Lately, I’ve been thinking about costs and consequences. Earthquakes, tsunamis, the threat of nuclear Armageddon, and plain ol’ war can spark a little introspection in even the most oblivious among us. The magnitude of the Japanese catastrophes was sure to provoke a robust, global conversation, given the dominant cultural role that media now play in our lives. Add to that the global reach of our personal-communications infrastructure—tweets, status updates, twitpics, live blogs—and we can personally move markets and topple governments from our smart phones. We are so socially networked that quick and constant conversation is now the imperative. You would think this is a good thing. I would encourage you to think again.
We are talking a lot but, too often, a lot about nothing—or nothing important. Trending on Twitter as I write are: #Elizabeth Taylor, #moviesilove, and #100factsaboutme.
Americans spent the winter rooting for spontaneous uprisings or revolutions in the Arab world, insisting that the United States be on the side of the people, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt and Yemen. But when it came time to help foster one of those revolutions in Libya, by joining the effort to enforce the United Nations’ no-fly zone, we went all ambivalent.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat and a longtime agitator for peace, called the U.S. involvement in Libya an “impeachable offense” on the part of President Obama. This is the same Kucinich who wrote to the president in January, as Egypt was in turmoil, urging him to “seize the moment to reach out to the Arab and Muslim world and to reimagine and reconstruct our foreign policy in the region.” The no-fly zone over Libya is exactly what the Arab League called for. Republicans who applauded President George W. Bush’s unilateral approach to the Iraq war cautioned Obama not to go it alone in Libya, and they trashed him once he joined the U.N.-led coalition against Muammar el-Qaddafi. The truth is that with all the talk about the Libya mission being undefined, with no clear standards for success and no exit strategy, Americans in 2011 would not have been willing to stand idly by and bear witness to the atrocities that Qaddafi was already committing. Not with all of the info they got from Benghazi.
That moral high ground makes us who we are, but sometimes we are unwilling, or unable, to do the grown-up math about what is involved in occupying our place in the world. We are like protected—maybe even spoiled—children, blissfully unaware of the costs of and risks to our well-being.
One of the most striking features of the public discourse after the Japanese tragedy and the imposition and enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya is how detached from reality so much of it is. Debates are largely fact-free zones: Witness the spectacle of California residents buying iodine pills to guard against cancer that tiny amounts of radiation drifting across the Pacific might cause.
And so much of the debate seems to involve blunt-force, one-sided reasoning, to be kind about it. American critics of nuclear power took the opportunity to reinforce their argument that rather than pushing to build more nuclear power plants, we should be looking for ways to shutter the ones already in operation. But what about the stratospheric increases in demand for power generation expected worldwide in the next 30 years?
It has been noted more than once that the Japanese nuclear accident that set off a discussion about the future of nuclear energy was preceded in the past year by a catastrophic oil-rig accident in the Gulf of Mexico that spilled millions of gallons of crude and set off a discussion about the future of deepwater drilling; and by a couple of high-profile coal-mining accidents in West Virginia and Chile that reanimated the debate about mine safety. Energy generation, it turns out, carries risks, in whatever form we pursue it. We almost never think about those risks or those costs when we flip on the recessed lighting in the den and fire up the DVR for a night of fun and frolic. But we sure are for or against nuclear, or coal, or drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This, to me, seems to call for a more nuanced conversation. But that is not what’s happening, and it almost never happens, whether we’re talking about the budget, war, or energy.
We never really talk sensibly about costs or consequences. Can we have cheap electricity and cheap gasoline along with huge, climate-controlled homes, cars, and shopping malls and not confront the risks involved in acquiring these commodities and comforts?
Despite these grim economic times, there may never have been a time and a place in history where the disconnect between the standard of living and the cost of living was as large and as hidden as it is in early 21st-century America. We drink venti-sized, skim-milk lattes that cost about $30 a week, which is what coffee farmers in some parts of the globe make in a year. All of it puts me in mind of the Paul Simon song Have a Good Time:
So God bless the goods we was given
And God bless the U.S. of A.
And God bless our standard of livin’
Let’s keep it that way.
And we’ll all have a good time.
We are having a good time. But some of it comes with costs, and we need to deal with those in a more grown-up conversation than is possible in 140 characters.
This article appears in the March 26, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.