Small sacrifices

Last year (2020), I used the pandemic as an analogy for other challenges that we face. Many of the largest problems are slow-moving and play out over years and decades. I suggested that the pandemic offered – on an accelerated timescale – insight into our (in)ability to deal with some of these slower-moving issues.

If you kick the can with a fast-moving virus, you’ll see the effects within weeks or months. Even with an acute health crisis, we (as a society) were often unwilling to make small sacrifices for the collective good.

Nothing quite illustrated this for me so clearly as the debate over mask wearing. Such a small thing. So small that my two-year old did it without complaint. Yet many refused to make this small sacrifice.

If we aren’t willing to make small sacrifices with an acute crisis, what hope do we have for slower-moving crises such as climate change? There we’ve kicked the can decade after decade. That’s easy for the can-kickers to do – they (often) reap the benefits and others bear the consequences. So, why do we think we can rely on businesses and people who benefit from the status quo to do the right thing?

History provides example after example of how naïve this is. Leaded gasoline, tobacco, opioids, and so on. If a few vested interests benefit, they’ll fight tooth and nail. With leaded gasoline, we knew – back in the 1920’s – that we were adding poison to gasoline. Yet the evidence wasn’t “clear enough” for 50 years. And it still took another two decades to phase out lead in the U.S. Companies profited and prior generations got to drive fast. And their children and grandchildren (that’s us!) bore the consequences.

We see this over and over again. Relying on the free market to solve these sorts of problems doesn’t work. A few benefit. Many pay the costs. And, even worse, the costs are often “hidden” for a while. This is a market failure, pure and simple. So, we can’t rely on the invisible hand to fix the problem. We need thoughtfully designed regulation. We need honest leadership. We need elected leaders who will tell us the truth. That this will be hard. That it will cost money. We need to be willing to listen and to make the small sacrifices today so future generations don’t bear the very real consequences of our inaction.

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