09/21/2012 06:40 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2012

Invertebrates and the Spineless Politician

A study released earlier this month suggests that numerous species of slugs, worms, spiders and other spineless creatures are in rapid decline. The report, issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, warns that rising human population is threatening one out of five invertebrate species with extinction. However you might personally feel about bugs and other invertebrates, the decline of invertebrate populations is not good news for humans and other vertebrate species. In terms of our long-term survival, we're all in this together.

Still, at least one invertebrate species is thriving. The spineless politician (homo sapiens politicus) is doing quite well. In fact, it is thriving. Its vertebrate cousin (i.e. the politician with spine) on the other hand, is nearly extinct, as evidence by the deafening silence on issues like climate change, acidification of the oceans, or loss of biodiversity.

Recent polls suggest that nearly three out of four voters see climate change as a threat that needs to be addressed, but in the country's political discourse it has received only passing mention. In his convention speech a few weeks ago, President Obama said that climate change is not a hoax, but he failed to advance any new plans for dealing with the threat. In his acceptance speech, Romney mocked Obama's concern about the environment, saying that, "President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family."

The reticence to speak out about global challenges is not limited to climate change. Even challenges that relate directly to human welfare, such as food insecurity or water scarcity, receive little, if any, attention in the U.S. political discourse.

A group of former world leaders recently released an alarming report on the world's growing demand for water. Prepared by the UN University's Institute for Water, Environment and Health (INWEH), the report warned that by 2025 the world will need another 240 cubic miles of water per year for agriculture, an amount that is equivalent to "the annual flow of 20 Niles or 100 Colorado Rivers." Wow. I will bet you won't hear that in a presidential debate.

Prices of corn, wheat, and soybeans have soared this year due to severe drought in the U.S. and other parts of the world. International agencies are concerned that we might be on the brink of another global food crisis, the third in five years, but U.S. political leaders are not likely to dwell on that challenge. While the rising cost of flour and cornmeal may pose a threat to the world's urban poor living on $1 or $2 a day, high crop prices are seen as a good thing for American farmers.

Scientists are warning that population growth and the world's insatiable demand for more land and resources is triggering a mass extinction of plant and animal species. They call it the "sixth mass extinction," the last one being caused by an asteroid or comet that crashed into the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But however worrisome a mass extinction might be for posterity and the planet, it doesn't score any political points with the independent voters who will be deciding this election.

So what will it take for the U.S. and other governments to address the challenges posed by an overheated, overcrowded, and over-exploited planet? Good question. Earlier this year world leaders met in Rio for the Rio+20 Earth Summit, but they did little more than kick the ecological can down the road. President Obama did not even attend and, if he had, Gov. Romney would have jumped all over him for doing so. Such is the sad state of political discourse in this country on challenges related to the environment or even the future of humanity.

It appears that no amount of arctic melt, short of rising seas swamping New York or Los Angeles, is likely to summon the kind of political will needed to address climate change, and the same goes for other global challenges. We can blame the lack of action on the lack of political spine shown by our political leaders, but the real fault lies with us, the voters. In a democracy, people tend to get the government they deserve and the policies they want. If we don't care what population growth and rising consumption are doing to the planet or our children's future, we can hardly blame the politicians for pandering to our apathy. That's why at least one invertebrate species, homo sapiens politicus, continues to thrive.