Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Austerity and Health

The austerity measures being imposed these days on national economies throughout the world aim at a very stilted type of austerity. The rich demand austerity from everyone else, in order to aggrandize their wealth. These wealthy people, though, are by no means practicing any type of austerity. On the contrary, they are spending more than ever on opulent luxuries. However, when they say that we are living beyond our means they are in a very important sense correct. Our economic practices exceed the carrying capacity of the planet.

Among other things, our collective levels of consumption and waste create amounts of pollution and harms that overwhelm the planet's ability to maintain homeostasis. Consequently, we are seeing not only extreme weather phenomena but the depletion of natural resources that we cannot live without. For example, fresh water is running out. While the earth's surface is covered in water, very little of this is potable or suitable for agricultural uses. Indeed, the United Nations estimates that by 2025 nearly 2 billion people "will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity."

Present economic and political practices are doing nothing to ameliorate the situation. On the contrary, they are exacerbating it. It is not simply the destructiveness wreaked by fossil fuels that are poisoning our water, and our air, and our soil, and all of our bodies, but an economy that sees the satisfaction of peoples' needs as secondary to generating profits for the wealthy. Faced with global ecological holocaust, the notion of austerity ought to be reappropriated and reconceptualized.

Rather than privatizing schools, water supply systems, and other publicly owned enterprises, a radical austerity will preserve those things but halt the practices that are causing the destruction of the planet. Unless it is necessary for peoples' health, and no healthier means of accomplishing its function is available, industry must be shut down entirely. Industries that contribute great harms with negligible benefits must be phased out. Among the most obvious of these is the paper industry. Paper napkins, paper plates, paper bags, and cardboard boxes, to name a few, are in most cases completely wasteful. And aside from their production, their distribution reproduces great harms. Additionally, the production of plastic materials that are designed to be immediately discarded must, for the most part, cease. The energy industry, too, must be transformed. People, of course, still need electricity and heat; but excessive uses must be eliminated, and fossil fuels and nuclear energy must give way to solar, wind, tidal power, and other renewable energy forms. Another industry that must be phased out is the military industry. The fast food industry, as well, must be shuttered. Commercial air travel should be rationed - this is, after all, an austerity program. Moreover, the work week must be cut in half at least. Because the production and distribution of unessential goods causes a great deal of harm, these must be stopped.

People may ask how they are supposed to pay for things if their jobs are eliminated. An easy answer is by the adoption of a basic income law. Indeed, the entire purpose of such an austerity program is to mitigate harms. So it would be absurd to propose that people incur harms to their health in effectuating such austerity. As such, a basic income must be available to all people to pay for rent, nutritious food, transportation, communications, and other necessities. Maybe people will not be able to eat all of the meat that they want to eat - as meat production is harmful - and maybe they will not be able to eat large amounts of sugar, but as a trade-off they will not have to work very much. People will be able to spend more time with their families and friends in cities, towns, and natural environments that will be more and more livable - and, after a short time, self-sustaining as well. In addition to creating healthier communities and a healthier society, a model of austerity such as this may be the only way to avoid a total ecological holocaust. The health of the people is the supreme law, and the health of the people demands this.

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