Today, August 28, 2013, marks fifty years since Martin Luther King delivered his "I have a dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. One hundred years before that, in 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The extension of protections and rights to all people regardless of race, gender or sexual preference remains a work in progress. The short essay below, written after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Atlantic coast, suggests that King's dream must be extended to the most unprotected people of all, future generations.
Lincoln After Sandy
To watch Spielberg's movie, "Lincoln", as I did last fall with Hurricane Sandy still fresh in memory, is to witness people whose lives are one long power outage. Lots of candles and oil lamps, dimly-lit rooms. Lincoln wears a blanket to soften the chill of the White House. It comes off as a noble deprivation, fitting for a dark time in American history, and one the characters take in stride.
Noble deprivation is highly regarded when safely enshrined in the past, e.g. Lincoln's time or World War II, but considered irrelevant to our age, when unlimited consumerism is the ideal. Viewers of the movie may conclude that the nation's great battles have already been fought, that nothing of similar magnitude calls us now. Few have yet to fully grasp that we too are playing a high stakes game, stuck in a status quo that picks winners and losers, not by the color of their skin but by the timing of their birth.
At my house, in this present era awash in deceptively cheap energy, we keep our home lights brighter than in the Lincoln White House, but still on the soft side--enough to do what we need to do, with lamps that have some beauty to them. I used to think I was being stingy when I turned off a light no one was using. Light is associated with life and good cheer. But now I see the flicking of a switch, that selective powering down, as an act of generosity, a gift to those who will follow us on this planet. "Here," my gesture says, "You can have this light, this energy. I don't need it." There's pleasure in being able to give something as beautiful as light and energy, and connecting in some imagined way with generations future.
Much of our current prosperity is based on an inheritance. This wondrous energy we use, all too handily dug up or piped out of the ground, is not something we "produce" but is rather an extraction from the earth's one and only reserve. The machines that serve us--everything from cars and ships to furnaces and clothes dryers--reportedly burn a million years worth of stored up fossil fuel energy every year.
The inheritance of ancient energy we draw from also has a weirdly haunting Grimm's fairy tale aspect, as many more people began to surmise after Hurricane Sandy made landfall. For all this inherited energy's fabulous concentration and convenience, its use will over time sacrifice the stable climate and shorelines that have nurtured civilization. In one way, we get to live fairy tale existences, more comfortable, mobile, entertained and well fed than the royalty of kingdoms past. But the tradeoff is a curse on ourselves and all children to come. The present economy, then, exhibits an utter dependence on energy formed in the past, and a glaring indifference to the welfare of future generations. The past and future are sacrificed to elevate the present.
Through the centuries, one of the enduring conflicts in America, most eloquently expressed in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, has been whether our nation and its institutions could survive steps to achieve greater equality. Could the nation's economy survive without slavery, labor camps and child labor? What would happen if all men and women of all races were allowed to vote? Could industry make profits without polluting our shared world? Can the institution of marriage survive gay rights? Would the auto industry be hurt by regulations to improve gas mileage?
As in Lincoln's time, the answer in every case has been that this nation, its people and institutions, can continue to thrive even as equality is more broadly shared.
What, you might ask, have mileage standards to do with expanding equality? Hurricane Sandy answered that question in two ways. First was the realization, by many who waited in lines to get gas, that the size of the gas tanks in cars ahead of them would affect how many people would be left stranded when the gas was gone.
But in a larger sense, despite all the past struggles for equality our nation has survived and been made better by, Hurricane Sandy showed we now face the ultimate test. Can our economy and others around the world survive without the vast consumption of fossil fuels? We know that our mechanized comforts and mobility are destabilizing the climate and oceans. Without aggressive action to change our energy sources, future generations, like those cars at the end of the gas line, will be left stranded, with no temperate climate nor stable shorelines to enjoy. Given increasing extremes of drought and flood, they may not even have a stable food supply. Those who denied the problem have, like the New Jersey shoreline, found themselves increasingly undercut by changes occurring even faster than the climate models projected.
Not surprisingly, those who will be most affected--the young and generations unborn--lack the vote and any means of speaking out on their own behalf. And also not surprisingly, pessimists are saying that such an effort to shift away from fossil fuels would cripple the economy.
So I say, look at the nation's track record. We have survived past moves towards greater equality; we'll endure this one, and be better for it. There is, as Lincoln said, unfinished work, a great task remaining before us. Having found infinite ways to consume energy, we must now deploy ways to produce it that don't sacrifice the future. We might even find, in this struggle as great and noble as any undertaken, unexpected rewards and meaning along the way.