The Volstead Act, which outlawed alcohol with the aid of a Constitutional Amendment (the Eighteenth), lasted a mere 14 years. It was repealed by yet another Constitutional Amendment (the Twenty-First) and with that, the United States’ grand experiment with going dry came to an abrupt end.
Its failure was really about one thing: a relatively small group of well-meaning, well-intended people — but whose view of the world was not shared by the broader population — tried to tell others how to live their lives. A lot of people like to drink. Some choose not to. But the notion that a law could be enacted to make people behave better was at best, unworkable, and at worst, a permanently damaging exercise in self-delusion. We are still living with the unintended consequences of this dangerous experiment in social engineering.
You simply can’t legislate morality. You can’t pass a law to make people better than their inherent nature.
Scholars and commentators vary on the lasting impact of Prohibition with regard to society’s relationship with alcohol. One source of the intellectual confusion is that data during the period wasn’t collected particularly well. It seems the argument was that because alcohol was officially banned, there was no point in collecting statistics about sclerosis of the liver, for example. In theory that disease didn’t exist any more because people weren’t consuming alcohol. But they were. In droves. Only a fool would have believed otherwise. The lack of data only made things worse — then and now.
As we continue to debate our future relationship with other intoxicants, it would be immensely helpful to review hard data from a similar historical experience. If nothing else Prohibition should have taught us that sticking our heads in the sand didn’t do us much good. Not just at the time but almost certainly for future generations when we realize the opportunity that was missed to understand the phenomenon through the numbers. No matter what side of the argument you are on, facts help. Facts matter. If they are collected judiciously, scientifically and objectively, they don’t lie. That’s what makes them beautiful.
All this may help to explain why, even though 178 countries have signed the COP21 climate agreement, a surprisingly small number of countries — just 19 — have ratified it to this point. Not surprisingly, ratifiers tend to be low lying island nations, which is to say, the ones that have the most at risk in even the most conservative climate change scenarios. They believe the danger for them is very near at hand. For the other 159 would-be ratifiers, the danger is more abstract. More off on the horizon. More something to worry about once the dinner dishes have been cleared away.
But this one thing is certain: without ratification, a signed document is nothing but a vague indication of intent rather than a binding commitment to action. A signature, therefore, can be our first act of self-delusion. It can be argued that while the intent may be there, there is no guarantee, or even necessarily the likelihood, that the high-minded, perfectly reasonable objectives of a cleaner, cooler world will be delivered.
The cynic may argue that the signature on the document is political cover — the Volstead Act of our day, if you will – politicians will use to visibly demonstrate their commitment to a brighter, better tomorrow. It’s what they believe they should believe. It’s also what lets them sleep well at night, comforted by the knowledge that they at least did their part. Not to mention it’s also what they hope will get them re-elected. In actual fact, none of that matters because it’s the ratification process where the gritty battle will eventually be fought and on much more pragmatic, much more political terms. The original signatories and their good intentions may have already been swept away by the vagaries of a grumpy electorate.
However, if the signature is Prohibition, ratification will be the Speakeasy. It’s where every person will eventually weigh-in based on, bluntly, “what’s in it for me?” The outcome of that process is much less certain. The track record of self-sacrifice for the greater good is unenviable for this generation — our parents and grandparents were much better at it than we seem to be.
We may feel pretty good about our particular politician having signed the agreement. A world without reliance on fossil fuels really does sound like a good idea after all. That troublesome debate about ratification, however, must eventually happen. It’s at that moment we will determine, figuratively speaking, whether that treasured glass of wine is against the law or not. We need to be prepared to have our future determined by individual, personal impacts rather than out of some sense of higher obligation. The goals of Prohibition, no matter how noble they may have been, simply couldn’t compete with the temptation of a frosty glass of beer on a hot summer’s day.
The only hope for a large, sweeping agreement about the environment to eventually achieve its promise is to build it from the ground up. Ratify first, sign later, in a manner of speaking:
First, it has to start with individuals. It must ensure that the clean future everybody wants can be achieved without the cost to individuals exceeding our collective threshold of pain. Without that, everything else is moot.
Next, it has to be built with the notion that societies around the globe, in every state of development, will rightfully aspire to the benefits of modern society with respect to health, education and a generally rising standard of living. Whether we choose to believe it, or not, modern society is fueled by cheap, accessible and easily portable energy.
In its turn, we cannot let our enthusiasm for any particular desired outcome drive the ‘curation’ of the facts we choose to include in our argument. Or those we choose to exclude for that matter. The truth can and should be absolute. Let objective data drive policy, not the other way around.
Finally, it has to be fair. Those of us who have enjoyed the tangible benefits of cheap, plentiful energy need to understand and respect the hopes and dreams of others who have not yet had that same opportunity. To do otherwise is to wag our righteous finger of disapproval while ‘the man in the green hat’ delivers the booze.
It’s going to be messy, contentious, much less than perfect and it will take a while. Ah, heck, that all sounds like way too much trouble. Let’s just pass a law and get to the bar before it closes.
We’re all going to need a stiff drink.