With all the undue squawking about what American kids are taught in K-12 classrooms these days, little is said about what isn’t introduced and, arguably, should be.
For instance, do youngsters learn about Albert Schweitzer anymore much less his reverence for all life, considering Schweitzer’s weathered face graced covers of “Time” and “Life” magazines? With so much violence in the world is Jainism, the Dalai Lama, Ahimsa or deep ecology ever mentioned in a philosophical or historical context so interested students might go to a library or on-line to learn more?
I’ve read just about everything Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have written on science and reason, including recent books and lectures in defense of religious skepticism. Having melded my own considerations and syntheses with cadres of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger and Michael Shermer, traditional beliefs held by Christianity, Judaism and Islam hold little sway, except glittering flecks of moral clarity, when expanded to include all life, panned from otherwise anthropocentric till.
Among the more amusing quotes I like, attributable to Oscar Wilde and Susan Ertz are “When I think of all the harm the Bible has done, I despair writing anything to equal it (Wilde)” and “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon (Ertz).”
All that said, when Pope Francis comments on humanity’s obligations to the rest of the biological world, I sure as heck listen. Given in Rome at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran on October 4th, the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi (his papal namesake), the Pope gave his sixth apostolic exhortation. It was his second Laudato Si’ expanding on his 2015 encyclical on the environment. Entitled “To All People of Good Will on the Climate Crisis,” it is a scientifically accurate, compassionately written document summarizing how, over the last eight years, responses to mitigate global warming and climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions have been woefully inadequate.
In the treatise, the Pope urgently asks everyone, particularly in industrialized nations, for more fervent actions to reduce anthropogenic atmospheric carbon, stating how our inherent closeness to the rest of nature makes the extinction of any other species “a painful disfigurement” to us all. He further implores the global community to “stop thinking of human beings as autonomous, omnipotent and limitless” and to effect a culture of prudent consumption in spite of “unfulfilled responsibilities of political sectors” and indifference to suffering by the powerful. It is a document that should be read by every man, woman and child on Earth and shared with congregations, a page or two at a time, in weekly liturgical sermons.
Last month, as winter concluded in the Southern Hemisphere, Antarctic sea ice levels were a record low, reaching a maximum coverage for the year on September 10th, thirteen days earlier than average. That “maximum” was an all-time recorded low of 6.55 million square miles, over 398,000 square miles less than the previous low set in 1986, and it accompanied disturbing trends in the Northern Hemisphere as well. There, Arctic sea ice this past summer was the sixth lowest in 40 years. In fact, Arctic sea ice the last 17 years has contained the lowest years of coverage ever recorded, just as in the last 7 years Antarctic sea ice had three record-breaking summer lows.
These harbingers to a quickly changing planet have no silver linings. Less sea ice around the planet’s poles means less sunlight gets reflected into space. And sea waters, absorbing more UV radiation as a result, increase in temperature more than those with frozen surfaces which reflect it (i.e., have higher “albedo”). Warming waters can exceed temperature tolerances for many forms of sea life, stressing, killing or forcing myriad species towards poles. Higher oceanic temps also affect major currents and destabilize surrounding ice shelves, coastlines and glaciers by removing fringes of sea ice which buffer them against melting, wave action, tidal influx, and storm surge. As evidenced by degradation of Antarctica’s Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, which contributes 4 percent of annual global sea rise, impacts become increasingly profound. Such a phenomenon is one of those positive feedback loops (or “tipping points”) we scientists have warned about for decades. Once triggered, global warming could become irreversible, setting into motion climate change-related disasters far graver than those already experienced.
The pace of global warming is also accelerating. Not only is 2023 on track to be the hottest year on record but its annual average temperature may be 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than preindustrial levels. Earth’s average temperature in September, for instance, shattered the previous record by nearly a full degree Fahrenheit, the largest monthly differential ever observed. And a strong, oft-mentioned El Nino isn’t the driver. We and our anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are primarily to blame, highlighting the urgency with which we need to reduce them.
Not only are major cities around the globe in crosshairs of coastal flooding from rising seas, deluges from storms, and tidal surges from hurricanes and typhoons, a July publication in Nature documented another urban concern. “Underground climate change” is caused by heat trapped under large buildings and other metropolitan infrastructure. Unlike climate change from burning fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, major cities such as New York, London and Chicago are sinking due to heat emitted by subways and underground sections of buildings directly into sub-layers of the ground. As the heat spreads, substrata can deform, potentially cracking buildings and displacing other large structures bearing enormous loads. Installations of thermal insulation, and geothermal heating and cooling systems to keep waste heat from escaping into the earth and jeopardizing edifices, will be a costly but necessary countermeasure in cities with big skylines.
We’ve made astounding progress in boosting our immune systems to fight-off and survive the latest COVID variants. Considering the difficulty I had scheduling my first COVID shot in March 2020, complicated by a 27-mile drive in a snowstorm to Old Saybrook and a 45-minute automobile queue to get inoculated, access has improved dramatically. The same day last week, as a walk-in at a local drugstore, I got one injection against the latest COVID strains (including the most common.E.G.5) and a shot against the flu. Developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna and approved by the FDA in September, the new COVID vaccines have been engineered to specifically target the Omicron XBB sub-variants circulating now. They’ve arrived just as immunity is waning for many people and the latest strains of the virus are causing spikes in hospitalizations and fatalities.
