaughter. Although they were found liable in a civil trial in 1913 for wrongful death, the insurance company payout to them came to $400 per casualty. The plaintiffs were awarded $75 compensation per body, or just under $11,000 total. Later that same year, one of the owners was arrested for again locking the doors of the factory during working hours. He was fined $20, the legal minimum at the time. So much for the beneficence of business minus the harness of sensible regulation and possibility of penalty.

Today many Americans take for granted the benefits of economic and workplace safety they now enjoy. Corporate magnanimity was not inbred but was rather the result of tragedy, legislation and societal evolution. Those who preach that the principles of laissez faire economics benefit everyone are not everyone. Rather, they are the very few who most benefit from a rigged system.  Critics assailed the welfare state and erosion of individualism promoted by the New Deal.  Rather, it was testament to the dignity of work and the value of the individual worker to the core of the economy. The protections we value today are the result of political courage during a horrific time in our history. Their origins often were accompanied by buckets of blood, sweat, and too many tears.

Despite the current punditry, today’s “emergency”  is not localized to our southern border. The real hazards  are now literally  “global” and have nothing to do with human beings seeking humane relief and asylum.

The adage goes, “denial is not just a river in Egypt.” Of course, the river referenced is the Nile,  now  dangerously polluted. Since it is Egypt’s main water resource, outbreaks of diseases like typhoid fever across the population can be directly linked to it. Denial will not disinfect the Nile or keep wastewater from filling our rivers on a daily basis. Nor will it stop the 300 to 700 barrels of oil per day from the 2004 Taylor oil spill from seeping into the Gulf of Mexico, 11 miles off the Louisiana coast damaging, perhaps permanently, Eco systems that a multitude of species of sea life depend upon for survival. There is no denying the images of a whale’s carcass filled with 88 lbs. of plastic found off the coast of the Philippine Island of Mindanao. It is not the first such discovery and it likely will not be the last.  Denial will not protect the planet from greenhouse gasses, make the air cleaner or protect the rain-forests. It will not keep wildfires from consigning more Americans to sudden homelessness.  Yet denial now appears to be the environmental policy of the United States government, in its present construction.

 In 2015, arguing that they will be the most impacted by the effects of global warming, twenty-one young plaintiffs between the ages of 11 and 22 brought suit against the United States government for allowing activities that were harmful to their rights to “life, liberty and property”.  In the suit, ( Juliana V United States) they further argue that due to their age they had no say in the electoral process and therefore no meaningful way to influence such decisions. The National Association of Manufacturers, The American Petroleum Institute and The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, all lobbying groups with a vested interest in halting any regulations designed to handicap their  activities, joined the government as defendants. The United States government teamed with such formidable industry forces normally would have been sufficient to squash such a legal challenge, yet two federal judges held for the plaintiffs allowing the case to go forward. At which point the lobbyists petitioned to be severed from the proceedings . A hopeful sign, but  even on the 15th of the month as students marched all over the world to save their planet, we should beware the Ides of March, for the specter of an overly corporatized Supreme Court looms over any ultimate decision.

The latest UN report on global warming states that as few as 12 years remain before its effects become irreversible. The Pentagon has called this the greatest threat to our national security. The worldwide scientific community agrees that most of this is of a man-made variety.  The government’s own defense in the Juliana case does not even argue against the plaintiffs’ scientific evidence. Yet, once again, as in 1933, conservative thought dwells on preserving the wealth of the powers that be instead of preserving the planet that is. Alternative facts may gin up a political base distrustful of the discomforts of reality, but it won’t cure what ails us when what ails us is our air, our water and  our lands ravaged by increasingly intense weather.

As young people all over the nation and the world walked out of their classes on March 15th to protest the planet’s treatment, right wing media continued to contribute nothing but school yard ridicule to the discussion. The prospect of this new deal finds us in a struggle for survival. FDR’s new deal saved an economy. Economies can recover. Industries can be reinvented. A dead planet can do neither.  

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