Three Problems that the United States Must Address by the Mid-21st Century

One of the upshots of secular humanism is that it encourages us to look towards the future and the needs of our descendants when shaping our values, goals, and policies—instead of living selfishly and only in the demands of the present. As such, one of the major topics that secular humanists need to begin seriously discussing is how we are to take care of our homelands, both in a national sense and in a global sense, in the 21st century and beyond. As we move into a new era of progress and change, having abandoned so many decrepit past systems of practice and belief, we must continue to root out those systems still in place that are antiquated, no longer serving us most effectively or justly. Where these systems have decayed, we must replace them; where they have become destructive, we must reformat them entirely. It is only by this self-evaluative process that citizens of advancing nations—and especially of the United States—can truly hold themselves as good custodians of their country and protectors of their people.

The following list contains three of the most pressing issues from a secular humanist standpoint that currently weigh on the United States:

  1. Economic Inequality
  2. Domestic Issues of Social Justice
  3. Climate Change/Renewable Energy

This list is by no means extant, and in the course of its arguments will present some uncommon or uncomfortable evidences; however, the astute reader will notice the common themes of systemic injustice and political inefficacy that underlie each point. Ultimately, although solutions have been hinted at where possible, only through the increasing discussion, awareness, and action of (or on behalf of) those currently most affected by these budding challenges will the United States be duly prepared to set sail into the latter half of the century.

 1. Economic Inequality

It was the Occupy Movement and its unifying “We are the 99%” slogan that first brought the idea of economic inequality to the forefront of American collective consciousness. However, in the years since the Occupy Movement made its most famous stand nationwide, the “wealth gap” in the United States has only continued to increase, while the majority of Americans remain “relatively unconcerned about the wide income gap between rich and poor.” Despite the many ills that often befall nations with high income inequality, the United States continues to rank as one of the worst offenders among developed nations in terms of economic inequality.

One of the ills implicit in economic inequality, at least in the case of the United States, is that income inequality brings with it a loss of democracy. As a recent study by Princeton University scholars shows, the United States has definitively transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy. As the study explains:

“Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence… Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

The reality of American political inequality depicted by this study shows the long-reaching effects of the severe economic inequality rampant in the nation. Because only a select few individuals and organizations, made powerful by their disproportionate ‘big money’ holdings, have any real sway over the course of governmental proceedings, these few in power are free to customize the political system of the United States to fit their own best interests. It is often not their concern that their concentrated wealth entails the broader spread of others’ poverty, and, as such, the vicious cycle of economic inequality—with the rich getting richer and the poor becoming evermore powerless because of their poverty—continues.

Reinstating and preserving a truer democracy in the United States will likely include many more changes in business policy and taxation than can be explained or imagined here. However, aside from changes in the bureaucracy, much of this reinstatement will include simply extending more opportunities to as many groups of Americans as possible, especially those that have been traditionally repressed or most affected by economic inequality in recent years. One proposed solution includes the restructuring of public education. Many believe that “investments in high-quality early learning for children from birth to age 5 yield high returns, not only in the lives of children but for our nation—including long-term educational, social, and economic benefits, from increased earnings and tax revenues to breaking the cycle of poverty;” thus, one partial solution may be the restructuring of public schooling to put more emphasis on early childhood education, and to provide free preschool programs for children whose families may not otherwise be able to afford such education.

Increasing “apprenticeships” has also been proposed as a way to fight the systemic cycle of economic inequality that the United States presently finds itself in. Apprenticeships—an ‘earn-while-you-learn’ form of paid worker training—have been shown to significantly boost workers’ lifetime wages and create pathways to well-paying careers for unemployed young workers—without incurring student debt. Indeed, “many countries already rely on apprenticeships as a central tool for developing a competitive workforce;” however, the model has not been readily adopted in the United States, despite the fact that “apprenticeships benefit workers by connecting them with a paid job, raising their lifetime wages, and offering a postsecondary education with little or no debt.” Though the problems of economic inequality are much larger than the availability and variety of educational opportunities in America, it is important to remember the potentiality of restructured systems of education and training as potential, non-bureaucratic partial solutions to these challenges.

