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Trump’s ‘Contribution’ to Global Ecology

In Bob Woodward’s book “Fear,” Gary Cohn, former Goldman Sachs banker and former chief economic advisor to President Trump, is often seen advocating for a free trade position vis-à-vis Trump. For his part, Trump views trade deficits as the problem. He sees the purchases of steel and aluminum by U.S. corporations from abroad as weakening the U.S. position. In order to promote their manufacture in the U.S., Trump pushes to impose tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum. By making foreign products more expensive, Trump hopes to revive manufacturing in the U.S.

Gary Cohn, meanwhile, subscribes to the neoliberal ideology, which would have the most efficient enterprises produce goods most cheaply, so that consumers can obtain them at the lowest price. Steel and aluminum forged in China is imported by auto manufacturers in Kentucky. TV sets assembled in China or Mexico are available at low prices at your neighborhood big box store.

Cohn points out that for the same pay, most people would rather sit at a desk in an office than stand all day running a forge or sorting transistors into sockets. Therefore, for Cohn, that most Americans work in the service sector is a good thing.

Human health is endangered by how neoliberalism plays out in the real world. Corporations scour the world for the most exploitable labor, abusing workers to the bone, burning fossil fuels to manufacture and transport goods around the world, externalizing the costs of environmental destruction and human sickness — all in the name of profit. As China continues to burn coal for energy, millions more of its citizens will die prematurely of respiratory diseases. (An estimated 366,000 deaths were attributed to coal-burning in 2013.) The manufactured goods are shipped across the Pacific Ocean, then transported across the U.S. to the big box store. This energy-intensive supply chain continues to be dependent on the burning of fossil fuels, further contributing to climate catastrophe. Many of our Pacific Island neighbors will soon lose their homes to sea level rise.

According to “Fear,” Cohn argued strenuously against tariffs, warning Trump that the stock markets would drop precipitously if they were imposed. After tariffs on steel and aluminum were ordered in March 2018, Cohn left his White House post in April. The Trump tariffs are understood to be one of the reasons for the recent drop in stock prices. We are thus in an ironic situation in which policy blunders by a representative of the billionaire class and professed unbeliever in human-caused climate change (i.e., Trump) might lead to a contraction in the global economy and thereby lower CO2 emissions.

Salutary Turn Of Events?

From a strictly planetary health perspective, this might be viewed as a salutary turn of events. CO2 emissions also dropped during the Great Recession. Polar bears may welcome a drop in the Dow Jones. However, under the current market structure, an economic slowdown will lead to workers losing their jobs. Economic contraction leads to unemployment leads to poverty. The attendant loss of self-worth, depression, drug use, and suicide are bad for human health.

If, indeed, we are on the cusp of another major recession, it behooves us to keep in mind how the recovery went the last time. The gambling houses known as investment banks were bailed out by taxpayers. People whose homes were under water did not receive relief. Inequality has widened to a degree that sounds like science fiction.

Three billionaires (Bezos, Buffett and Gates) now have as much assets as half of the population of the U.S. and eight billionaires have as much assets as half the world population. Since the slight drop in CO2 emissions with the Great Recession, emissions have increased year upon year.

The next recovery must be fundamentally different. The masses, not Wall Street bankers, must be in charge. It needs to be ecologically sound. It needs to protect planetary health as well as human health. There are, after all, only 12 years left to achieve a 1.5°C rise in temperature — during which time the world must begin wean itself from fossil fuel or face climate catastrophe.

On a related note, Trump has come under criticism for his decision to pull troops out of Syria and reduce their number in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has resigned in protest. For those of us who are for peace, a drawdown of the military is a positive development. Seventeen years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, it is evident that the U.S. occupation serves no useful purpose. We regret, however, the abandonment of the Kurds in Syria, the Rojava, who have served as fighting forces against ISIS. While the Rojava struggle to create a feminist, egalitarian society in the midst of a civil war, Turkey’s President Erdogan threatens to invade Northern Syria, calling the Kurds terrorists. What does it say about that the Kurdish historical experience under the Turks that the Rojava might ask Assad to protect them from Erdogan?

The conventional thinking in Hawaii, is that we must do what we can to promote the mainstays of our economy — tourism and the military. However, tourism to Hawai‘i is nearly completely dependent on arrivals by planes flying on jet fuel. With its daily consumption of 350,000 barrels of oil, the U.S. military is a major contributor to carbon emissions. While our politicians may be working to reduce our on-island dependence on fossil fuel — we must also work toward restructuring our economy to reduce its dependence on burning jet fuel.

In sum, the strategy of wringing every last dollar out of child, prison, and slave labor for the sake of private profit is nearing the point of diminishing returns. By wrecking the neoliberal-driven global economy, President Trump may just push the world into embodying that final section of the post-climate catastrophe, post-Ebola, post-rat fever world of David Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks.” The question is, do you find the final chapter pessimistic or optimistic?

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Seiji Yamada, a native of Hiroshima, is a family physician practicing and teaching in Hawaii.

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