A person working as a leaf blower walks past an American flag on May 27, 2020 in Old Westbury, New York. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

A person working as a leaf blower walks past an American flag on May 27, 2020 in Old Westbury, New York. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

The Leaf Blower and the Robocall: America's Social Predicament

If we can't even do the easy things, has the very concept of progress in America died?

In the past couple of weeks, the national media briefly paused from its laser-like focus on Gabby Petito to notice that California was phasing out the sale of gas-powered leaf blowers by 2024. Not only that, but by that same date--gasp!--gas-powered lawn mowers will no longer be sold.

There is reason to think that California may not be the trend setter on this issue, at least for the foreseeable future. Due to geography and weather patterns, the state has a unique susceptibility to air pollution, and its governor, Gavin Newsom, having just finished a blowout victory against his Republican opponents in a recall election, is feeling his oats.

But don't expect similar outcomes in Sheboygan or Keokuk, even if the case against gas-powered leaf blowers is overwhelming. If you're like me, living in a residential suburban area, you're uncomfortably aware of it already. From the first growth of grass in late March until the last fallen leaf at Christmas, the calm of my supposedly bucolic neighborhood is shattered by commercial leaf blowers, weed whackers, and mowers. Some days this racket goes on from sunrise to sunset. It's enough to wake the dead.

The blowers and line trimmers use two-stroke engines almost exclusively--antiquated technology that is noisy, smelly, and hyper-polluting (a Ford F-150 V-8 pick-up truck driven coast to coast emits less pollution than a leaf blower in one afternoon). Commercial mowers, with massive engines lacking mufflers or pollution control, generate far greater perceived noise than even consumer-grade gas mowers.

Yet don't look to get rid of them. As the Sacramento Bee says, "Critics of the bill-turned-law--including Senate GOP Leader Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, and the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute [what a surprise!]--said that it will impose a hardship on landscapers and gardeners, as well as creating a market shortfall of products with high consumer demand." Yes, expect a solid wall of resistance from Republicans and the lobbies that fund them. In most parts of the country, this means that a transition to cleaner and quieter technology is unlikely.

How about a constant annoyance that nobody claims to like? Robocalls and scammers have virtually made residential landlines unusable. They are an invasion of privacy, they are almost all illegitimate, and the fraud they perpetrate on senescent senior citizens vastly outweighs whatever purported "benefit" they bring. (Right-wing jurisprudence claims that advertising is "freedom of speech," which is hard to justify when it constitutes trespass upon one's privacy, the advertising claim is a lie, and the perpetrator is usually committing federal wire fraud by hijacking someone else's phone number).

So you might think lawmakers are against this universal pest, right, and aren't honest companies lobbying to shut down the robocall industry because it makes even legitimate phone transactions suspect? Well, some of them are.

But you'd be naive about how businesses operate if you're surprised that a big swathe of Corporate America habitually lines up not only to kill robocall curbs, but to make them more prevalent.

This includes, not surprisingly, the financial services industry, which is not content to rest on its laurels of having tanked the global economy in 2008. Also, predictably, the US Chamber of Commerce. That seems to confirm my long-held suspicion that lobbyists for the Chamber, as a condition of employment, must swear an oath of true faith and allegiance to Satan.

These are just two of a myriad of social deficiencies that are solvable in principle, but stubbornly elude us: why are our urban areas visually and functionally blighted by above-ground power lines strung between wooden poles, lines routinely knocked down by windstorms, freezing rain, and idiotic motorists? Why do we have cities as large as 400,000 residents without public transportation? Why is passenger rail unavailable to the vast majority of the country, and the trains that are used less advanced than those of Morocco?

Apparently, all of these are unaffordable, so we divert ourselves with billionaires joyriding into space, baseball players signing $365-million contracts, or $3.3-million replica Aston Martin DB5s just like the one James Bond drove 57 years ago. (The last is courtesy of our British cousins, who are so much like us. Not being able to let bad enough alone, they cut themselves off from Europe, and now indignantly wonder why they can't find Camembert or Chateauneuf-du-Pape at their nearest high street Tesco).

If we cannot solve relatively picayune problems that virtually any sane and intelligent person agrees need to be solved, how are we going to provide health care for all Americans, take the measures necessary to combat climate change, or address the glaring economic inequities festering in society? Unfortunately, a consistent floor of about 40 percent of the US population consists of persons so conditioned by reactionary ideological propaganda, retrograde pseudo-religious cults, or sheer bile-soaked rancor, they reject change and progress even in principle.

If this sounds overstated, consider the bizarre resistance to vaccination, a kind of mass mental illness that crystalized into an ideological crusade. In order to spite science and the concept of social responsibility, these persons will cheerfully and doggedly undertake the risk of death or serious illness. In those circumstances, attempting to convince them of the need for a passenger rail network or an upgraded electrical grid is like teaching Schrodinger's wave equation to a dog.

The crisis is made more acute by long-standing institutional rigidities which mean that what most people might want is rarely translated into policy. As I've written before, the US Constitution is so encrusted with unmerited reverence that we have become like Easter Islanders genuflecting before a stone idol. The drafting of that document put several mechanisms in place which achieve the result of entrenching determined and reactionary minorities in power, thus enabling the effective nullification of majority rule.

Why is there never a determined and progress-oriented majority in America? It often seems, as William Butler Yeats said, that "the best lack all conviction"--unwilling to risk so much as the cuticle of their pinky finger for a better social contract. But "the worst are filled with passionate intensity," eager to give their lives, as with the anti-vaxxers, for an ignoble cause, or to take innocent lives, as we saw in Charlottesville and on Capitol Hill.

We are now deep into the Anthropocene epoch, and have profoundly altered the planet as well as all living things upon it. We could be on the verge of triggering the greatest extinction event since the Permian. As entomologist E.O Wilson recently observed, if we wipe out enough species, it will surely mean our own destruction.

Human existence cannot continue if we cling to the reactionary vision of a social order commensurate with the Bronze Age, married to an economic system perpetuating the worst aspects of early industrialism. Americans, and human beings everywhere, must revive the notion of progress, not as some utopian ideal, but as the pragmatic notion that paradise may be unachievable, but gradually, we still can make life a little safer, a little healthier, and a lot saner.

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