2. Domestic Issues of Social Justice 

The turn of the century has brought with it a series of bizarre new ethical, moral, and legal discussions—from how to define intellectual property and privacy in the digital age to (seriously) what humans should do to prepare for encountering other intelligences. However, before U. S. policy and legal practice can even hope to begin addressing these and other brave new issues, there are a series of logs that must be removed from the collective eyes of the nation. Below is a catalog of some of the most prominent logs which blind the United States in its progression:

U.S. Prison Population 

The statistics that count the number of prisons and prisoners in the United States are mortifying—especially when compared to other developed nations. They show, for example, that the United States has imprisoned “more people than any other country,” including “a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S.” These statistics additionally show that “the United States holds 25% of the world’s prison population, but only 5% of the world’s people.” Further, we see that “from less than 300,000 inmates in 1972, the jail population grew to 2 million by the year 2000. In 1990 it was one million. Ten years ago there were only five private prisons in the country, with a population of 2,000 inmates; now, there are 100, with 62,000 inmates. It is expected that by the coming decade, the number will hit 360,000, according to reports.” The current rate of imprisonment in the United States is outrageous, and predictive data analysis suggests that, under this unchanged system, the prison population in the United States will only continue to increase.

But how have imprisonment rates gotten so far out of hand? What is the cause for such a large U.S. prison population, especially given that these populations are many times smaller in other developed nations? As explained in a recent Economist blogpost:

“America locks up too many people for too many things. The number of federal laws has risen from 3,000 in the early 1980s to over 4,450 by 2008. Many of these have poor intent requirements, meaning people are being locked up not to keep the rest of society safe, but for technical violations of laws they may not have known existed. This overreliance on imprisonment can be seen most starkly, and sadly, by looking at the juvenile population, which is just under 71,000 nationally. Around 11,600 are imprisoned for “technical violations” of their probation or parole terms, rather than because they committed a new crime.”

The problem of America’s massive prison population, then, is largely one of technicality. An explosion of federal laws in the late 20th and early 21st century, as well as the continued insistence on prosecuting those who commit victim-less or “technical” crimes, has resulted in an over-imprisonment of American citizens that serves to fulfill the ‘letter of the law’ more frequently than it does to actually make society safer.

Coupled with this insistence on criminal technicalities is the previously-discussed economic inequality in the United States. It has been observed that “equally decisive in determining crime rates are the more invisible barriers to crime set up by social norms and social cohesion. Indeed, one of the most robust statistical patterns known is that crime rates tend to go up with rising economic inequality, which itself tends to go along with erosion of social trust.” Indeed, true, victimizing crime has its roots, at least partially, in the economic injustice and systemic inequality experienced daily by many Americans. As a recent medical study, attempting to understand crime in terms of “social evaluative” threats (i.e., the negative judgments of others), has found, as societies “become more unequal, such [negative] judgments tend to become implicit in social interactions, as the poor are excluded from a wide range of activities.” Thus, studies of crime and imprisonment in America suggest two main solutions to the nation’s prison problems: namely, a decrease in unnecessary or “technicality” convictions, and an increase in economic equality.

Marriage Equality 
marriage-equality-logoIt gives us great pride to say that we considered leaving this item off this list, since, thanks to the last decade of hard work by LGBTQAI groups and human rights activists alike, this battle is very nearly won. Currently in the United States, 19 states (plus the District of Columbia) have legalized same sex marriage, and the rest are likely not far behind. Truly, as far as human rights movements go, the fight for marriage equality has been met with great success in recent years.

Equally as impressive as campaign successes is the extraordinary transformation that American thought regarding gay marriage and marriage equality has undergone. A recent Pew Research study has uncovered that “In…polling in 2001, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a 57% to 35% margin. Since then, support for same-sex marriage has steadily grown. Today, a majority of Americans (54%) support same-sex marriage, compared with 39% who oppose it.” The triumph of newer systems of marriage equality over older, more unjust traditional marriage standards offers a ray of hope for gender and women’s rights activists as well; as gender becomes less of a legal parameter, systemic injustices that have long affected women, transgendered people, and other non-privileged orientations will hopefully begin to fade away, replaced by identifiers that consider individuals more holistically. Ultimately, the continual victories in the fight toward marriage equality should provide encouragement by consistently proving society’s capacity to transform itself and address new challenges, if only adequately convinced to.

