I was at the dentist last week, thinking of a lifetime of sins. I eat far better than I used to, but I still have a sweet tooth. I’m a much better tooth-brusher than I once was, but a dilatory flosser. I don’t brush or even rinse my mouth after every meal. I have kept a lot of dentists in business throughout my short life. I got a sweet tooth early on, and only recently saw candy and soda as bad ideas. I shudder to think of the things I ate in the 70s. I hope they have banned Now ‘n’ Laters in particular, designed to give great mouth feel, resistance, sweetness and pull teeth around in their sockets. Now, I have fillings older than some of you readers.
I know what I meed to do to my teeth to keep them in working order forever, but this is not foremost on my mind during meal, snack, bed or waking times. If every American actually acted on our basic knowledge of dental hygiene (floss and brush like good little boy scouts), there would be no need for dentists. But we don’t have the habit. It is always easier to enjoy now. No reasonable mind is as concerned about what happens later as much as what happens now. It is less than a consideration. The calamity of the dentist has not even happened when I am eating, so why is dentistry a problem?
Life is lived mostly on current pleasures and avoided pains, then on past experience and trauma. Our histories tell us what to expect, and we act accordingly. The future; what others tell us may be the consequences of our actions, are a distant third in our daily calculus.
Infrastructure, interest. households and the environment are the same way. Deferred maintenance is a great way to save costs year on year, as long as nothing actually, you know, breaks. Then the deaths and lawsuits come. Vacuuming and dusting is always more of a pain than slacking off, even if it will be more of a pain tomorrow or next week when you have to get on your hands and knees to scrape what was previously on, and not part of, the floor. We are good judges of present value, and terrible judges of the future.
Most environmental bads don’t happen in a day, but are the result of thousands of daily insults. Today you have verdant nature, the next decade you have a wasteland.
This parking lot or that lane addition may not be solely accused of ruining the stream, but the accumulation of thousands of road “improvements” in a growing and prosperous community can turn a functioning stream into a floodway. Every chemical we put into our bodies would require more than a lifetime to cause cancer, the collection of them may or may not (no one knows) result in America’s rise in adult cancers and (maybe) other maladies. Each day sitting in the chair typing is not going to atrophy your legs and ruin your digestion, ten thousand days of it will. A single household with poor insulation paying to warm itself up to a toasty or cool temperature isn’t going to warm the planet or make us dependent on fossil fuels for energy, but a hundred million or so could.
Just as we get into environmental trouble gradually, we can get out of it. Declare open season on Pythons in Florida, and you won’t have Pythons after a while. If a power company pays its customer to insulate their houses in lieu of building a new gas fired plant and transmission network, they can save energy and sometimes even money. Households throughout America have reduced their miles traveled by moving closer to their jobs, shopping and schools. Traffic miles traveled has been falling since 2007, before the market crash, but right around the time gas got intolerably expensive to use, especially for the SUVs everyone was used to.
We usually don’t notice the degradation until something breaks. Molar breaks, bridge collapses, House Finches are all we hear outside our window. Gradual accumulation of insults make it easier for calamities to happen. Calamities much more expensive than routine maintenance, but much more urgent.
That is where the money goes.