The Decline of Gratitude
In early May 2011, several Boulder, Colorado youths, as part of a nationwide effort coordinated by the nonprofit group Our Children's Trust, initiated a lawsuit against the state of Colorado for failing to take "necessary action" to protect the environment and to "force action on climate change." Among the plaintiffs was an eleven year-old boy whose Gold Hill neighborhood had been devastated by wildfire the previous summer, and an eighteen-year old with a growing asthma problem.
Both of the plaintiffs implied that their individual calamities could have been avoided had the state been better stewards of the environment. Indeed, the lawsuit states that eleven year-old Haiden Inskeep fears that "hotter, drier weather resulting from climate change will increase wildfires in Colorado."
Another plaintiff, Xiuhtezcatl (SHE-WAH-TEZ-CATL) Roske-Martinez, told the Boulder Camera newspaper that "Right now, our governments are not protecting our planet; they are just destroying it." His mother, leader of the Colorado-based environmental group Earth Guardians, further lamented that Xiuhtezcatl "has enjoyed playing and floating wooden boats in a stream near his house in Boulder, but the water levels have decreased over the past several years, which he is concerned is a result of human-induced climate change."
Putting aside for the moment the debate over whether human activities can have an effect on the climate, there is a deep disconnect on display here that seems to be multigenerational and quite possibly intentional, from the self-breveted "guardian" mother to the boy whose name recalls a civilization that sacrificed children in order to please the gods into making it rain.
These people, willfully or not, are blissfully absent of both a sense of history and a sense of scale. Both personal and scientific observation over the last fifty years or so affirm that prosperous nations have been outstanding stewards of the environment, thank you. If young Mr. X would just Google "Cuyahoga River Fire," for example, he would see that Ohio's most infamous sewer caught on fire not once but ten times between 1868 and 1969. In 1972 the Clean Water Act was passed, and the river hasn't burned since. On a personal level, growing up in the New York area in the 1950s and 60s meant enduring an autumn afternoon drive along the Hutchinson River Parkway where litter competed with fallen leaves for a place on the highway embankment. Today it is difficult to find so much as a candy wrapper there. (My father's name for the City back then was "the big filth.")
While I appreciate the Boulder plaintiffs' concern for their future, a little perspective on just how far we have come in making our lives better in all ways might give them pause and -- dare I say -- actually express gratitude rather than contempt for the world preceding generations have given them. True, there are many concerns to keep us up at night, but as the years go by the list seems to get smaller and smaller. Gone, mostly, are the scourges of my childhood: polio, the prospect of spontaneous violence on a Manhattan street, and even the likelihood of mutually assured destruction at some point between the world's nuclear superpowers.
While these potential calamities still register as low-level perturbations on the worry meter, and perhaps have been supplanted by others such as terrorism and the HIV virus, American life, as journalist Sebastian Junger observed in 1999, "has become staggeringly easy," even "vaguely unfulfilling." The context of Junger's remarks was an exploration into why some people deliberately seek danger nowadays, whether it's bungee-jumping from a high bridge or teasing grizzly bears in the (ultimately fatal) manner of Timothy Treadwell.
The political parallel to Junger's thesis is the oft-cited "solution in search of a problem," of which the Our Children's Trust lawsuit is but one example. (For others, I need only refer you to any Democratic Party political platform.) While it is certainly true that our water and air are not 100% pure (whatever that may be), the fact is that the goal posts keep getting moved back with every improvement in observation that we achieve. Thus a miniscule and harmless amount of mercury that we now have the means to detect can be used as a subterfuge to shut down a coal-fired power plant under the right political conditions, as we have seen with the EPA under the Obama administration. Similarly, the living standards by which we measure poverty rise with every technological advance, so that many of those who are statistically classified as "poor" by the government may in fact today have air conditioning, a car, a cell phone, a computer, and enjoy more living space than most middle-class Europeans.
Still, many without any sense of history or scale or appreciation of the empirical facts, such as (presumably) young Xiuhtezcatl and his mother, will only conclude from the questionable sources they consult (which includes most public education) that we are doomed to die from mercury poisoning and that abject poverty is rampant in American society. Because there is just enough anecdotal evidence to inform what they know -- yes, there is a detectable amount of mercury in the air, and yes, they did see an unfortunate on a street corner with a "will work for food" sign today -- in their eyes their unreasonable views are theoretically plausible, evidence to the contrary be damned.
And therein lies, I think, the lee side of the great divide in our society today, sheltering questionable social or scientific theory from unfortunate facts and experience that may upset someone's status quo, and perhaps even challenge his or her purpose in life. To windward are the empiricists, whose knowledge is perhaps more mundane and observational, but whose appreciation of history and scale inform humility and common sense. Moreover, the empiricist has the willingness to change his views as the facts change, as the saying goes, while the orthodox theorist needs to be dragged kicking and screaming (if at all) to accept new paradigms. (Add to this a financial motivation for intellectual intransigence, such as access to research grants or charitable donations, and the resistance to open-mindedness can be cognitive dissonance of Stalingrad proportions.)
This is no better demonstrated than in the current food-fight over what causes the climate to change. On the one hand there are those who adhere to anthropogenic (man-made) climate change theory, which means that man, particularly carbon dioxide-producing men and women, are altering the climate in many negative ways. On the other side are the so-called "skeptics," who are really only skeptical of man's role in climate change and not skeptical at all of the vast evidence that, over time, the climate does change naturally in significant ways.
Proponents of anthropogenic climate change theory largely rely on computer models to make future projections of climate and weather behavior, and since increases in carbon dioxide as a result of human activities play a significant role in their theory, nearly all the consequences to people, animals, and the environment are bad, especially if the planet warms as they predict. The skeptics synthesize observational data and look at the geological record to make their points: that the climate did indeed warm by .7 degrees Celsius in the twentieth century, but previous warming periods have occurred, and by the way, human societies flourished in a warmer world, and contracted into wars, disease, and starvation in colder ones like the Little Ice Age. Skeptics also believe that many things can affect climate change, least of which, to many, is carbon dioxide.
Still, anthropogenic climate change theory is convenient to many because it reinforces the larger theory that we humans, and in particular Americans, are making things worse by our mere existence. And theory has a way of morphing into myth, especially with an assist from a compliant media. An anecdotal and fairly benign confrontation between Tea Party demonstrators and a group of congressmen, such as occurred just before the passage of the Democrat health care bill, thus abets the myth that tea partiers are racist because a number of the congressmen in the group happened to be black. Strong evidence to the contrary, the myth has endured to this day, and there doesn't seem to be a whole lot interest in the "Media Party" (as the Canadians wonderfully put it) in uncovering the truth.
Writing on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, George Will made passing reference to "today's unhistorical and self-dramatizing tendency to think that eruptions of evil are violations of a natural entitlement to happiness." Such is precisely the view of groups such as Our Childrens Trust, who truly act as though they were born just yesterday. So, too, the current "occupiers" of Wall Street, who seem to think that the cell phones and social media with which they organize themselves are some sort of entitlement and not the evolutionary products of hundreds of years of the free-market capitalism they supposedly oppose. While it may be applying too broad a brush to paint these grievance groups as singularly ungrateful, the occasional nod to humility would go a long way toward persuading the rest of us that they are not also willfully ignorant.
Rick Rinehart is a Colorado-based writer and publisher whose most recent book is Men of Kent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org