The 2016 Election Has Failed the Future

We are living in an unprecedented transitional period, and the election has almost entirely ignored the future.

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Oct 20 2016, 4:11pm

Image: Paul J Richards/Getty

We are living in an unprecedented transitional period here on Earth. On the one hand, the pace of scientific and technological innovation has accelerated to faster than ever before; on the whole, humanity is healthier, more prosperous, better connected, and better educated.

On the other, we face an uncertain future of myriad threats, from catastrophic climate change; to technological inequality and entrenched, systemic discrimination; and more esoteric existential risks including superbugs, asteroids, food system collapse, superintelligent AI, and whatever else you can think of.

Many of these issues have compelling arguments on all sides; all of them require serious discussion about how we wish to respond. And yet during the three presidential debates, we heard nothing. In an election marred by apocalyptic rhetoric, is the future too scary to discuss?

Aside from a pragmatic, but hardly eye-opening, question about energy policy from Ken Bone, climate change did not make a single appearance in this year's election debates. Why can't the most important democratic decision in the world engage with the most pressing issue of our time? That is, in a word, incredible.

Climate change, and the environment as a whole, has always taken a backseat to more pressing economic and social justice issues—which, for what it's worth, were also largely ignored this year—and that's fine. It's unfair to expect voters to ignore the gaping wounds they're staring at, and to instead pay attention to a potential hand grenade that's Plinko-ing its way down towards their heads.

There's no zinger that can slow climate change, and no comeback to drag inequality into oblivion

But securing our future is not a zero-sum game. Our presidents should be capable of juggling more than one issue while in office, and the must be able to address immediate issues—jobs, civil rights, healthcare, and so on—while also having the vision to prepare for, and even take advantage of, the long-term concerns that threaten everything we do. We must demand that candidates do the same while on the campaign trail, when all they're required to deliver are ideas.

Climate change is especially important in this regard, as it will exacerbate most of the other ills of our current world, including resource-based conflict, pandemics, extreme weather, and food insecurity. For example, Florida is set to be ravaged by rising seas, including the properties of Donald Trump, who has called climate change a hoax. But rising seas are just one final problem; in the interim, we can expect warming weather to negatively influence everything from hurricanes to the spread of disease, as is potentially the case with Zika (which also didn't make an appearance in the debates, despite an ongoing funding crisis).

For all the pseudo-talk of the economy in the debates, climate change is already costing us billions of dollars a year, and it is only going to get worse, as even the Pentagon is preparing for.

And despite this endless stream of bad news and heel-dragging from our elected officials, we're already seeing positive impacts from investment in clean energy and divestment from climate-polluting industries. There's no better time to push harder on mitigating the worst effects of climate change, which threatens all aspects of our livelihoods. Ignoring the climate for favor of arguing over who's a stronger leader is simply irresponsible.

Climate may be the largest threat for humanity as a whole, but here in the US, the most immediately pressing one is inequality. Inequality is a problem across all demographic breakdowns—racial, economic, geographic, and so on—and for yet another election, the answer has been summed up with varying shades of the word "jobs." It's too late to reverse the tide of globalism, unless we want to turn ourselves into some sort of hermit kingdom, but as the leader of the tech economy, the United States is still in a strong position to shape the world's economy to our advantage.

This is not a simple truth: As shuffling alliances and developing nations reshape the world order, and as the massive disparity in income and capital in the US mixes with a future economy defined less by ownership and more by timesharing everything, the non-barons among us have a difficult road ahead.


And yet the closest either candidate has come to discussing that reality publicly came from a leaked conversation Hillary Clinton had with a Brazilian bank, which featured enough big thinking that naturally she downplayed it at last night's debate. Instead, we've been served the same platitudes: cutting taxes to spur jobs, as Trump offered, or investing in infrastructure and education because trickle-down economics do not work, as Clinton said.

Let's take a basic issue that helped fuel Trump's rise: the ongoing isolation of rural economies. Our nation is becoming more urban, and cities are the centerpiece of our service-based, high-tech economy. What do we do for everyone else? Trump has promised to bring coal mining jobs back, which runs counter to every market force in the energy sector. Meanwhile, actual discussion about how to keep rural communities connected to high-tech infrastructure, education, and investment has fallen by the wayside.

The list of issues that never were mentioned in any of the debates is long, and all are crucial to ending this century in a better place than we started. To Clinton's credit, she has very detailed policy positions available and a long track record if you're willing to look, while Donald Trump does not. They've both given their soundbites on the campaign trail, which gives a peek into their thinking.

But to not see either of them forced to defend those positions on any of the debate stages has left us all without insight into how they would actually enact them while in office. The debates are the cornerstone of the election, where candidates have to actually win our vote. All I want is to hear more from these candidates about what they would do to help bring forth a better tomorrow. But in those debates, that's been largely ignored.

There's no zinger that can slow climate change, and no comeback to drag inequality into oblivion. This is the nature of any presidential election, as they're all ultimate spectacle. But to see such vapidity on display for so long lowers the bar for what we as voters should demand. The president remains the most powerful person in our nation, and we cannot give them the job so lightly.