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Technology is wonderful, but it must not blind us to our ultimate purpose, which is building a just and sustainable world.

Clean Power

2017: Technology — 1, Civilization — 0

Technology is wonderful, but it must not blind us to our ultimate purpose, which is building a just and sustainable world.

At CleanTechnica, we celebrate the wonders of science, engineering, and technology. We catalog in detail the advances made in renewable energy and transportation — advances that will make it possible to transition away from a world in which emissions from burning fossil fuels threaten the environment or make us sick.

Yet all the talk of new technology often obscures the larger purpose behind these advances. They amount to little more than invention for invention’s sake with no thought given to the ultimate goal — the improvement of the human condition. Sometimes we need to stop for a moment and take stock of where we are and where we want to go. Yogi Berra said it best: “If you don’t know where you’re going,
you’ll end up someplace else.”

American Exceptionalism

People in the United States — after centuries of being steeped in the ethos of American Exceptionalism — tend to believe that America is the greatest civilization the world has ever seen, or ever will see. Yet a report from Philip Alston, a special envoy from the United Nations asked to examine poverty and human rights in America, finds that 40 million Americans live in extreme poverty, with little access to basic human rights. For them, the thought of “liberty and justice for all” is little more than a cruel hoax.

Alston, a professor at New York University School of Law, spent 10 days crisscrossing America from California to Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington DC. He writes:

“My visit coincides with a dramatic change of direction in US policies relating to inequality and extreme poverty. The proposed tax reform package stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world, and will greatly increase the already high levels of wealth and income inequality between the richest 1% and the poorest 50% of Americans. The dramatic cuts in welfare, foreshadowed by Donald Trump and speaker Ryan, and already beginning to be implemented by the administration, will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes. It is against this background that my report is presented.

“The United States is one of the world’s richest and most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty.

“American exceptionalism was a constant theme in my conversations. But instead of realizing its founders’ admirable commitments, today’s United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights. As a result, contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound.”

Alston was asked by the UN to rank the United States compared to its peers according to standards promulgated by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Here is a list of his findings:

  • By most indicators, the US is one of the world’s wealthiest countries. It spends more on national defense than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined.
  • US healthcare expenditures per capita are double the OECD average and much higher than in all other countries. But there are many fewer doctors and hospital beds per person than the OECD average.
  • US infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed world.
  • Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracies, and the “health gap” between the US and its peer countries continues to grow.
  • US inequality levels are far higher than those in most European countries.
  • Neglected tropical diseases, including Zika, are increasingly common in the USA. It has been estimated that 12 million Americans live with a neglected parasitic infection. A 2017 report documents the prevalence of hookworm in Lowndes County, Alabama.
  • The US has the highest prevalence of obesity in the developed world.
  • In terms of access to water and sanitation, the US ranks 36th in the world.
  • America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, ahead of Turkmenistan, El Salvador, Cuba, Thailand, and the Russian Federation. Its rate is nearly 5 times the OECD average.
  • The youth poverty rate in the United States is the highest across the OECD, with one quarter of youth living in poverty compared to less than 14% across the OECD.
  • The Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty ranks the most well-off countries in terms of labor markets, poverty, safety net, wealth inequality, and economic mobility. The US comes in last of the top 10 most well-off countries, and 18th amongst the top 21.
  • In the OECD, the US ranks 35th out of 37 in terms of poverty and inequality.
  • According to the World Income Inequality Database, the US has the highest Gini rate (measuring inequality) of all Western Countries
  • The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality characterizes the US as “a clear and constant outlier in the child poverty league.” US child poverty rates are the highest amongst the six richest countries — Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, and Norway.

An Indictment

The list is an indictment of all Americans. We are inundated by stories on the internet telling us the least among us are lazy, shiftless takers — shirkers who have been made into zombies by government programs, deprived of the innate ability to fend for themselves without handouts from “the nanny state.”

This cruel and insulting narrative is little changed from 1843, when Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol, a story of avarice among the wealthy and poverty among the working poor. The parallel to America today is abundantly clear. Salon this Christmas Day has published a featured story calling the recent tax reform legislation a Republican bah humbug sort of tax plan.

The perpetrators of this monumental injustice must have been channeling Ebenezer Scrooge when he said, “Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”

Are There No Prisons?

In a country that locks up more people than any other nation, the words of Scrooge echo louder than ever. “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” he demands.

Mankind Was My Business

Dickens had words of wisdom for those who place profits above people in their daily affairs. “Mankind was my business!” the ghost of Jacob Marley tells Scrooge on Christmas Eve.

Millions of people have read Dickens’ book and seen either a play or a movie based upon it. All come away praising the author for his insight and saying they were improved by the experience.

But few ever alter their behavior as a result. Instead, they choose to believe charlatans who thump their chests and pound their Bibles while spouting the most hateful, bigoted, misogynistic myths about people — like how all immigrants are terrorists, only stupid people get sick, or burning more fossil fuels is actually good for the environment.

Many people was surprised the other day when the latest SpaceX launch from California created an amazing light show in the sky. Apparently, a significant number of people who saw it believed they were witnessing an alien invasion. Elon Musk seemed a bit surprised.

Strange indeed, Elon. Unless technology can find a cure for this phenomenon, all the technological advances in the world will not save humanity from itself.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.


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