Trump, Putin, and Friends Are Wasting Our Precious Time To Avert Catastrophe

Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” is an oft-quoted aphorism from the King James Bible. It basically means that there are enough problems in the present that one should not only avoid adding to them, but not worry too much about the future. It’s also dangerously wrong in the 21st century. As awful as the present is, the future could be infinitely worse if we fail to focus on it adequately.

Of all the many offenses of the global plutocratic, nationalist, and ethnic supremacist movements headed up by men like Trump, Putin, Modi, Bolsonaro, Salvini, Orban, Netanyahu, and Boris Johnson, perhaps the greatest is that they are wasting precious time we do not have. The world is facing a series of technological crises bearing down on us like bullet trains, while these venal leaders and their culturally frightened supporters concentrate on ephemeral ethnic advantage-seeking and maximizing the wealth of those who already have so much money they don’t know how to spend it. Yes, they are cruel. Yes, they are greedy. Yes, they are bigoted. Yes, they are inflicting needless cruelty upon millions of people. But they are also recklessly preventing us from solving catastrophic developing problems that desperately need solving.

The foremost of these, of course, is climate change. Every new report indicates that the climate crisis is developing more rapidly than scientists’ previous median predictions. Every year the necessary decarbonization horizon to prevent catastrophic warming advances closer. Every year we learn of new cascading and disastrously catalyzing effects, from methane release to rainforest fires to plankton die-offs. Solving this problem would be one of the greatest policy challenges in world history even if every single major world leader were devotedly committed to the task and had the power to rein in recalcitrant fossil fuel interests. The scientific challenges are vast. The political challenges are perhaps worse. And our time is running very short. In this sense, it’s not just that Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin, and friends are exacerbating the problem to enrich their friends and preserve industries that disproportionately benefit older white men. It’s that they are standing in the way of defusing the climate bomb as the clock continues to tick.

But climate is not the only serious issue on the horizon. Artificial intelligence is another. The developed world is undergoing a second industrial revolution of sorts, one in which entire industries are disappearing almost overnight. College students today are being forced to evaluate majors based not only on their interests and expected earnings potential, but whether jobs in that field will even exist twenty years from now. This doesn’t mean that humanoid robots will be performing every task; it simply means that exponentially better algorithms and intelligence efficiencies will be rendering various kinds of work obsolete faster than most individuals can cope with the shock—be they truck drivers, stock brokers, legal assistants, medical diagnosticians, retail workers, middle managers, or market researchers.

No one quite knows the answer to this problem because no one yet knows the full scope of how much new work for people will be created or not, or how easy it will be to transition. What is clear is that governments must be engaged in social and policy experiments to test a variety of programs like guaranteed jobs, universal basic income, and others. Arguments about the best healthcare delivery systems are not theoretical: we have half a century of field data across the world using a variety of approaches. But we have very little data about the sociological and economic ramifications of political solutions to the rapidly developing employment crisis. Here again, Trump and friends are wasting our time by forcing us to fight against the cruel caging of children on national boundaries for stupid, racist reasons, and defunding with pointless tax cuts for the rich our ability not only to give people the healthcare they need, but also conduct the social experiments that we must.

Meanwhile, Russian and Chinese scientists are already dabbling in using exciting and potentially dangerous CRISPR technology to alter the human genome itself. This sounds morally terrifying to many people on general principle as a form of eugenics. Others may disagree. But ethical considerations aside, the consequences are profound. Using this technology doesn’t just affect the person about to be born—it’s not just a question of creating taller, smarter, or blonder designer babies to exacerbate class, race, and other inequalities for the next generation. CRISPR has the power to alter the genome itself, creating permanent changes that could be silently dominant in every mating pair. One awful misstep has the potential given enough time to alter the entire human race forever—and the genie isn’t about to be put back in the bottle. But are we talking about this as a society? No. Instead, we’re focused on how to unyoke ourselves from a loose globally connected crime syndicate attempting to destabilize a fragile international order that is already too weak and unstable to adequately confront the tasks ahead of us.

Nuclear and bioweapons proliferation is another major issue. The same CRISPR technology that can produce designer humans with genetic override codes for the whole human race could be apocalyptic in the hands of terrorists or nihilistic technicians, using just the right tweaks to few viruses and bacteria. Nuclear weapons are getting smaller and more powerful, in the hands of more countries. The fate of the former USSR’s stockpile is still unclear, India’s ethnonationalist leader is pushing a nuclear-armed Pakistan to the brink with the tacit approval of the U.S. president, and a reckless group of conservatives in Israel and the United States scuttled a crucial deal with Iran. All because some oil companies want to make more money, some aggressive belligerents still want revenge for the hostage crisis nearly 40 years ago, and because a white supremacist man-child wants to undo everything the black president did before him. This is a dangerous waste of our time.

We could go on forever. The bees are dying. The birds are dying, likely in large part because the insects are dying. This is probably because of the pesticides we are using (specifically neonicotinoids). But no one in America can do anything about that while a bunch of people who want to protect Confederate monuments to slavery use apartheid tactics to give themselves more power despite winning fewer votes, and then use that power to cripple the Environmental Protection Agency and put the pesticide companies in charge. Nor can those on the side of justice focus much attention on the problem while the ghoulish men in charge work to strip vulnerable people of their healthcare and put brown children in cold cages without blankets or toothpaste.

And so on.

Yes, the global conservative movement is stupid, petty, cruel, bigoted, and greedy. But perhaps its greatest crime is how much of our time it is wasting when we already have so little to waste on the crises in front of us

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.