Legalizing Cannabis 

When stores selling cannabis for recreational use opened earlier this year in Colorado, many were expecting the worst for the state. But, perhaps surprisingly, Colorado has seen very few ill-effects come from this legalization. Rather, the state has seen some lower crime rates, as “overall violent crime in Denver for the four-month period that includes January to April fell 5.6 percent from the same period a year earlier,” as crime in the city is “down in the four main categories of violent crime” (those four being homicide, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault), and as “property crime dropped 11.4 percent from the first four months of 2013.”

Though correlation certainly does not equal causation, the state has at least not seen the crime wave predicted by many opponents of legalization. Rather, “Denver’s crime statistics during the first four months of retail marijuana reflect findings from a recent report published in the peer-reviewed PLOS ONE journal showing that legalizing medical marijuana causes no increase in crime, and may reduce some violent crime, including homicide.” In addition to potentially reducing some forms of violent crime (as legalization in Colorado potentially exemplifies), cannabis sales have provided a new source of revenue for the state. As reported by the Associated Press:

marijuana-money-profits-earnings-medical-marijuana-project“The state Department of Revenue says that Colorado sold nearly $19 million worth of recreational pot in March, up from about $14 million worth of recreational pot in February. Through three months of retail recreational pot, Colorado has earned $7.3 million in taxes from the drug. That figure does not include medical marijuana sales taxes or licensing fees, which bring Colorado’s haul to about $12.6 million. Just this week, state lawmakers approved a plan to spend marijuana taxes, mostly on child drug use prevention and outreach. The $33 million plan includes money for more school nurses and public education on using marijuana responsibly.”

In its decision to legalize cannabis, the Colorado legislative body has opened up new sources of funding for education and children’s health programs; this model could easily benefit other states where education is underfunded.

A final note: People are going to do drugs no matter what. If the United States has learned anything from the outcomes of alcohol prohibition in the early 20th century, it is that simply making a substance illegal does not solve, mitigate, or control the economic and health issues associated with substance use. Further, the problem of high U.S. prison populations described above would be partially solved by the decriminalization of marijuana; as many currently imprisoned have been charged with the mere victim-less crime of marijuana possession, the decriminalization of marijuana would help to reduce rates of incarceration while ensuring the U.S. prison system negatively affects less lives.

Legalizing Prostitution 

I know what some people may be thinking: How can you applaud gender social equality above and yet support the legalization of prostitution? Like legal prohibitions against substance abuse, however, laws attempting to ban prostitution do not solve the economic and health issues relating to the sex industry. Instead, criminalization only creates a black market for prostitution. As R.T. Taylor in Wages of Crime: Black Markets, Illegal Finance, and the Underworld Economy demonstrates, attempts to eliminate activities that have a natural market demand, like prostitution, from the supply side (e.g. by creating laws that target prostitutes) only eliminate law-abiding suppliers, and thus increase the market share and profits of those who take the risk to sell the banned good or service illegally. Thus, instead of having legal brothels, which can be subject to state regulation, prostitution is instead moved out to the streets, where no legal safeguards can be put in place to protect the prostitutes themselves. As one study indicates, women who engage in street prostitution are 60 to 100 times more likely to be murdered then non-prostitute females.

Although prostitution is an inevitable market activity that has existed in every society (hence it is called, “the world’s oldest profession”), it does not need to look like the kind of abuse found in high crime neighborhoods and illegal red light districts. Instead, by legalizing prostitution, regulated brothels can provide the service far more safely and ethically. Too see what legal, safe, and ethical prostitution looks like, we recommend the following Penn and Teller documentary:

[Warning: The video below contains nudity.]

When prostitution is legal and provided in a controlled environment, such as in Nevada today (the only U.S. state to provide legal prostitution), violence against prostitutes drops dramatically, and likewise regular health procedures can be implemented to prevent STDs and other health risks. Researches in “Violence and Legalized Brothel Prostitution in Nevada” have found that “brothels offer the safest environment available for women to sell consensual sex acts for money.” Why would we want this safety to exist only in Nevada when it can reduce violence in all 50 U.S. states?

