A Wall of Willful Ignorance: Suggested Reading for President-Elect Trump

Because of its familiarity and ease of access, I am using Wikipedia to introduce this piece; it also covers the salient aspects:

“The tragedy of the commons is an economic theory of a situation within a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting that resource through their collective action.”

 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons

Among many other earthly assets, the air and water, critical to advanced life on earth, are “commons” and are subject to the problem of the tragedy of the commons. I don’t know whether Donald Trump and his “infatuants” (forgive me) dispute the established scientific fact that the earth is warmer than at any time in human history, and well beyond, but I do know that they dispute that human activity contributes materially to the climate-change problem. This despite the overwhelming worldwide scientific consensus that human activity has fundamentally altered the environment and made the Earth threateningly warmer.

How can one deal with this when there is such strong dispute? I suggest that Mr. Trump should undertake a risk analysis. He should be familiar with this, since every real estate investment he has made must have involved such an analysis at some point. It’s pretty straightforward. Evaluate the risk against the consequences – weigh the costs, but more than just out-of-pocket costs, of ignoring the scientific consensus versus the risk and consequences of accepting, and acting upon, the scientific consensus.

If we ignore climate change and are wrong, it likely is the end of life as we know it and perhaps the end of all life other than some subterranean worm-like life forms. If, however we assume that scientists are right, we have chance to save our ecosystem by changing how we do business and how we live. This course of action will create many new, but different, jobs than in past. If this turns out to have been unnecessary, we are no worse off and likely are better off as beneficiaries of cleaner air and water, among other things.

On the other hand, the price of being wrong on this issue is simply too high to continue insisting that it is a “hoax” and that addressing it will be bad for the economy. Not addressing it could be (almost certainly will be) catastrophically bad for the economy and everything else. Risk analysis argues strongly for urgent changes in the way humans operate.

It was revealed during the campaigns that President-Elect Trump is not an avid reader. Indeed, he indicated he really didn’t care to read much at all. He boasted that he was very smart and got his information elsewhere, apparently through the Internet. This is unfortunate for many reasons, not the least of which is that it deprives him of information and modes of thinking about complex issues that have been studied by others, often for many years and often submitted to critical review by accomplished people in the fields of study. Without the benefit of readily available expertise and the propensity to rely on the views of inner-circle ideologues, the President threatens to become an unguided missile able to deliver mega-tonnage blows to the prevailing order that has existed for years and decades, or in the case of the environment, for centuries.

Even a brief look back at the effects of the Industrial Revolution would teach a reasonably coherent mind that uncontrolled industry is harmful to the environment, often in ways that take decades or longer to correct after remedial measures are begun. We likely do not have that luxury anymore because of the global impact of human activity.

Trump is the elected President of the United States. To steal a phrase from an old Willie Nelson song, there’s nothing we can do about it now. All of our lives are, in a very real sense, in his hands. I therefore propose to him, and such of his advisors who may be open to other points of view, a short list of books and articles that will educate him and his staff on a few topics of transcendent importance to the country and the world, starting with the environment.

I urge readers of this blog to send me your own examples. I will endeavor to incorporate them into a single message to the new keepers of the White House. I don’t know how to do that just yet because a wall of willful ignorance is harder to scale than the concrete border wall that the President-Elect claimed to be one of his top priorities. Beyond the “wall,” however, are a wide-ranging set of objectives that pose an existential threat to our environment and to the survival of many threatened species of animals and other life forms. The ultimate effects of losing these parts of the food chain are unknown and, therefore, killing off the threatened species may have effects that cannot be reversed and that could threaten our very existence.

I refer you here to a story by Julie Pace of Associated Press, published in http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/oil-billionaire-considered-lead-energy-department/:

“The Trump to-do list targets recent Obama administration efforts to reduce air and water pollution that have been opposed by Republicans and industries that profit from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, including the “waters of the United States” rule and ozone regulations.

Trump calls climate change a “hoax” perpetrated by China and others and has said he will rescind the Clean Power Plan — the linchpin of President Barack Obama’s strategy to fight climate change.

A coalition of conservative states has challenged the Clean Power Plan and also has challenged an EPA rule that expanded the definition of waters protected under the Clean Water Act to smaller non-navigable waters and seasonal tributaries.

The Obama administration says the rule would safeguard drinking water for 117 million people, but Republicans and some Democrats representing rural areas say the regulations are costly, confusing and amount to a government power grab. Federal courts have put the rules on hold as judges review lawsuits.

On his campaign website, Trump called for rescinding “all job-destroying Obama executive actions” and has vowed to unleash an American energy revolution, allowing unfettered production of oil, coal and natural gas. He would sharply increase oil and gas drilling on federal lands and open up offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean and other areas where it is blocked……

In addition to repealing the power plant rules, the transition document also says Trump’s energy team is considering modifications to Obama’s ozone rule, which is meant to reduce smog.

Also on the chopping block are Obama administration regulations intended to limit harmful emissions and chemical-laden waste water from hydraulic fracturing operations at oil and gas wells.”

Since the survival of the planet is of the highest importance, the first items on my list are two related books by the same author, addressing the threats to the biosphere:

The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson, a National Book Award Finalist in 2014

Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, 2016. Edward O. Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize twice.

Then: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert, 2014, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.

Trump’s people should look at the recently published The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War, by Robert J. Gordon, a distinguished professor at Northwestern University. Gordon was included on the Bloomberg 2013 list of the most influential thinkers in America. The book is a data-rich tracing of the forces that shaped America’s economic growth from the end of the Civil War until now and beyond. Just the first 200 pages will make clear the catastrophic consequences of allowing free market forces to rule unchecked over the production and distribution of food and medicine. Before Trump puts in place a hiring freeze on government workers and the Republican Congress slashes agency budgets, someone had better give some deep thought to the impact on the health of the American people.

Moving on to labor and jobs, it is not clear that Trump or his senior advisors are aware how labor unions emerged as a force in America, and how corporate America reacted to workers’ efforts to get protection for themselves and their children from abusive working conditions. Nor do they seem to be aware that trying to restore dirty energy (mainly coal) to its former place of prominence flies in the face of irreversible global forces of technological change that have been at work since before the Great Depression. It is an illusion that the American economy can be massively stimulated by restoring the old ways of doing work. Those who believed Trump’s promises made to Rust Belt workers and voted Trump into leadership of the Free World are going to be massively disappointed.

There are two books I am referencing. One is From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend from 2001. The back cover sums it up: “… the historic efforts of working people to win the rights we take for granted today: basic health and safety standards in the workplace, fair on-the-job treatment for men and women, the minimum wage, and even the weekend itself.” Yes, even the weekend itself. These features of modern life were once not provided to most working people.

The other work that would provide an even broader education is Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, David M. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning history published in 1999. The first few chapters may pique the interest of Trump’s advisors who are not mentally blocked to new information that powerfully shows how and why our society and government are structured as they are. Anyone who believes the country’s problems are new products of the Democratic presidency of the past eight years and can be solved by simply unleashing the “free market” are in for a rude awakening.

If they don’t wake up soon, everyone will suffer the most frightful consequences. Completely free markets ignore the Tragedy of the Commons and will create a problem that mankind will not likely be able to resolve by letting businessmen do what they like. And when rising seas encroach on coastal cities, increasingly severe winter storms crush entire states and unprecedented heat waves leave people gasping for relief, the people who only act when there is a profit to be made will be too little too late and too irrelevant.

 

 

 

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