June 27, 2007

Searching for hidden clues to America's malaise

There are presently 2.25 million people in America's jails and prisons. China, commonly regarded in the West as a police state and a bastion for human rights violations, has about 1.5 million citizens locked up, although it has about 4 times the U.S. population. Simple math tells us the per capita rate of incarceration in the U.S. is about 6 times higher in America than in China (Chinese prison population = 67% of American; 4 divided by 2/3 = 6.) That strikes me as an astounding differential. Russia, famous for its gulags and Siberian labor camps of another era, weighs in with about 875,000. In fact, the United States, with 5% of the world's population, incarcerates about 1 in 4 of all people under lock and key in the world.

It is interesting to me that the same disproportion keeps showing up in various unfavorable parameters. The United States belches out about 1/4th of the world's CO2 emissions; it uses about 1/4th of the daily energy; it consumes about 1/4th of the world's supply of petroleum. Those three data points, of course, are related directly. I wonder if they might be related to the fourth, the incarceration rate. More than one out of every 150 Americans currently lives in the pokey, while outside the prison walls the free citizens spend their times driving and burning energy at unprecedented rates.

It's probably just a coincidence. We have to remember that 500,000 of those American inmates are in jail on drug charges. Although, when you think about it, could that be a clue as well? What's with all the drug use? Could it have something to do with the profligate use of energy, the indifference to the natural environment, the contempt for the natural horrors that such things bring about? Are all of these things actually related, and are they all, really, symptoms and different manifestations of the same social breakdown?

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