A New Year's Resolution for 2015: Think Long Term. Here's Why

October 28th 2014

Matthew Segal

Public intellectual Kurt Vonnegut once stated that one thing no cabinet has ever had is a Secretary of the Future. "There are no plans at all for my grandchildren and my great grandchildren," he lamented. And despite some occasional platitudes, he's exactly right. The politics of the moment--the "story" of the day-- trump all in our electoral and media circus; and at the rate we're going, there's bound to be nothing left. 

Let's start with our ecology. 
Currently, the earth is warming at an equivalent rate of 400,000 exploding Hiroshima atomic bombs per day, according to Climatologist James Hansen. Yes, this sounds alarmist. So what does it mean in practical terms? By the end of the current century, temperatures over the northern hemisphere will range from 5-6 degrees Celsius (approximately 10 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than today's averages. This will not only lead to ice melting, but erratic weather in all parts of the globe: more droughts, more floods, more heatwaves and schizophrenic rainfall patterns. 

So what? According to Oxfam, corn prices will rise as much as 177% by 2030 with half the increase due to climate change while wheat prices rise by 120% with a third of the increase due to climate change. Higher food prices will increase global hunger, which will inevitably lead to greater "political instability and social strife in many parts of the world." 

Now let's talk about consumption.
You might be thinking: "well, if the ice caps melt at least there will be more water and ocean resources," but this logic is incorrect. In 2011, global fish consumption hit a record high of 37 pounds per person, and due to rampant over-fishing, it is projected that catches in the tropics (where 400 million people in Africa and Southeast Asia primarily rely on fish) will decline 40% by 2050. Shark numbers have also declined by 80% worldwide, and although sharks are cross-culturally demonized, they are critical to the rest of the marine ecosystem, skewing populations of smaller fish, if too many die off.

Despite ubiquitous melting, clean water is another scarcity. According to the United Nations, "around 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world's population, live in areas of physical scarcity, and 500 million people are approaching this situation." A large part of this shortage is attributed to human waste, pollution, and overuse. Malnutrition and diarrhea, due to dirty water, is estimated to kill up to 1.5 million children under 5 annually. In the past, wars were fought over land and oil; in the future, they will likely be fought over water and food.

Finally, let's look at domestic spending priorities?
One of the great accomplishments of our time has been the social safety net we've established to help eradicate poverty among senior citizens. We've decided it's a collective value to care for the aging, partly because they cannot work as vigorously when they grow older, but partly because we believe in the notion of a retirement. Because of programs such as medicare and social security, the official poverty rate of those aged 65 and older fell from 35% to 10% between 1960 and 1995, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

But our track record of investment on children is much worse. Over the last decade, childhood poverty rates have risen steadily, affecting more than 25% of children under 5. Our percentage of public spending on children has (not surprisingly) also decreased. Currently, the government spends 7 dollars on every senior per one dollar on every child, and at least 35 states are providing less funding per student in 2014 than in 2007. According to a UNICEF survey of 35 developed countries, the U.S. ranks second-to-last in child poverty, narrowly beating Romania. 

Obviously, children under 18 cannot vote for their interests and with education (and, in particular, civics) being cut widely, it will also be harder to know why to vote, where to vote, and how to vote. Hence the need for a Secretary of the Future. America is addicted to its short term interests. If oil is cheap now, then who cares if we deplete the environment?; if I can eat as much fish as I want now, then what does it matter if they're all gone by the time I'm dead?

These are questions we must carefully examine. Do we truly care about conservation? Is our species worth protecting? Maybe, as Kurt Vonnegut also once implied, global warming is simply the planet's immune system trying to get rid of us.