Thursday, September 05, 2013

Fixing the Present by Saving the Future

"If a problem can't be solved, enlarge it" -- attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower

After a showing of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech at the public library last night, there followed a free ranging discussion of how to improve the economy and reduce economic hardship. Reverend Gil Caldwell, who marched with King, and his son Dale were there to lead the discussion. Dale said we need to promote small business. An audience member said we need to start making stuff again, that cities like Trenton, NJ need manufacturing jobs in addition to small business. Another said that raising the minimum wage would help people make enough to live on, and provide them with some spending money, which in turn would bring small businesses more customers. Another said that education and training are the keys to helping people get ahead. Another lamented how Trenton had collapsed into dysfunction after seeming to be on a comeback fifteen years ago.

Listening to all of this, I felt as if we were living a parable, in which problems had grown so large, society so complex, that no one could see more than a small part of it. The "elephant" has grown too big to comprehend, even for those who have all their senses.

I also felt as if we were living through a version of the late 1930s, when the great depression had the nation and world in its stubborn grip, and the ambitions of brutal dictators were darkening the horizon. I wanted to take the lid off of this conversation about the seemingly intractable problems of the living, and levitate everyone far above the earth, to look down on this one-of-a-kind oasis of life in a stark universe, and ask a larger question about its trajectory. Do we, the living, care about future generations? Like other groups that have been marginalized and oppressed, they have no vote, no legal status, no voice.

The obvious answer is "Of course we do!" Tremendous care and commitment goes into raising children. Vast sums are spent to pay for schools and college. But there's another reality running parallel to that. Groucho Marx once said, "Why should I care about posterity? What did posterity ever do for me?" If you think about it, future generations are being asked collectively to pay for what we borrow, to deal with the delayed consequences of our present comforts and conveniences. Carrying such a burden not of their own making, have they no say in the matter? And is there a way that caring about them might help solve our own entrenched problems?

The dictators of today's world are far less powerful than in the 1930s. Terrorism will always be a threat, thus far contained, but what is darkening the horizon now is climate change. We are losing the stability of shorelines and climate upon which we have built our cities and planted our crops. Gil Caldwell said that it may have been Martin Luther King's views on economics, more than his struggle for racial equality, that people were most threatened by. The changes required to free our economy of dependence on climate-changing fossil fuels also pose a big threat to the status quo.

And yet, it was the decision to take on the global threat of totalitarianism in World War II, and the necessarily radical upheaval of our economy required to win the war, that lifted the nation out of depression and led to decades of economic prosperity. By uniting to take on the great global threat of the day, the nation not only helped save the world but also saved itself.

I made this point afterwards, and the response was that not enough people see climate change as a problem, that the disasters like Hurricane Sandy have not been numerous enough, that some parts of the country will be more affected than others.

To understand why preventing radical change in the climate is the nation's number one problem, consider the fate of the cruise ship Concordia that was run aground off the coast of Italy in January, 2012. The ship's captain had steered close to shore, overriding the ship's computers and warnings about local reefs. When the reefs appeared ahead, the massive ship's forward momentum made it impossible to avoid collision. Damage from the collision transformed the ship from comfort palace into death trap. We, too, are "driving" spaceship earth in a very risky direction, and already the altered climate is beginning to make droughts and storms more extreme. By the time we've had multiple climate-related disasters like Hurricane Sandy, the momentum will likely be too great to change course. With each day of pumping more global warming gases into the atmosphere, the quietly building momentum of an altered climate increases the risk to coastal cities and a stable food supply.

It's that very stability that has up to now allowed us to talk about and try to solve society's social and economic problems. Without the stable climate that nurtured civilization, there's little hope of pursuing greater justice, prosperity, freedom and equality.

Earlier, when Rev. Caldwell asked the audience if they had witnessed instances of racism, a young woman offered her recent experience teaching "south of the Mason Dixon Line" in a small community where most everyone was a member of the Klan. People talked about burning crosses. When she handed out copies of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou, some of the students threw the book on the floor because it had the picture of a black woman on the cover.

150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, racism persists. Though its effect is felt more acutely in some parts of the country than others, we consider it a national problem. Few people seem to realize that the changes being wrought to the planet's climate have an even greater momentum and persistence, and that generations to come, regardless of race, nationality, gender, sexual preference, and class, are powerless to raise objection to the sort of world they will inherit.

When an individual is stuck, absorbed in his or her own problems, one way to break through is to look beyond the self to the world around one, to find self-fulfillment by working on something larger than oneself. That is our predicament as a society. If we seem stuck as a nation, part of the solution is to see our present problems in the context of a much larger one. We are but one generation in a long progression, and our future with a livable planet can no longer be taken for granted.

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