Add enough zeros to the end of any number — say, 87 — and it quickly becomes an abstraction. I can imagine 87 years (my grandmother’s age), or 87 miles (about the distance from my home in Brooklyn to outer Long Island), or $87 (which wouldn’t go far out there in the hoity-toity Hamptons). But I’m at a loss to wrap my mind around 87 thousand years (which would take me back to the most recent ice age) or 870 million miles (Brooklyn to Saturn), or $87 billion dollars — enough, or maybe enough, to fund one year of military occupation in Iraq, as President Bush announced earlier this month.

That $87 billion, of course, is just the latest figure in a war and reconstruction effort that has already cost us $166 billion and counting. Mind you, we are talking about a war that was supposed to be swift and victorious, and followed by an equally speedy and successful nation-building effort; a war, moreover, that was sold to us on the basis of implied but unproven Iraqi connections to Al Qaeda and chimerical weapons of mass destruction.

So should we spend an additional $87 billion — that abstract, ungraspable amount — on maintaining our presence in Iraq? Well, maybe. Rebuilding war-torn nations ain’t cheap, although the U.S. has long sought to do so on a shoestring, to the detriment of human rights, global political stability, and our country’s international credibility. At this point, the human cost of leaving unfinished what we started is, to my mind, more expensive than the financial toll of sticking with it. But if we are going to spend the money, let us, at the very least, understand what it is we are spending; let’s give that intangible figure some heft.

TomPaine.com recently tried to do just that in a feature called “What Can $87 Billion Buy?” Among its calculations: $87 billion is enough to erase the budget deficit of all 50 states with change to spare (no more worrying about how to pay teachers or repair roads); enough to increase spending on after-school programs 87-fold; enough to write a check for $26,363 to each of the 3.3 million people who have lost a job since Bush became president; enough to increase the budget for environmental protection by 1,000 percent.

What would it mean to have that much more money available for unemployment benefits, education, the environment? Well, in the case of the latter, take some examples: Eighty-seven billion dollars would be enough to support the soon-to-be-extinct Superfund at its peak level (last seen in 1995) of $3.6 billion per year for almost a quarter-century. The $4.9 billion maintenance and repairs backlog in our national parks could be erased like yesterday’s homework assignment off a blackboard. Rather than relaxing the New Source Review rules of the Clean Air Act, Bush could just axe them entirely — and instead provide public funding for power plants to immediately install state-of-the-art pollution controls. Wisconsin Energy recently agreed to spend about $577 million to upgrade emissions controls at five plants; at that rate, the feds could fund similar upgrades at all 51 of the power plants sued by the Clinton administration for failing to comply with the Clean Air Act, and still have $81 billion left over.

And those are just some of the more-or-less calculable numbers. Heaven only knows what an injection of $87 billion would do to, say, the renewable energy industry. Even the ever-intransigent U.S. auto industry might manage to get highly efficient cars into showrooms if the feds put up a few billion bucks for R&D.

Meanwhile, what would $87 billion buy beyond our borders — other than war and the mopping up of its aftermath, that is? For starters, we could bankroll the entire United Nations (whose annual budget for 2000-2001 was $2.5 billion) for several decades. (And while we’re at it, we could pony up the $1.3 billion in back fees and peacekeeping expenses we owe.) In the environmental arena, we could provide clean drinking water to some 500 million people — almost half of the 1.1 billion who currently lack it. Every year for almost 35 years, we could make up the $2.5 billion annual shortfall needed to maintain the world’s parks and protected areas. Alternatively, with rainforest conservation being a longstanding and important environmental goal and land in the Amazon basin averaging $20 to $200 per acre, we could just buy up most of Brazil.

Obviously, I’m not seriously suggesting that course of action; more colonial incursions are the last thing we need right now. Rather, I’m trying to give some shape to the number $87 billion — some sense of what, in fact, money can buy. Money is not an abstraction; just ask anyone who can’t make rent this month. It’s something we earn and spend, and it’s finite, which means that what we spend on one thing (Iraq) we cannot spend on another (clean water). That fact is so obvious it’s embarrassing to write it — and yet it is one to which the Bush administration seems conveniently oblivious. There has been no talk of sacrifice or belt-tightening, no acknowledgement that the money we spend in Iraq is money we do not spend in Yosemite or the Bronx. Instead, there’ve been trillions of dollars in tax cuts and tricky accounting. As Howard Gleckman noted in an article in Business Week, the $87 billion in question is not even included in the discretionary spending budget for fiscal year 2004 (i.e., the federal budget for everything except programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the national debt) — a bit of ledger legerdemain “that would shame even Enron,” as Gleckman put it.

This, then, is where the Bush administration has put us: between, forgive me, Iraq and a hard place. Either we reluctantly divert (and make no mistake, it will come from somewhere) $87 billion to continue to maintain our presence in the Middle East; or we pull out, leaving behind desperation, chaos, and simmering resentment.

There are, of course, other choices, but they will require that those who believe in them make their voices heard, and fast. To wit: We could call on our representatives in Congress to refuse to grant the $87 billion to Bush until he a) rolls back his tax cuts (which, as Paul Krugman pointed out in an op-ed in the New York Times, might never have been approved if the White House had been forthcoming about the true price tag of the post-war occupation in the first place) and b) agrees to an international peacekeeping force, not a unilateral U.S. occupation. (Another way to make your voice heard is to share your thoughts with MoveOn.org; your input will be used to help the organization develop its Iraq campaign.)

And then there are the long-term choices we make. As David Firestone reported in Sunday’s New York Times, every penny of the $87 billion we spend in Iraq will be borrowed from the next generation — a part of the $2.3 trillion deficit expected to accumulate by 2011. It’s not us who can’t afford to rush headlong into war with Iraq (or Iran, or Syria); it’s our kids.

If there is one idea that underlies all of environmentalism, it is this: that we should leave the world intact so that our children and our children’s children can be sustained by it. That is the simplest and most compelling synopsis of our cause. Understood broadly, it extends well beyond the confines of protecting rivers and reefs and forests; it asks us to preserve for our children the possibility of a bright future. We would do well to call on our government to live by the same precept.

— Kathryn Schulz, managing editor