Opinion » John Rember

Sewer Line to the Future

Externalized costs and grandchildren

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One of the defining characteristics of American culture is that it maximizes profits by minimizing expenses. Most corporate executives and stockholders think this is a good thing, but one of the ways corporations minimize expenses is by externalizing costs—they make other people pay for the hidden costs of their business. For example, one of the great hidden costs of the nuclear power industry is the permanent disposal of nuclear waste. Nobody's figured out what to do with the radioactive tailings of uranium mines, or spent fuel rods in the cooling ponds beside reactors, or the deadly hulks of decommissioned plants.

If you think that's a bad thing for the nuclear industry, you haven't looked at its balance sheets, which shift the costs of waste disposal to people who haven't even been born yet.

Nuclear waste is a great example of how posterity subsidizes our civilization, but it's not the only one. Since the first mud hut was built on the bank of a river, people have dumped their waste products into the water and hoped the current would do the rest. In the case of our own grandchildren, the river is time, and they're just far enough downstream that they won't know where we live when they realize how badly we've fouled their nest.

They'll have every reason to hate us. Besides nuclear waste and reverse mortgages, our externalized-costs include fracked freshwater supplies, antibiotic-resistant superbugs, barren oceans, flattened mountains, pesticides in the food chain, bioactive plastics in the food chain, gut-biome-altering GMO crops in the food chain, droughts followed by floods followed by droughts, drowned coastal cities, thousands of square miles of once-productive farmland covered by instant-slum suburbs, and great, howling negative spaces left by extinct species and melted ice caps.

These are lethal gifts, and we have lots more to give. But if we're lucky, the grandkids won't drag us out of our Lexuses and hang us from lampposts. They'll happily repay their high-interest college loans over the course of their lives. They'll contribute to our Social Security. They'll pay the taxes that guarantee our pensions formerly guaranteed by bankrupt companies and institutions.

They'll invent telomere-extending drugs to lengthen our dotage and simple kitchen faucet filters to take the fracking chemicals out of tap water. They'll work hard to preserve our democracy, becoming upright Democrats and honest Republicans, and volunteer for freedom-protecting military service. They'll attend our American churches and worship our American gods.

They'll invent a way to burn nuclear waste in thorium reactors, and inject enough sulfur dioxide into the air to turn the sky orange and cool the planet to tolerable levels. They'll reconstruct extinct genomes and restore rainforests and provide us old folks with companion robots when we get too cranky for human companionship.

That flying car you saw in a 1958 issue of Popular Mechanics? In your garage, complete with a handicapped parking sticker. And fusion power and ships that will visit Alpha Centauri and in-skull Facebook hookups and...

Nah. They're not going to do any of those things. That's because we've shifted another cost to posterity. We've stopped spending the money it takes to educate young people. In a misguided attempt to externalize educational expenses, we've turned schools into warehouses where people study for standardized tests, and take and retake them until they achieve a minimum score. We rate teachers and schools by student test scores, forgetting that human intelligence depends on human connection and community.

When an English teacher looks out at a class of 35, and a standardized test is coming up in a week, you can bet that teacher isn't thinking about any human community that includes her students. You can also be sure that the students aren't thinking of the meaning of the literature they were supposed to read. Instead, they're looking at Cliff's Notes or their equivalent, and listening to the teacher's helpful hints on how to defeat a multiple-choice test.

"Two choices," she's saying, "are clearly going to be wrong. Eliminate those, and look at the other two. If you can't decide between them, guess. There's a 50-50 chance you'll be right."

Some of the students aren't listening to her at all. Some are bored to tears by their testing routine and are daydreaming about what they're going to do when test prep is done for the day. And a couple of concussed football players are wondering why math class, which used to be so easy, now seems incomprehensible.

This is not education, much less the careful transmission of cultural wisdom. It is the sort of thing that turns happy, enthusiastic children into the human equivalent of nuclear waste. The toxic effects will drift downstream for generations.

When we won't spend the money to put well-paid, intelligent teachers in small classes where they can do some good, it makes our taxes lower and our balance sheets more robust. But it will not develop the sort of flexible, independent intelligences that will allow grandchildren to deal with the world that we're handing them. The good news is that they won't be smart enough to figure out what's been done to them, and by whom.