State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


We Need Community

In America we often celebrate and focus on individual achievement, and that emphasis has brought many benefits. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. It’s not only the growing number of billionaires and the growing gap between this country’s rich and poor. It’s the deemphasis of government acting as an agent of our collective values and needs. Ronald Reagan famously declared the government as a problem, and now nearly four decades later we have delegitimized government to the point that in some states it is unable to maintain school systems and roads. We give the government the toughest assignments and then deny it the resources or authority to get the job done.

At the end of last week, I returned from Hong Kong where I serve as a judge for the Yidan Prize for Education. Charles Yidan, one of the founders of the multinational conglomerate Tencent, gives out about $7 million a year for two prizes in education. In reviewing applications for the Yidan Prize, I learn a great deal about communities all over the world struggling to educate their children and devoting extraordinary effort and resources to do so. And then I come home to America and once again read about our underpaid and disrespected public-school teachers. According to Jaime Lowe of the New York Times:

“Some teachers devote 60 hours a week to the classroom, then go to work elsewhere. The hours can be long, the labor physical, the pay close to minimum wage. Teachers across the country are now baristas, Amazon warehouse employees, movie-theater managers and fast-food grill cooks. They’re entering the gig economy in off hours and struggling to stay awake during school days…16 percent of American teachers…have second jobs, to make ends meet.”

The pay situation is so bad that we saw state-wide teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. The fundamental problem is that resistance to taxation is so strong in some American states that we have starved basic community functions like education. The difficulty with our dependence on local school taxes is that not everyone directly benefits from paying this tax. Some people have no children or seem to have forgotten how important schools were when they were growing up. The benefits of excellent schools to society, the economy, and even to property values are overlooked.

It’s true that some people are having such a hard time making ends meet that taxation is simply an added burden they resist at all costs. The traditional answer to that problem has been progressive taxation where those with means pay more than those without, but America keeps cutting taxes for the rich. The result is that collective goods and services that we all rely on go begging for money. In our more complex and rapidly changing world we have a growing need for new community resources that enable us to cope with change. Education has become fundamental to participation in economic life. Manual labor is disappearing as automation replaces human labor. The service economy has replaced the manufacturing economy and most jobs require brainpower rather than muscle power. A society that disinvests in education is doomed to diminished economic status.

But it’s not just education that suffers. As we watch typhoons hitting the Philippines and China and hurricanes pounding the Carolinas we see how dependent we are on each other during and after extreme weather events. On our more crowded planet more of us are in the pathways of storms, and in a planet being warmed by human-induced climate change, those storms are becoming more frequent and intense. Just as economic life and job prospects are being transformed by technology, our homes are being threatened by the impact of climate change. All of this change can and must be addressed, but dealing with this new and more complex world requires sophisticated data-driven analysis, human ingenuity, teamwork, political will and resources. We can’t throw money at these problems, but we can’t solve them without money.

U.S. Marines assigned to Combat Logistics Group 8 (CLB-8) aid in evacuating the local populace in Jacksonville, N.C., Sept. 15, 2018. CLB-8 provided direct logistical support in providing disaster relief to civilians affected by Hurricane Florence. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pfc. Nello Miele.)


Financial resources are necessary but not sufficient. What we need more than anything else is compassion, empathy and a sense of mutual responsibility for each other. We need community. In America we do pretty well on first response to natural disasters.  We respond with our heart and wallet when we see neighbors in peril. We are getting better at predicting extreme weather, pre-positioning equipment, supplies and staff. Volunteers and formal mutual aid agreements ensure that people from places being spared harm are often travelling to help those in harm’s way. While first response in Puerto Rico was shamefully inadequate in 2017, I believe that we have slowly been learning from our mistakes.

But as I have written many times, our real failure is on post-disaster reconstruction. We are slow, bureaucratic, overly political and under-resourced. We pretend that these weather events are rare emergencies instead of the annual events they’ve become. Though they seem to shift location each year, they keep happening. Our homes and communities are built on complex but vulnerable energy, water, waste, sewage, food, and transport systems. When floods and fires hit, many of us become homeless, jobless, and adrift. We need to develop routine and systematic methods of reconstruction that focus on rebuilding our homes and communities. When our neighbor’s home is destroyed we need to act as if our own homes are under threat as well.  We need to feel the pain of dislocation: of children denied shelter, school and normal social life. Of parents unable to provide for their families. We are more than wealthy enough in America to insure and rebuild as often as we need to. The shame of our current approach is that often we end up spending the money we need to, but only after a process characterized by delay and political horse trading.

Many of us benefit from a world where plentiful food, clothing, shelter and leisure along with high levels of social engagement are everyday realities. Even people like the teachers struggling to maintain their way of life participate in this world. But there are no guarantees that this level of economic development will continue or be extended to those in need. The best way to maintain and build this world is to do it together. Each individual can and should benefit according to their talent and work. But those unable to succeed or dealt harsh blows from nature or nurture are the responsibility of all of us. It’s our ethical responsibility to step forward and help those in need, and to create systems and laws that assure assistance as a right rather than a privilege.

We need to develop progressive methods of financing the resources needed to ensure our communities thrive. Those resources include education, health, public safety, and all types of infrastructure. But beyond the money required, we must listen and learn from each other. We need to understand how our neighbors live, their needs, their goals, and their dreams. A thriving society is built on healthy communities where people look out for each other. America knows how to build healthy communities, but unfortunately, we have learned how to destroy them and create little bubbles of safety for the fortunate.

Over the past week we have seen many examples of selfless first responders, placing themselves in danger to save others. We have seen the usual examples of people dropping off donations at church parking lots and sending cash through the internet. This demonstrates that we understand and empathize with our neighbors in need. Let’s build on that sentiment and build open, creative, generous and diverse communities.

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