Commentary: What Would You Do with $52 billion?

brooks400.jpgWhat would you do with $52 billion? This is the amount of subsidies that the fossil fuel industry is estimated to receive each year from the U.S. government. A campaign endorsed by the United Church of Christ is asking people to publicly share better ways to spend that money than to give it to major polluters. On November 14th, the UCC is joining with organizations like and the Sierra Club for an international day of action to call on governments to stop feeding the dinosaur of fossil fuels. On that day, everyone is encouraged to raise awareness by posting a photo online of what they would do with $52 billion. It is a test for our moral IQ. How can we do the most good for the common good with that kind of money?

In some ways, it is a harder task than one might imagine. As one of my colleagues said, “I don’t even know what $52 billion looks like.” One’s household budget has to be that of Bill and Melinda Gates to begin thinking in those terms. Incidentally, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation makes headlines for giving hundreds of millions of dollars to fight malaria. To eradicate a disease that kills more people than cancer and causes a child in Africa to die every 60 seconds, the foundation estimates it would cost between $90 to $120 billion over the next 25 years. In other words, we could wipe out malaria if we stopped funding fossil fuels for just a couple of years. What’s more important: helping polluters or saving millions of lives?

Malaria is not the only issue that reveals the glaring mismatch between commonly held values and our government dole for the greedy, not the needy. Unsafe drinking water, for example, is the world’s number one killer of children under five with nearly a thousand dying each day. Educated estimates indicate that $52 billion a year would do an incredible amount to stop this. The more I investigated the possibilities for what this amount of money could do, the harder it became to select just one cause as a “favorite.” Who wants to say it is more important to save a child dying from malaria than a child dying from unsafe drinking water?


Soon, however, it became clear to me how I would answer the $52 billion question. If $52 billion dollars in subsidies to major polluters represents the antichrist of public spending in relation to public health, then the answer is that we need to redirect that $52 billion dollars to public health priorities. Perhaps we should tackle major problems one by one. Or maybe we should tackle five major problems over ten years. Ultimately, the goal of this $52 billion thought experiment is not to put public health emergencies in competition with each other. The goal is to give our priorities a 180 degree turn. Maybe my answer is a cop out. In the pictures provided, you will see how some of my colleagues answered the question. May their answers stimulate your own thinking. On November 14th, what will your sign say?

The Rev. Brooks Berndt is Minister for Environmental Justice, UCC Justice and Witness Ministries.

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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