As I type these words, the partial shutdown of the U.S. government is about to enter its fifth week. Approximately 800,000 federal employees are currently going without pay, with more than half of them ordered back to work without any knowledge of when their next paycheck may arrive. The shutdown has upended these Americans’ financial security and day-to-day lives—all because our childishly temperamental president has decided to hold the government hostage in order to appease the angriest, most xenophobic sliver of his shrinking base.
Shutdowns happen; we’ve endured almost two dozen of them over the past 40 years. This one feels different, though. For one thing, it’s the longest of its kind in U.S. history—presumably not the kind of superlative that our superlative-addicted president wants attached to his name and legacy. But it stands out in another disturbing way: No one seems able to predict how or when it will end. The reason most shutdowns last only a few days is that those with the power to end them recognize the dangers of letting them go on. In the words of one former official at the Office of Management and Budget, shutdowns “don’t get bad linearly; they get bad exponentially.”
To put it another way: Entropy feeds on itself. During a shutdown, things don’t just get a little worse with each passing day. They get a lot worse. As our various systems weaken over time, the pathogens of disorder, dysfunction, and decay spread through them at an ever-increasing rate.
This effect is already happening to our public lands, which in their unsupervised states are in danger of being overrun with trash, vandalism, and human waste. Last week, social media was alight with virally shared photos of Joshua Tree National Park, where lawless visitors have cut down ancient trees and spray-painted graffiti on rocks over the past few weeks. Michelle Govani, a scholar whose academic focus is the effect of social and environmental change on the U.S. National Park Service, called for the immediate closing of all national parks in the absence of the personnel required to run them. “Beyond the park service’s famous park rangers, there are public safety enforcement officers, facilities and janitorial staff, wildlife specialists, educators, and administrators,” she writes. “Without them, the parks are less safe, less clean, less educational, and less protected from crowds.”
We’re seeing this entropy play out in the systems meant to keep our food supply safe, too. Earlier this month, the shutdown forced the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to suspend all of the nearly 160 domestic food-facility inspections it undertakes each week. This includes more than 50 inspections of “high-risk” processing facilities, so named because they handle things that are especially vulnerable to contamination, like seafood, baby food, vegetables, and soft cheeses. On Tuesday, FDA head Scott Gottlieb tweeted that the agency had ordered about 150 high-risk food inspectors back to their posts—where they will be working without pay for the foreseeable future.
Also vulnerable are efforts to clean up some of the most noxious pollution plaguing our communities. Remediation of Superfund sites—the poisonous vestiges of old chemical factories, nuclear-weapons plants, mines, and toxic-waste dumps—has been halted, save for those sites deemed to pose an “imminent threat” to people and property nearby. The interruption in cleanup activity comes in the context of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that’s been grievously compromised. In hearings earlier this week that will determine whether he becomes the next EPA administrator, acting head Andrew Wheeler told senators that the agency was “on the job for any emergency action or court-ordered action” but conceded that the shutdown means the suspension or delay of other duties. These include the completion of a long-awaited management plan for drinking water contaminated by the class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
The list of temporarily abandoned responsibilities, suspended activities, and delayed projects goes on and on. But the shutdown itself can’t be allowed to go on and on because at some point, “temporary” setbacks cross a threshold into intractable problems that can result in potentially permanent damage.
Since past shutdowns have all been much shorter than the current one, we’ve never known precisely what the breaking point is for the various systems and government operations we depend on. Thanks to our president’s selfish, foolish intransigence, we may just end up finding out.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.