The World on Fire

June 28, 2002

KUNM, 89.9 fm, Albuquerque, NM

Smoke is rolling over New Mexico from fires in Arizona, fires in the northwest part of the state, fires in the northeast. On a drive to Colorado last week, the San Luis Valley was parched and brown as I have never seen it at this time of year in all my life. At a ranch near Aspen that I have known for over 30 years the creek has been dry for about 10 years. This winter the spring went dry. The wetlands around the lake are gone, replaced by baked dirt. Average temperatures in Alaska have increased by seven degrees in the last 20 years and permafrost is melting, villages built on permafrost are tipping. The EPA issued a report saying that global warming was a fact and a real danger. The President of the United States responded that the bureaucrats have had their say. That’s all. Global warming is a bureaucrat’s imagined problem.

This administration has withdrawn from the Kyoto Treaty which would have committed us to work on global warming. It has also revived the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons, arguing that we need them to shoot down tunnels to get terrorists. It has declared that it may make war against Iraq and any other nation it thinks is too dangerous. It has piled on more requests to an already bloated military budget of 345 billion a year. In the meantime, things that really might have some effect to stop terrorism, schools, bridges, jobs, health care, universities, pressure on autocratic regimes to democratize, are practically ignored. If we can’t bomb it, we are less interested. We keep on perfecting helicopters and missiles.

You can’t build a school with a helicopter, and you can’t stop aids with a missile; you can’t construct a car with a rocket launcher, and you can’t build a house with a tank. The billions of dollars spent for military equipment do not combat despair in Pakistan or in Africa or in Sudan or in Saudi Arabia or anywhere. Nor, in the economic realm, do they produce new wealth like a car would do, or a train or even a suit of clothes all of which pass on and on and create new wealth with each transaction. There are, according to published audits, 22 billion dollars of spare military parts on stockpile. These parts do not build clinics, they do not teach reading, they do not bring Muslims and Jews to the table. Tanks parked in warehouses do not offer hope to the unemployed in Palestine. Great stealth bombers and star wars rockets do not feed the hungry or even the economy except to pay salaries to the workers who make them. They do not pass usable goods from hand to hand, add to the national wealth and multiply wealth the way a house does, or even a tool, or pipeline.

This news is in some sense paralyzing and when the despair is great enough people of good will stay home, give up, drop out. That is the danger, now, as great as any danger caused by a callous and reckless administration. It is that people of resources and intelligence and commitment to the public weal will go into quiet despair.

There have been other times in American history when the oligarchy of corporate power seemed to dominate decision making, when the Rupert Murdochs seemed in control of the media and there seemed no chance for common sense or ordinary people to rally. That is, in a way, good news. Over and over, Americans, unlike almost any people on this planet, have rallied in times like these to organize, find the moral high ground and spread the facts. When that happens, the people win. That is what happened with labor unions at the beginning of the 20th Century, that is what happened in civil rights in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, that is what happened with the war in Vietnam in the 1960s. The high ground, reinforced by information, has power.

Most Americans do not really want to threaten the world with nuclear weapons again. We do not really want to become a war-at-will bully in the world. Most Americans do not really want to spend the country into bankruptcy so that we can stockpile more military parts. These are therefore, again, times when the leadership tries men’s souls, a phrase born in the American Revolution. We have been here before. We, the people, will have to respond again.