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Sunday, November 4, 2012 - Page updated at 03:30 p.m.

Op-ed: When did politics become all about ‘me’?

By Denis Hayes
Special to The Times

IN 1961, John F. Kennedy implored Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Noting that “man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life,” President Kennedy laid out an ambitious vision, proclaiming that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans” who would protect human rights, control nuclear arms, explore the stars and eradicate disease.

In short, politics was about the selfless pursuit of values and ideals.

Twenty years later, Ronald Reagan exactly reversed Kennedy’s stance, focusing his presidential campaign on voters’ immediate self-interest. He asked, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” By better off, he did not mean living in a more peaceful, healthy, just society, but whether the listener had more money in the bank. Candidate Reagan focused politics crisply on the material well-being of the individual citizen.

This approach proved stunningly effective with the “me” generation, and it has dominated political discourse ever since. The 2012 election is no exception.

As this election roars to its conclusion, the “are you better off?” meme dominates discourse. Both sides are selectively spinning statistics to support their candidate. Most of these claims and counterclaims address issues over which a president has little, if any, control.

Utterly lost amid the arguments about unemployment rates, housing starts, and automobile sales are a raft of critical global issues that should be on a president’s desk.

As an environmentalist, I’d like to hear a thoughtful discussion about how to use, and constrain, the power our corporations have acquired to change the face of the planet.

We are causing huge, planet-wide disruptions in the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle and the hydrological cycle. We are radically accelerating natural processes of erosion and introducing hormonelike chemicals into even the most remote niches of the planet. We are blowing the tops off coal-bearing mountains; decimating tropical rain forests; swiftly acidifying the oceans; creating enormous “dead zones” at the mouths of major rivers; and producing an epidemic of extinction among the world’s wild vertebrates.

These issues were barely mentioned in the presidential and our state’s gubernatorial debates.

The trends are ominous if not addressed — and only government has the power and motivation to address them. All of them have solutions, and most of the solutions are politically attractive, yielding jobs in America’s sweet spots: science, technology, unconventional thinking, marketing and social media.

We get glimpses of this in the “green jobs” arguments. But selling the avoidance of catastrophic climate disruption because it will produce jobs is ridiculous. We didn’t declare war on Hitler in order to achieve full employment, retool our factories, and boost the educational achievements of returning GI soldiers. Politics dictated that we defeat an urgent threat to everything we hold dear; the rest were just collateral benefits.

We have now missed the opportunity to avoid climate disruption. As late as 1990, a truly serious program of investments in ultra-efficiency and renewables, coupled with a price on carbon, would have produced enormous climate benefits at a small cost. It will now be very costly and very painful to achieve goals that could have been much more cheaply and easily accomplished a few decades ago. But a political preoccupation with the narrow self-interest of voters stopped even the Clinton-Gore administration from enacting serious initiatives.

When we vote on Nov. 6 to choose our next batch of leaders at the local, state, and national levels, hopefully we will not ask what they can do for us.

From the presidency to the state Legislature, we need to elect people who are pragmatic, well-educated problem-solvers. In particular, we need a president with the integrity and courage to take on the big issues, not just pander to a desire for lower gasoline prices.

I’ve never expected a president to find me a job or get me a deal at Wal-Mart.

I do expect a president to try to create a better world for my daughter and granddaughter.

Denis Hayes is president of the Bullitt Foundation and first national organizer of Earth Day in 1970.


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