Waning immunity occurs when protective antibodies and cellular defenses diminish over time ─ in the case of COVID-19, about 7 months from one’s last infection and about 9 months after receiving vaccine. More than 600 million doses of vaccine have been safely administered in the U.S. alone (over 12 billion globally). While suffering through an infection confers natural immunity (presuming one survives), three years of international data and 7 million global fatalities (well over a million in the U.S. alone) clearly prove it’s a much riskier proposition than getting vaccinated.
In addition to longer lasting immunities when vaccinated and dramatic reductions in hospitalizations and deaths, emerging research (Cornell University and the CDC) also shows that multiple COVID infections can lead to chronic health issues such as kidney disease, organ failure, diabetes and mental health issues. Long COVID symptoms are also problematic, including chronic fatigue, dizziness, brain fog and diminished taste and smell. Although America’s education gap has been blamed for some of our political divides, intellectual fault lines and hostilities in this country, knowledge of germ theory isn’t a prerequisite for getting inoculated every year against COVID and the flu, just common sense, self-preservation and a desire to protect others.
Unquestionably, crises abound to which we should devote our collective and unified attention and resources, paramount being climate change, nuclear weapons, pandemics, healthcare, concentrations of wealth and power, high-capacity magazines and stockpiling of guns, border security and undermining of democracy. Radical elements in American society, however, perpetuate these real problems, win elections and provide cover for authoritarianism and oligarchic looting by inventing false crises and narratives to distract. Case in point: the radical Right is waging a culture war in which its heavy artillery are fixations ranging from so-called “cancel culture” assertions to LGBTQ restrictions in schools, in essence manufacturing phobias of “the other.” The ubiquitous, ill-defined label of “woke” is frequently applied to anything fostering tolerance and acceptance or acknowledging importance of truth. As most labels, it’s a convenient skirting around facts applied to anyone or anything accurately teaching or seeking to learn about social injustices and unvarnished history.
When blemishes are revealed in chronicling America’s past, GOP fringe groups immediately suggest “critical race theory” is at play, even accusing educators of shaming our students over America’s moral lapses. In reality, CRT (roots of which date to 1920s intellectual emancipation, sociology and critical philosophy of the Frankfurt School) is rarely taught outside universities. It’s no more a part of K-12 curricula than are quantum physics or idealist philosophies of Hegel, Freud or Max Weber. Neither is it dangerous. It’s merely a philosophical-sociological framework to understand the role race and racism have played in shaping laws and institutions around the world. The far-Right has simply weaponized an obscure academic term (CRT) in its never-ending battle to falsely convince white voters that discussion of race somehow disadvantages them or distresses their kids.
The GOP has similarly deflected attention away from real crises by fanning embers of anger towards welfare recipients, trans-gender citizens and government spending. Most benefit recipients hold jobs and work exceedingly hard despite needing government assistance to supplement incomes and make ends meet. Trans Americans just want the opportunity to live safely, pursue happiness and contribute to society as their true selves. Despite GOP canards and conspiracy theories to the contrary, they pose no threat to anyone, deserving freedom from harassment and prejudice, and protection against threats of criminalization. Apart from mandatory and necessary spending such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, government spending has actually decreased 30% in the last 50 years as a percentage of total economy (9.6% in 1973 vs. 6.6% in 2022). Nevertheless, partly due to increased discretionary spending on the military, Big Oil/Ag/Pharma and other corporate subsidies, the national debt keeps ballooning. Its biggest drivers, though, are not so much our federal expenditures as G. W. Bush and Trump tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, adding nearly $11 trillion to our debt since enacted.
Perhaps the biggest misdirection of all is the irrational compulsion by some Americans to label anything progressive as socialism, short-circuiting discussion without understanding the term. Spearhead of late 19th– early 20th century labor gains before being demonized by capitalist syndicates and robber barons, mere accusations of socialism divert attentions from how the U.S. economy and politic are rigged to concentrate wealth at unprecedented levels among the ultra-rich. Also obscured is how corporate greed and Big Money worsen global warming and undermine democracy. It’s been many years since Red Scare anti-Communist indoctrinating from the McCarthy Era or the false notion that social consciousness conjures autocratic government.
But residual labeling still constructs dead ends to sound thinking. In reality, socialism describes how advanced countries, such as the United States, pool resources for the common good by enacting taxes and using the money to fund services benefiting everyone. Many of our most cherished programs could not function as efficiently or cheaply if privatized for-profit. Among those “socialized” programs, where “government controls production,” are our military and national defense, public schools, libraries, highways, Medicare and Medicaid, disease prevention and scientific research, unemployment insurance, fire and police departments, and parks.
These social services are the very backbone of society. Imagine having to pull out a credit card and paying in advance before calling 911 to summon an ambulance, policeman, firefighter or environmental emergency response. That’s why three government obligations to society are met by programs considered socialist ─ #1 social insurance against neediness and misfortune stemming from unemployment, disability or compromised health; #2 public investment in the future through education, scientific research and environmental protection against pollution and climate change; #3 public services shared by everyone such as parks, highways and national defense. Whether it’s Sweden, Spain, Hungary or the U.S., all countries with capitalist economies “socialize” to advance the common good, grow their economies and ensure better futures for their citizenry.
Unfortunately, the United States socializes less than most developed nations do to reduce poverty, provide children’s services, and guarantee access to quality healthcare and advanced education. Clearly, too much of our taxes (i.e., socialism) goes to an over-priced, gargantuan military and scores of hegemonic overseas bases. A big chunk of that money (and corporate welfare) could go, as other nation’s taxes do, to debt-free college education, better healthcare outcomes, long-term elder care, more generous and earlier retirements, public transportation, and children’s programs. It’s not that America has too much socialism (except for our military), we haven’t quite got enough.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.