Friday, November 30, 2012

We Belong to a World Community

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’”
Matthew 25:1-9

In a recent column, Nicholas Kristof observes that, “In upper-middle-class suburbs on the East Coast, the newest must-have isn’t a $7,500 Sub-Zero refrigerator. It’s a standby generator that automatically flips on backup power to an entire house when the electrical grid goes out.”

I’m jealous.

We didn’t lose power for more than a few seconds during Super Storm Sandy, but folks across town, just a few miles away, were without electricity for more than a week. That’s nothing compared to what happened in New York and New Jersey, but it does make you think. Standby generators are not cheap. It’s easy to spend over $10,000, but for many families, it’s worth it. Power outages are only fun for a short time.

There are at least two problems here. One is the increase in extreme weather caused by global warming. That is a long term problem that needs to be addressed (and it is becoming a crisis sooner than expected). The other problem is our infrastructure, and specifically, the electrical grid. In 2009 the American Society of Civil Engineers examined our electrical grid and gave it a grade of D+. The World Economic Forum ranks our electrical infrastructure as 25th in the world, down from 8th in 2003-4. Remarkably, neither global warming nor infrastructure got very much attention during the presidential campaign.

This points to an underlying problem: When it comes to major issues we lack a sense of community. In the language of kindergarten progress reports, “we don’t play well with others,” and we don’t know how to share.

I don’t criticize the people who are buying generators, but from a national or global perspective it makes no sense. It’s inefficient and it increases pollution. Ironically, it addresses the problems caused by climate change by adding to the conditions that cause climate change.

But this is where we are in America. Community services are being replaced with private alternatives. Rather than pay for services with higher taxes, we leave it to individuals.

If you are worried about crime, you can live in a gated community with private security. If the public schools have problems, you can send your kids to a private school. If the roads are crumbling, you can buy a bigger SUV. If public parks and recreation areas are not maintained, you can buy a home on the beach. But these “work arounds” only work if you have a lot of money.

We need to think hard about what it means to be a community, rather than a collection of individuals who happen to live in the same country (and on the same planet).

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