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Stephen Gottlieb: For A Healthy World

One of the effects of serving abroad, call it benefit or burden, is that one sees the relics of lost pasts, civilizations that have destroyed themselves by overusing the resources available to them or by using materials that poisoned the community. It’s quaint, and interesting, but the lesson is humility – we can destroy ourselves, and may be doing it.

Friends and relatives who are scientists have been treating me to the best and the worst of the coming world. One relative explained to me that electric cars will soon overtake gas driven vehicles. Great, even though they will make dinosaurs of our hybrid and the one we bought our daughter.

So I asked a friend in the power industry whether we can deal with fossil fuels by going after specific technologies like cars or whether petroleum would be burned in other ways for other uses so we wouldn’t really get very far? I thought we needed to turn to a carbon tax that would go after other forms of burning fossil fuels. The answer I got was both yes and no. It turns out that automobiles are the least efficient form of using fossil fuels for power, so getting away from the internal combustion engine is progress. Companies that produce electric power are so much more efficient that there is a significant saving even if they burn gas or oil to produce the power. Turning to solar and wind energy would be MUCH better. But if petroleum gets cheaper because it’s not used for gasoline, it will be used to make plastics. Woops. We are already eating plastics in our diet which isn’t good for our health or the health of the foods we eat. So a carbon tax wouldn’t be good enough – we need to regulate the uses of petroleum much more thoroughly. And we need to ban plastics much more generally.

But Americans have turned freedom into the economic freedom to produce whatever they want without needing anyone’s approval. We even created a class of things that get used like medicine but don’t need FDA approval – we call them supplements. Some countries require companies to prove safety and can require that they prove safety to the community for the life cycle of the products.

That galls some people – it’s regulation designed to protect all of us regardless of whether the producers realized they were doing damage. But ever since Reagan we’ve been vilifying regulation, even if it’s designed to protect us. Years ago I refused marijuana even though I was convinced it was safe because, as an illegal drug, I knew its purchase fueled gangsters, criminals and killers. Americans continue to buy and sell other drugs which kill many Americans. Some of us can’t stand other people telling us what we can or can’t do, and claim, instead, the freedom to extinguish other people’s lives. I don’t buy into that so-called “freedom.”

A little respect for science, a little respect for the fact that our doctors and many government offices are trying to protect you and me and our fellow Americans would go a long way. Sometimes what gets called “freedom” is the yellow brick road to slavery. In the case of environmental toxins, it may be the road to extinction.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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