We’re delighted to announce the winners of The Nation’s seventh annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing what they think is the most important issue of Election 2012. We received close to 1,000 submissions from high school and college students in forty-two states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Tess Saperstein of Dreyfoos School of the Arts in Boca Raton, Florida, and Andrew Giambrone of Yale University. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Read all the winning essays today. —The Editors

In the twenty-first century, and especially around the time of the 2012 election, “fighting” has become a common term to describe almost all of our issues. Fight against unemployment. Fight against poverty. Fight against global injustice. And of course, rally up your arms, bring out your pans and fight against environmental degradation.

All of this fighting is bound to exhaust us, especially when dealing with something as massive as the planet Earth itself. Even Achilles had to rest after a day of battling the Trojans. In fact, the Greeks were so tired of ceaseless fighting that they changed tactics, which swerved the course of the decade-long war: enter the giant, wooden horse. Though we can’t offer a huge wooden horse to Mother Nature (doing so would probably cause deforestation and emit more carbon dioxide into the air), we can take a similar mindset of innovation. Such a change of plan is exactly what we need in the dire, uphill attempt to nurse our sickly Earth back into health.

The Earth is not only sick but is surprisingly neglected. The United States allots less than 5 percent of the federal budget to the environment. This sliver of the gigantic pie is shared by Mother Nature and other sectors of the country, such as religion, public service and recreation. Considering that the United States is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, this lack of funding is a great disappointment and a grave problem. In order to develop the technology that we need to establish a sustainable future, more of the pie should be given to our hungry planet.

Renewable energy is becoming a more viable investment, as solar and wind energy are providing greener alternatives to fossil fuels. Because these innovations are not yet complete and still fraught with complications – such as providing long-term use and boosting efficiency (each photovoltaic panel used in solar energy harvesting has only about 40 percent efficiency)—further funding of research is fundamental. This does not entail mindless throwing of money; in fact, estimates show that it’s not only the technology that’s inefficient, but the government itself. The United States has been spending inefficiently on renewable energy, and about 30 percent of the spending benefited financiers.

The United States, despite its meager spending on the environment, is in a panic about nature’s degradation. With China becoming a major competitor in the sustainable development arena, investment in renewable energy technology has become a necessity for political and economic dominance. Having enough natural resources such as water and becoming energy-independent are vital to national security and economy. Such panic has made wise spending and investment difficult. Like an ancient warrior under duress who has abandoned all technique and is madly slashing at his opponent with closed eyes, hoping against all odds to strike some jackpot hit, the United States government is failing to adopt cool, collected and wise tactics.

Such reckless spending is best demonstrated by one of America’s favorite vegetables: the infamous corn. Despite its innocent and delicious façade, this yellow vegetable has in some way been a Trojan horse itself in this battle to preserve our livelihood. It came with a promise to produce ethanol, a clean, cheap fuel that could serve as an alternative to petroleum. Like the Trojans, Americans celebrated. When the idea became popularized throughout the media, there were countless advertisements with corn stuffed inside a car’s gas tank that announced, basically, that corn was a godsend. The United States spent $7.6 billion dollars in the year 2010 alone to subsidize ethanol.

The issue, however, is not so simple. In order to create ethanol, land must be converted to agricultural farmland. This consequent deforestation not only emits a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide and uses up a lot of energy, it also contributes to destroying biodiversity. Although others may argue that biofuels such as corn can take up carbon while being grown, this is outdone by land-use change. The Nature Conservancy stated in one study that converting lands to agricultural lands creates “a biofuel carbon debt by releasing seventeen to 420 times more carbon dioxide than the fossil fuels they replace.” In addition, pollution associated with agriculture, such as fertilizer runoff, is a huge concern. Despite these facts, the US government continues to spend taxpayers’ money to subsidize corn and other biofuels.

While technology with a capital ‘T’ has been pushed to the forefront of the battleground as the hero who will save us all from the wrath of environmental retribution to reckless human activity, it’s just one aspect of the big picture. Further research and wise investments must be made, and this takes careful allotment of the federal budget.

Although the degradation of the environment is a daunting problem, it is one that can be solved with an upgraded approach by a leader who is willing to stop the inattentive and endless fighting and change tactics.