Should I vote? And then what?

Many years ago, when I was in junior high school, I got into a discussion with one of my teachers about voting in the school elections for the Student Council. It went something like this:

Me: “Do I have to vote?”
Teacher: “No, but you should.”
Me: “Why?”
Teacher: “Because it’s your civic duty!”
Me: “But the candidates are all puppets of the [school] administration.”
Teacher: “Well, write yourself in.”
Me: “But the student council has no power, the administration can disregard anything it says.”

The teacher went on, as I recall, to say that the student council did have some power in that the administration was certainly going to listen to what they said; they didn’t want to create problems. While I remember the conversation, I don’t actually remember whether I finally voted, wrote myself in, or even what my issues were with the weak-kneed, spineless candidates for student council (as I saw them at the time!).

I feel the same quandary today. Voting may be a civic duty, but our loyalty to the civitas is being sorely tested. Does voting make sense? Does any political party or candidate understand what is really at stake?

The immediate problem is a breakdown in law and order. Campaigns are pretty much rigged political theater, controlled by large corporations. With the help of the Supreme Court even minimal limitations on corporate control of the media have been overturned. The laws we have are not enforced: citizens are executed without trial, violation of civil liberties is routine, torture is approved, and you can kill 100,000 innocent people in Iraq in an aggressive war and walk free. Chris Hedges says it better than I ever could in a well-written call for revolution in which he calls elections “our rigged political theater.”

But here is the scary part: the country (and the planet) faces an environmental crisis of the first order. It’s not just a problem with democracy; that very difficult step is the easy part. Even if all of the “Occupy” movement’s demands about equality and democracy were granted, climate change could, literally, eliminate all life on the planet. Indeed, if we burn all the coal and oil we can, and really develop the tar sands as a source of fossil fuel, this would be the most likely outcome.

Effective action against climate change and depletion of fossil fuels will destroy the economy. Our economy is based on fossil fuels and growth. Alternative energy will take decades to ramp up and has a lower EROEI (energy return on energy invested) than fossil fuels, so when the entire economy is renewable we will have a lower standard of living.

In the meantime, making the transition will reverse economic growth because of the energy trap. The energy trap is that we need to invest a lot of money in renewable infrastructure up front.  Just as available energy is declining because of peak oil, investing in renewables will take even more energy and make the economy decline even faster.  That implies that an awful lot of that $50 trillion in debt that we have (loaned when we were looking at never-ending growth) will not be repaid, which will result in a cascade of bankruptcies, unemployment, and bank failures.

We need a radical and pretty complete restructuring of the economy at a lower level. We need a basic income to insure that everyone has enough to eat and adequate shelter. We need people to work hard, and for less, for the common good. There is no household in America that will be left untouched. Can I vote for that in the current political system?

Gentlemen may cry “Jobs! Jobs!” — but there are no jobs. The 99% may appreciate the inequality issue, but I am less sure that they appreciate the threat to human life or the reality of what the transition to a truly sustainable economy will look like. The country needs to be united. Even the rich need air to breathe.

Even the Green candidates that I’ve seen don’t seem to understand the depth of our problems.  Maybe this will change. But if the election were held today, I wouldn’t know whether to write myself in or just stay at home — and given the breakdown in law and order, it wouldn’t be clear that it would even make a difference.

(slightly revised Nov. 18)


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