The Lemming Condition tells the story of a community of arctic rodents who blindly follow tradition, culture and peer pressure on a suicidal march over a cliff and into the sea.
Alan Arkin’s fable is of course fiction, based on a myth perpetuated by a popular Disney documentary on animal behavior. Creatures in nature generally intuit the path to survival and no species eagerly commits mass suicide or self-destruction – no species that is with the possible exception of the human species.
It occurred to me after the spectacle of the recent election in Wisconsin, where common folks, working people with their livelihoods at stake, signed the death warrant for Wisconsin labor by rejecting a recall of their notorious anti-labor governor.
Despite all the money poured into the state from the nation’s wealthiest individuals and corporate entities, no one in Wisconsin could have been unaware of the issues at stake: the end of collective bargaining and an open attack on the last bastion of unionism in the public sector. I listened to the rationalizations of progressive and pro-labor spokespersons, that the vote did not affirm the rabid policies of their governor but rather represented an objection to the process. Based on exit polls, they argued that voters did not believe the recall process should be used for anything less than corruption or malfeasance of office.
Frankly, I know something about human nature. Based on that knowledge, I have drawn the conclusion that Wisconsin voters lied to the pollsters just as they were likely lying to themselves. With real-world consequences at stake, Wisconsin workers, forming the vast majority of the electorate, stepped in line and walked over a cliff into the sea.
They voluntarily yielded their government to corporate rule. They voted to end organized labor in their state. To their fellow workers in the public sector, the teachers, nurses, firefighters and police, their message was clear: Go to hell!
Until the results in Wisconsin, I had great hope that the people of America would finally awaken. The candidates taking office in the last election did not run on anti-labor austerity platforms. They promised jobs and decried shipping them overseas. They said nothing about busting unions, firing public workers, blocking abortion, women’s contraception and corporate tax breaks. Their secret agenda was not revealed until they took office and few were more obvious than Governor Scott Walker. He lied to the electorate but the voters did not feel that was sufficient grounds for recall.
Now I am anything but hopeful.
With eyes wide open we are forming a line, beckoning others to follow, as we march over a cliff into the sea. We sign petitions demanding austerity, knowing full well that our friends and family members will suffer the consequences: Homelessness, joblessness, paltry wages, hunger and denied medical care. Public schools and public health clinics will fall on even harder times with overcrowded classrooms and inadequate supplies.
Students in the working class (the middle class will soon be reserved for management) will no longer aspire to higher education. The cost of college will be beyond their means.
Even college graduates and highly skilled workers will be unable to match the low wages and benefits of foreign competitors. They will eventually fold, joining a burgeoning number of working poor, counting pennies and pleading for help. Unable to pay their debts, homes will be lost and futures discarded.
Old people, facing severe cutbacks in social security and Medicare, will attempt to re-enter the workforce, competing with their children and grandchildren for low-wage jobs.
Police and fire departments will find it harder to respond to anything but the most dire of emergencies.
Denied access to contraception and abortion, more and more women will give birth to unwanted children, many of whom will be condemned to unhappy lives in poverty and need.
Left to exercise unbridled greed, the stock market will run wild until the next curtain falls and this time the crash will reverberate in places no one but the elite can escape. When we pick up the pieces, massive international corporations will own everything but the bill. Workers and government officials alike will exist at the whim of their corporate masters.
On and on, it is a grim vision on the social-economic front but it is nothing compared to what awaits us environmentally.
Clearly, a society that cannot afford the fundamentals of health care, education and public safety, has no interest in protecting the air, the water and the ground beneath our feet. We seem to believe we can vote global climate change out of existence.
Here’s the news: The planet doesn’t care what you think or what party you belong to or whom you vote for on Election Day or whom you listen to on the radio. The planet is growing warmer whether you believe it or not. The planet is growing warmer because we refuse to stop pumping toxic fumes into the air.
Glaciers are in retreat worldwide, melting into the sea. Oceanic temperatures are rising along with sea levels. Ocean currents are altered, spawning radical storms and radically altered weather patterns. Shorelines are retreating and island nations are under siege, some fighting for their survival.
In keeping with global trade policies, we have transferred virtually all industry to those nations that not only offer cheap labor under inhumane conditions but also lack minimal restrictions on air and water pollution. Several years back China supplanted America as the leading producer of greenhouse gasses. That economic giant gets an estimated 70 percent of its energy from the world’s dirtiest fuel: coal.
According to a 2007 World Health Organization report, of an estimated two million deaths caused by polluted air each year, 656,000 were Chinese citizens. Another 95,000 die from polluted drinking water. In both cases, the numbers are surely rising but the Lemmings march on and the western world’s appetite for technological gadgets is never satiated.
Never fear: What goes on in China stays in China. Not so.
As we might have learned from the Fukushima disaster, air and water are globally connected. The toxic waste from Japan’s near nuclear meltdown (a crisis still unfolding) is just reaching American shores. The radiated plumes reached us long ago with unknown consequences.
One would think that all talk of reviving our nuclear industry would be silenced. Think again. Just like the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, all parties concerned consider it a public relations problem that is soon overcome. Give it a few months and keep the applications coming. Issue a press release about how deeply concerned you are.
Deepwater drilling continues at an accelerated rate and we have plans for more nuclear plants (this time they assure us they are really, really safe), more coal mines, more fracturing for natural gas buried deep in the earth and more tar sand oil imported from Canada. All carry a heavy price to our environment and the collective health of the planet.
It seems the only restraint we have in energy is that concerning safe and renewable sources: solar, wind and geothermal. Conservation through mass transit and fuel efficiency is also on indefinite hold. We continue to pretend that it is not exactly the kind of investment we need to put our people back to work and position ourselves to lead the global economy. We must continue to subsidize dirty fuel, peel back restrictions, and cut back on everything else.
We cannot afford clean energy. We can only afford to press on with our mindless march to oblivion.
Get in line, fellow lemmings; the cliff is due west and the view before the fall is breathtaking!