Walking Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death
There has been plenty to discourage me this fall. We have had an unedifying campaign. A rash of storms has reminded us that human beings are buffeted by forces they neither control nor even fully understand. A new but largely ignored Pentagon study concludes that global warming could take a quantum leap and paradoxically make northern New England much colder. Vast climate change may in turn occasion huge population movements and wars. Major media have also featured reports about the possibility of a global chicken flu pandemic.
Contemplating harsher winters and global pandemics led me in turn to fantasize about vacations that I regularly take in the Phoenix area. Yet even that fantasy was short-lived. Arizona has spent the fall in a divisive referendum campaign over a measure that would require proof of citizenship for all voters and recipients of public benefits.
How do we deal with a world where fear of natural catastrophe and fear of the foreign seem to be growing in tandem? We could start by recognizing that even if climatic changes are set in stone, the technological and social responses are not. Better transportation and land use planning - especially preservation of open space - often seen as a dispensable amenity at best - might be treated as insurance against changes in weather patterns that may make some food sources or living areas no longer viable. Open land - space not colonized by our purposes and designs - can be a source of surprise that might in turn inspire in us greater openness and receptivity to nature's surprises.
Nor must mass migrations always be accompanied by war. Much depends on the outlook democratic societies take toward immigration. The conventional assumption even in Europe is that the "West" is full. If immigrants come for jobs, they do so at the expense of other workers. Yet historic experience suggests that supply of good jobs is not finite. How immigrants are perceived is often closely connected with the ways all workers are treated.
Fair wages for all workers may be one key both to social stability and economic growth. Unfortunately, just as in the 19th century, relatively unskilled immigrant labor is thrown into competition with domestic workers in a labor market where all the cards are in management's hands. In the last 20 years American corporations have flagrantly disregard New Deal era labor standards. They discharge workers interested in unionization and treat the meager fines they receive as a cost of business. Wages for many jobs progressively deteriorate and business productivity often exceeds effective consumer demand. The economy stagnates.
In the United States, much of individual and collective identity has always been based on a commitment to personal prosperity. The increasingly rapid movement of global businesses, global labor and ever more tenuous prosperity fuels some of the most xenophobic forms of personal and social identity.
But fortunately, the debate on the role of immigrants to Western democracies is far from closed either in Europe or the United States. Writing recently in the London-based Guardian newspaper, one scholar commented, "The fact is that immigration will bring change to a country. Yet that's only to be feared if you assume the results will be ruinous. The real peril ... is not the false millions gathering beyond our shores, but that we might lose sight of the fact that successive waves of immigration have taught Britain to be a more open, more tolerant place. It is 'they' who have made 'us' more civilized."
Even in the United States, from the 1880s until the New Deal era, workers from Ireland, Italy and Poland fought hard to limit the cruel imperatives of factory culture in the interests of more family time and broader cultural opportunities. Their protests bore fruit in state and federal laws to limit working hours. Today, some U.S. unions once hostile to minorities and immigrants now lobby to assure immigrant labor full rights to organize and full protection of U.S. laws. They have come to recognize that making the social safety net as broad as possible works to the benefit of all workers.
There are no easy recipes for such happy outcomes. World government will not soon be upon us nor is a world without borders feasible or even desirable. Nonetheless, global health issues and global warming all may entail unprecedented necessity as well as extraordinary opportunities for open collaboration of public health authorities, environmentalists, urban planners and agronomists. Paradoxically, greater security and happiness may depend on policing both nature and our borders in a more open-minded way.
If we are not sensitive to the risks that hubris regarding our technology and our culture poses and are not open to more generous dialogue with those who differ in politics, ethnicity and lifestyle, then we may be the ultimate losers. As another winter approaches, I still cling to the conviction that something within us can and will rise to this challenge.
© 2004 Bangor Daily News