Saving Our Future

Alan Zendell, June 30, 2021

If it wasn’t obvious before last week, it should be now. Our country and the planet of which it is a small part are in trouble. The problem is more serious than petty politics, huge egos, and fossil fuel industry lobbyists. Our infrastructure and ecosystems are dying, and eight billion humans will likely die with them if we don’t act. There’s still time to fix what’s broken and reverse the processes of decay and degradation that cause highways to crumble, bridges to collapse, and buildings to lose their integrity, and we can still offset many of the effects of climate change, but time is running out.

We’ve been ignoring wake-up calls and warnings far too long. I was shocked to realize that it’s been ten years since the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minnesota collapsed. That’s ten years in which highways, bridges, and tunnels all over the country continued to deteriorate while Congress demonstrated its impotence in dealing with real problems. What should have been an urgent national 911 call has been largely ignored, the issues kicked down the road.

NPR reported that like the recent building collapse in South Florida, “the interstate highway bridge had been classified as structurally deficient, meaning that it was aging and in need of repair … and the bridge was also rated as fracture critical, meaning the failure of just one vital component could cause the whole bridge to collapse.” Subsequent engineering studies showed similar results for thousands of critical structures around the country. Yet, we are still watching the spectacle of Republicans caring more about stifling a Biden presidency and upsetting a megalomaniacal former president who still thinks he’s running things than acting to fix them.

The infrastructure bill also recognizes that almost ten percent of our population doesn’t have internet access. That’s not only about not being connected to social media or playing online games – it’s about not being able to participate in e-commerce and having access to sources of mind-broadening information that aren’t available any other way. We laugh at scenes of crowds of people scrolling through websites on their phones, but for people who can’t, the inability to do so isn’t a laughing matter.

The compromise infrastructure bill is a positive development, but it ignores a number of critical public health emergencies: tens of millions of Americans without health care, half the population still not vaccinated against COVID, and the ever-worsening impact of climate change. These things affect the long-term survival of our economy, our ability to feed our people, and how future generations will live with droughts, wildfires, excessive heat, and rising sea levels and water tables. Hundreds of people have died during the current heat wave, and that number could soar into the millions during our lifetimes if we do not act now.

Forty years ago, people living in the Pacific Northwest (western Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia) rarely saw summer temperatures above the mid-eighties. Most people lived in unair-conditioned homes and drove unair-conditioned cars. Even places like San Diego rarely experienced temperatures that high, except for a couple of weeks each summer when the Santa Ana winds blew desert air back through the mountains passes of the Sierra. All that changed in just a few decades.

The entire west coast of North America has seen temperatures rise steadily, drought conditions worsen, reservoirs dry up, and millions of acres of forest lost to wildfires. The last few days have seen temperatures in the northwest that were inconceivable when I raised my family there. 115 degrees in Portland, 109 in Seattle, and 120 in Linton, BC, temperatures that used to be typical only of the Mojave Desert. Even Las Vegas has never recorded a temperature of 120 degrees.

This is neither a joke nor a temporary phenomenon. It’s a reflection of a constantly evolving jet stream reacting to consistently rising levels of heat in our atmosphere. It’s going to get worse, and the rate at which things worsen will likely accelerate. This is about survival. Humans cannot live in 120-degree heat. Yet, more than a dozen states, the latest being Florida, recently passed legislation to support the fossil fuel industry at the cost of retarding conversion to renewable sources of energy.

That’s why it’s essential not only that the Congress pass its watered-down infrastructure bill, but that Democrats force through a reconciliation package that finally implements a plan to remediate the effects of climate change. If we don’t, future generations, assuming they are still around to look back on our foolishness, will marvel at how we could have engaged in decades of slow-motion societal suicide.

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