Doing the work of the world

Stephen W. Browne

Not long ago I was shooting the bull with a friend I don't get to see very often, so to make up for lost time our bull session lasted about three days.

'Have you ever killed and eaten anything?' he asked at one point.

'Yes,' I said.

'Have you ever had to kill something to eat, or you didn't eat?' he inquired further.

'Can't say that I have,' I replied.

That gives you some idea of the tenor of the conversation. Both of us have read a lot of books. We refer to them, and we recommend them to each other, just like a lot of educated people in this country.

What's different is, we've both done the gritty work. I have finished a shift covered in thickened sewage, he I suspect in other organic fluids. My youthful work experience involved disposing of the end products of consumption, garbage and sewage. His in telling people who routinely use violence to accomplish their goals, 'No, not here and not now.'

Our work experience overlapped in areas like truck driving and operating heavy equipment.

Now as friends shooting the bull will do, we discussed the Problems of the World.

What the heck is wrong with people these days?

I could cite the candidates for the upcoming presidential race, but let's go with a simplified version of the underlying issue.

We have two parties representing people who want a lot of different things, with some overlap. More things than we can possibly pay for with the current tax revenues.

The rational thing to do, the thing families do with their own incomes every day, would be to figure out how much we have to spend then argue about what to spend it on.

Instead what we do is give everybody pretty much what they want and put it on the credit card.

This does not make everybody happy, because human wants are endless. Once fulfilled, new wants arise. Which we intend to put on the credit card.

A smaller scale example.

A few years back I covered the story of a small town in the northern Midwest which faced a water problem. They were looking at three alternatives.

One was to put up with sulfide contamination of their drinking water from an upstream lake. Mostly harmless except that the naturally occurring sulfides give you diarrhea until you get used to it.

Needless to say visitors would get La Tourista. Not a ringing endorsement for tourism.

The remedy was to build a new water treatment plant at great expense to remove the contaminants. Which would mean special assessments on every homeowner, including retirees living on fixed incomes.

The third alternative was to do nothing, refuse to drain the lake into the river, and run the risk of a coulee break creating a wall of water that would sweep down the narrow river valley wiping away the houses and towns built on the banks.

I talked to any number of highly-educated people who said, 'We shouldn't have to make this choice!'

(In the end they found a way to get the fed to pay for the new treatment plant. See example one.)

So here's what we wondered. As our civilization has become richer and more technologically advanced, fewer and fewer people are directly involved in the primary factors that create wealth. Which are basically growing stuff, making stuff, and moving stuff around.

The advantages are wonderful. Few people have to make a living at hard, dirty, and dangerous work anymore. More people are freed to create culture and the toys that delight us.

The downside is that Americans think food comes from a supermarket, clean water comes from a tap, and garbage and sewage go away.

The problem we saw is if the large majority of people have no concept of how their civilization works, how can we expect them to make the hard decisions necessary to maintain it?

The best answer we could come up with is, we can't.