Making Things Different

The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make and could just as easily make differently.

— David Graeber

This is important. This is why I’ve been reading economics. I’m trying to understand the difference between our assumptions of how things work and what the actual constraints are. There are some limits on how we can make the world, but they’re rooted in the basic laws of physics and biology — neither of which we completely understand.

From my study, I’ve begun to understand that most of the rules of economics that are currently in use are built on faulty assumptions. If we toss out those assumptions and build on ideas that are much closer to actual reality, we can, as Graeber said, make a different and better world.

Living things die. Even if we discover more and better ways to extend life, living things will still die. I don’t think we’re going to get around that one. I’m not even sure we should, despite the fact that I would still like to live forever because I want to know what happens next.

But there are environments that are good for living things, ones that are bad, and some that are toxic. To apply Graeber’s thinking here: we have allowed systems that put people in bad and toxic environments for the financial benefit of a few. We do not have to do that. If all living things die, we can’t prevent that, but we can prevent them from dying prematurely of illnesses brought on by toxic environments.

A recent study points out that four million people die prematurely every year because of air pollution brought on by making things for the consumption-oriented wealthy countries.

Many of those people are elderly and have health conditions aggravated by particle pollution, but that doesn’t mean their lives weren’t valuable. Also, while the study doesn’t mention it, I suspect many of the health conditions were caused by the air pollution in the first place.

We can build a world in which healthy lives for all is more important than profit and the assumption that those with money can do whatever they want. That, of course, means a potent environmental protection program.

I should point out that there is a case pending at the U.S. Supreme Court that wants to undercut the Environmental Protection Agency’s work on air quality. As usual, we must struggle just to protect the limited protections currently in place when we need to be expanding those protections dramatically.

Our experience with the pandemic shows that public health systems along with good scientific research are vital to building the kind of world we all want to live in.

A good public health system would have well-staffed agencies on the local level who can get everything from education to testing to protective equipment to vaccines out to the community. Instead in the US, we’ve had poorly funded agencies that could just barely do a tenth of their jobs.

And the parts of the system that were supposed to be gold standard for public health — the Centers for Disease Control — were undercut by politics and failed miserably.

The good science is vital. We are very fortunate that mRNA vaccines were developed quickly, because those working on mRNA and those working on vaccines for other kinds of coronaviruses — ones that showed up earlier and were similar — were often shunted aside and given too little funding.

That’s not to mention that the science on aerosol transmission of viruses was built on a faulty assumption about particle size that has only recently been uncovered. While many people have complained about indoor air quality for years, very little was done to address that even though we have the technology for good ventilation systems.

We have accepted that viruses circulate widely in our society and that some people die. Thirty to sixty thousand people a year dying of flu in the US has been acceptable even though a large number of those deaths were preventable by such simple means as good indoor ventilation coupled, of course, with vaccines and general cleanliness.

We don’t have to accept that and we certainly don’t have to accept the kind of case rates and deaths we’ve had from Covid. We don’t have to accept the horrible situations in our hospitals.

We know enough to do better. We know how to put those systems in place.

We are not doing those things apparently because it is in the financial interest of a few to let people die of preventable illness.

It’s time we changed the rules on that. It’s time to make a different kind of world.

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