Monday, October 27, 2008

From Stranger Danger to Infra-Danger: the Green Collar Path

For a while now I've been pumping the theme that American society will only overcome mass incarceration and its attendant pathologies by shifting the attention and concern of Americans from "stranger danger" (the risk that someone out there is waiting with a gun to hurt you or your family) to "infra-danger" (the risk that technical systems on which you and your family depend for survival, might fail when tested by a natural disaster, like a major hurricane or earthquake striking a major city).

When you are worried about an armed stranger out there, it tends to concentrate the imagination quite strikingly. When law, media, and political chatter overlap in varying degrees and varying times to keep fear of that stranger high, it changes the expectations people develop about government. Thats what I call governing through crime in my book. Thats why George Bush still seems so surprised that the American people expected him to govern competently. Based on his experience as the Governor of Texas, getting tough on juvenile crime was pretty much enough. He still thinks seeking the death penalty against Khalid Sheik Muhammed is just about all any American should want of him.

When you start worrying about infra-danger, the expectations you have of government change. You want government to help make sure these inherently exceptional, but catastrophic risks, which can be expected to happen in ones lifetime, just not frequently, are dealt with seriously. That means mobilizing science to understand sustainable ways to cope with the threats, capitalizing giant building projects where necessary, regulating and maintaining those systems, and incentivizing the consumer behaviors that will help create prevention and resilience. This leads to a very different kind of government than we've seen in Washington for a long time (including the Clinton era).

Once we begin to make infra-danger the major focus of government, many of the problems that loomed large and seemed unsolvable in the era of governing through crime will largely solve themselves. That is one of the insights of a remarkable environmental and justice activist and public intellectual, Van Jones, who in his new book "the Green Collar Economy" makes a case for a major investment in greening America's urban infra-structure to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases and create a stable and resilient base for our population centers. The benefits of such a move will go far beyond saving the polar bear. The creation of new jobs and a lower cost middle class lifestyle in cities(less dependent on commuting) will resolve many of the intractable problems of the late 20th century including an underclass of presumptively unemployable people, huge and expensive prison systems that seem to produce more crime, periodic spikes of violence on our city streets, and growing racial segregation despite less official racism, will reverse. The key element is the employment (and training) of tens of thousands of urban youth who will be needed to actually construct the greener systems sustaining our metropolitan areas. These young people, many of them coded as a threat by businesses afraid to invest in cities, will become a huge asset to society once we make the decision to do green collar rebuilding of our infrastructure. The collateral effects on crime reduction, building safer stronger communities, and shrinking our dysfunctional correctional systems (at another huge cost savings) are beyond what any criminological crime prevention strategy could hope to produce.

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