I was reading the news from Buffalo — the news about how a racist young man, fueled by wild conspiracy theories that were amplified by bad actors on the internet and cable TV, traveled 200 miles to murder a bunch of innocent people with his modified assault rifle — and I thought: this just isn’t sustainable.
Sustainability is a word we usually associate with the environment. It’s often stripped of meaning by marketing and political rhetoric — for example, companies love to tell us they’re striving for sustainability in the way that they pump oil out of the earth in order to burn it or the way that they manufacture millions of disposable plastic bottles every day that they know will end up in landfills.
But the word does have a meaning. Here are a couple of definitions that I like:
Sustainability means meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. (McGill University)
To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations. (EPA)
If we take the word out of an environmental context, perhaps we can define it this way — a system is sustainable if it’s in balance, if it’s not damaging the future on behalf of the present, if things can continue on indefinitely as they are now.
Does anybody think that we can describe the United States as sustainable?
It certainly doesn’t feel as though things can go on the way that they have been, not without something snapping.
What’s not sustainable about American society? Here’s a brief and not-at-all comprehensive list. I’m sure you can add a number of things to it (feel free in the comments).
The United States has more guns than any other country, by far. We have more than one gun per person. That’s double the next most gun-owning nation, which is Yemen.
More than 45,000 people died in the country because of guns in 2020. Our gun-homicide rate, gun-suicide rate, and overall homicide rate are far higher than most other developed countries. Many of the guns being sold are simply murder weapons. They’re not terribly useful for hunting or even defending the home. They are based on weapons of war. We are approaching 200 mass shootings in 2022. It’s May.
One of our two political parties, the one that is likely to take power in both houses of our legislature next year, thinks that this is not a problem. The real problem, they think, is that people might have their precious gun rights threatened someday; after all, citizens may have to fight off jackbooted government thugs. Republicans routinely indulge in dangerous political rhetoric around guns, posing for their Christmas cards with their assault rifles and making jokes about murdering ideological enemies. They haven’t changed course, despite the fact that their rhetoric has led to a number of murders.
Race and immigration
There’s a growing racial divide in the country. Sparked by horrific videos of police murders, the Black Lives Matter movement inspired massive protests in 2020. The protests were an incredible outpouring of emotion, but they didn’t result in many concrete policy changes.
These protests took place at a time when things seemed to be moving away from racial justice in many parts of the country. A racial backlash among some white Americans, first detectable as a reaction to the election of Barack Obama, has grown — and become more and more explicit in recent years. This backlash has been mainstreamed by cynical pundits and politicians, most importantly the most recent president, who routinely uttered things that would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Many on the right — like the apparent Buffalo shooter — have become convinced that there is a grand conspiracy to “replace” whites with immigrants and other racial groups. Cable news’ most popular host and many prominent politicians now espouse this theory, which has been directly cited by several mass murderers.
Cost of living
For a while, the things we didn’t really need to lead a fulfilling life (the latest fashions, gasoline for our fuel-hungry SUVs, junk food, electronic gadgets, cheap plastic crap) were getting cheaper while the things that actually improve life (housing, healthcare, education) were getting drastically more expensive. We could console ourselves about the $7,000 (or maybe $10,000! Or $15,000! No way to tell ahead of time!) bill for the birth of a child by thinking about all of the money we’d save on cheap toys for the kid as they grew up.