Furthermore, the notion that prostitution somehow oppresses or exploits women (those making this claim often ignore male prostitutes) only serves to reinforce negative gender stereotypes, by assuming that all women must be “pure” or “protected” and cannot make adult decisions on their own, in addition to punishing the very women who are claimed to be victims. As secular humanist activist Eddy Tabash in “Stop Jailing Women for ‘Their Own Good’” argues:

“The paternalistic argument that women need to be protected from sexual exploitation fails to justify the continued criminalization of prostitution. This argument claims that in order to protect women against such exploitation, society should imprison all women who engage in prostitution. This argument is reducible to a claim that languishing behind bars is a preferable fate for a woman as opposed to allowing her to freely sell her body, if this is what she chooses to do.”

Tabash further points out, “An appropriately zoned, taxed and health-regulated legal prostitution industry would free women from jail, free many of our precious few police officers to focus on real crime and bring in much needed revenue. It would also elevate society to a new and desirable plateau of live-and-let-live tolerance.”

Banning Infant Circumcision 

Male infant circumcision may be an unexpected item on this list, but many Americans, who circumcise their sons as a normative procedure, do not realize the lack of medical necessity, health risks/damages, and violation of individual rights caused by the surgery. This is very unfortunate, since the American Academy of Pediatrics, since as early as 1999, has concluded that male infant circumcision is unjustified as a routine health practice:

“Existing scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision; however, these data are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision … the procedure is not essential to the child’s current well-being.”

What is worse is that male infant circumcision is highly painful to infants, reduces male sensitivity, and carries with it a number of medical risks. Here is another documentary by Penn and Teller that speaks out against male infant circumcision, despite its popularity in the United States:

[Warning: The video below contains violent images.]

Parent who have been informed of problems relating to the surgery have begun to organize awareness group in order to protect their sons. One group, Mothers Against Circumcision, provides a list of medical risks and problems caused by the surgery:

“Many things can go wrong during a circumcision including hemorrhage, infections, and damage to the penis. People tend to believe that the circumcised penis is less prone to problems. However, circumcised babies experience substantially more problems than the baby left intact. The glans is no longer protected by it’s jacket—the foreskin. The raw wound is exposed to fecal material and ammonia in urine … Repeated infections can cause a narrowing of the urinary opening (meatal stenosis). This may require surgical correction with the attendant risks yet again …Botched jobs often call for additional surgeries as well. Although seriously botched jobs are rare, most malpractice suits are settled. In exchange for the financial award, the malpractice charges against the doctor must be dropped. As a result, statistics on this type of incident are under-reported [see “List of Articles on Botched Jobs“]  Excessive bleeding can require a blood transfusion with the attendant blood supply risks for HIV and other disease organisms. Deaths do occur, but are usually blamed on something else and are under-reported as well.”

For all of these problems, remember that the American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that none of the potential benefits of male circumcision justify the surgery as a routine practice. Thus, every routine circumcision performed in the United States is an unnecessary surgery, despite the health risks and botched jobs discussed above.

Furthermore, infant male circumcision infringes upon the rights of the future adult. Every male that is circumcised as an infant must live with the consequences for life, despite whatever medical and aesthetic preferences he might have for his own body. For this reason, secular humanists need to realize that forcing circumcision upon a helpless child is a human rights violation that negatively affects the majority of males in this country. Fortunately, the number of infant circumcisions performed in the United States has been declining, but we need to continue the fight until every unnecessary infant circumcision is prohibited.

Secular humanists should also be concerned that religion is one of the leading causes of male infant circumcision. Both practicing Judaism and Islam require the procedure, and many Christians also have it performed due to sympathies with the Old Testament. However, religious freedom in no way justifies performing the surgery on an infant. Having your son circumcised simply out of religious conformity is akin to foot binding girls in China and female genital mutilation in Africa. Cultural and religious tendencies do not justify violating an individual’s health and rights.

Furthermore, banning infant circumcision does not seriously impose on the rights of religious groups, such as practicing Jews or Muslims, since any male, once over the age of 18, has the right to perform the surgery as an adult. For this reason, Jews Against Circumcision opposes the practice, despite cultural and religious precedent. As secular humanists we are the farthest removed from the brutal practices of ancient religions, and, as such, it behooves us most of all to stand up to brutal practices like circumcision, which only persist due to apathy and conformity with antiquated norms.

