A friend told me yesterday the story of her effort to repair two near-antique showerheads. Several stores and plumbers told her an internal part was shot, and she would need to replace the fixtures—at significant cost if she wanted to get anything half so nice. Then she checked with her dad, a contractor, who told her the broken part was probably replaceable. So she inspected the broken part, and then carved herself a new one out of a plastic ring, got the showerheads re-plated, and for a fraction of the replacement cost, had working parts that suited her home. She looked at me and said flatly, “the absence of common sense is a pandemic.”
If we’re going to make a dent in the rest of our problems, we’re going to have to straighten out this one first.
On every page of my morning paper, there’s a challenge calling for a new solution. A forest fire destroying a city the size of my own, a bankrupt city poisoned by its water supply, towns that have completely run through their water supply, the destruction of the Sacramento River delta, skyrocketing costs for the Aliso Canyon gas leak that don’t begin to contemplate the global warming damage done, rising homelessness, killer medical scopes.
These are not simple problems, but they are solvable, if we follow a few basic principles:
- Get good data and trust messengers who deserve our trust. On showerheads, but also global warming: scientists have told us it was a real problem — and we’ve watched as our environment has reflected back the evidence — for thirty years, and yet we’ve lived through decades of obfuscation and denial. We don’t have time for public discourse or political leadership that reject scientific data.
- Solve problems. Identify people who have good ideas, support experimentation, and put solutions in place. Don’t pause at analysis. And don’t fear imperfection.
- Stop doing things that make no sense. A medical system that is the third largest killer in the U.S., due to errors? Fix it, now. Energy-intensive fossil fuel extraction that results in disastrous accidents that further speed us on the path to global warming? Keep it in the ground. Farming practices that threaten the effectiveness of our last remaining antibiotics – the most life-changing medications ever made, without which we risk the survival of our grandchildren? You must be kidding.
- Ask why, and then rethink the model. Why are our lives changing only in the arena of technology? Why are we still asking the same questions our grandparents asked, and living with the same fears (in addition to all our new ones)? For example: technology and civilization have freed us from the need to work constantly just to feed, clothe and protect ourselves and our families. Yet we are working more hours at our paying jobs than at any time in the modern era – and our political discourse is dominated by the “need” for more jobs. If there aren’t enough jobs to be done, isn’t that a Sabbath, rather than a setback? Why aren’t we retooling our society to accommodate the possibilities of self-directed human activity, or as Joseph Campbell would say, following our bliss? Surely all our lives would be better if poets were free to write poetry rather than work in accounting firms. Another example: four-year college. Intelligent, educated people are driving our best and brightest children to the brink of insanity in an admissions race that will leave them not only laboring under a stupendous pile of debt, but worse, unequipped for the future, which is going to demand first and foremost intelligent use of information and creative problem-solving (see points 1 and 2 above). What if we stopped and thought about how best to develop those skills, instead of how to get the most prestigious diploma?
- Exercise some longterm backbone. One of the best parts of the American Dream is the assertion that if we commit ourselves – do the work and stick to it — we can succeed. We need to apply this principle to our collective life at least as urgently as we do to our individual lives. Determination, tolerance for change and an ability to roll with the punches as a nation are all going to be required.
The path to a liveable future is going to require of us serious, focused work over decades, and it has to start immediately. And as good as I feel about my Prius, I can’t stop global warming alone. The moment demands that all of us demand of ourselves and our leadership realism based on data; we need to be and to support problem-solvers; we need to quit doing things that harm the planet and our lives; we need to rethink and in some cases blow up our cherished models, and we need to get serious about all of it. Now, and through whatever is coming.
The absence of common sense is a pandemic. Let’s find ours.
Managing Director, Frontier Group; Senior Vice President, The Public Interest Network
Susan Rakov is the Director of Frontier Group, The Public Interest Network's research and policy development center. Frontier Group’s work informs public debate about degradations to the environment and public health, threats to consumer rights and democracy, and the available routes to a better future. Susan lives with her family in Santa Barbara, Calif., where she is an advocate for public education and an amateur singer/songwriter.