3. Climate Change/Renewable Energy 

As everyone who has been paying any attention to the media for the last several decades should know, the world’s climate has measurably been changing since even before the 20th century, causing rises in the Earth’s average temperature. As the U.S. Environmental Protections Agency explains:

“Since the Industrial Revolution began around 1750, human activities have contributed substantially to climate change by adding CO2 and other heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere. These greenhouse gas emissions have increased the greenhouse effect and caused Earth’s surface temperature to rise. The primary human activity affecting the amount and rate of climate change is greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.”

These findings about humankind’s involvement in exacerbating global warming can no longer be regarded as mere “theory.” According to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, “97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field” agree that human activity is a major cause of the world’s increasing temperatures. For a scientific summary of the causes of global warming and its effect on the Earth’s climate, including our way of life, we highly recommend a recent episode of COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The World Set Free.”

According to NASA, continued global warming will result in changing weather patterns, rising sea levels, damaged ecosystems, and negative impacts on human settlements across the globe. For this reason science educator Bill Nye is explicit that “climate change is our most urgent, number one priority right now.”

As secular humanists making sure that the Earth, our only home in the cosmos, will continue to have a sustainable climate that can house us and our children is naturally of top priority. Since fossil fuels are one of the leading causes of this problem, finding a solution to renewable and clean energy is the greatest technological challenge of the 21st century.

As such, solar, wind, and other forms of clean energy need to be explored not only as “alternatives” to fossil fuels, but as the future technologies that our planet will rely on. Right now, the technology is still in development and the market value of clean energy is still beneath that of fossil fuels, but despite the short-term economic cost, the long-term priority of fixing our planet’s climate must drive both U.S. and global policy.

If we were able to find a way to travel to the Moon in the 20th century, then we can also find a solution to clean and renewable energy in the 21st. Clean Techina discusses how, with technological investment now, a relatively small stretch of North Africa could potentially provide energy to the whole world through solar and wind energy:

Desertec is a set of plans for a massive network of solar and wind farms stretching across the Mena region and intended to connect to Europe via high voltage direct current transmission cables (which are supposed to only lose 3% of their electricity per 1000km, or 620 miles). Although Desertec has been widely regarded as nothing more than an unattainable dream for most of its history, it’s been gaining some momentum over the past two years. A number of significant German corporations – including E. ON, Munich Re, Siemens, and Deutsche Bank – have all signed on with the project, forming the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii). Germany’s decision to speed up the schedule to dismantle its nuclear power plants earlier this year has also helped generate more German support for Desertec, and the first phase of construction is set to begin in Morocco next year.”

Image Credit: Nadine May

Image Credit: Nadine May in “Eco-balance of a Solar Electricity Transmission from North Africa to Europe” (pg. 12)

By investing resources now we will be preparing ourselves for a future world that is far more technologically sophisticated and sustainable than the one we have now. Other steps also need to be taken, and the U.S. National Resources Defense Council recommends that the five following actions be taken in the 21st century:

  1. Set Limits on Global Warming Pollution
  2. Invest in Green Jobs and Clean Energy 
  3. Drive Smarter Cars
  4. Create Green Homes and Buildings 
  5. Build Better Communities and Transportation Networks

Regardless, we will all see the effects of global warming in our lifetime, so the time to prepare is right now, this very moment.

Conclusion

As discussed at the beginning, secular humanism is a philosophy that is focused not only on the needs of the present generation, but also humankind’s future. During the 20th century the world saw dramatic change. Despite two world wars and many other problems across the globe, the last century nevertheless saw improvements in human rights, global rises in democracy, and technological advancements that have shaped the present world of today. We need to take action now to make sure that the world of tomorrow will continue to see improvement. For this reason, we have provided the list above to help get the ball rolling on discussing our nation’s problems and their potential solutions. Feel free to list and discuss more problems currently facing our nation and their potential solutions below! As secular humanists we need to be leaders in promoting change and improvement across this country. After all, secular humanism will be the philosophy of the world’s future.

Onward and upwards,

Francis Adams &

Matthew Ferguson

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