Our house is on fire: let’s talk
My generation, the pre-Boomers, now known as the Humors, had it pretty easy, coming of age in the afterglow of World War II, believing in perpetual prosperity and progress, much of which came true, even as rock ’n’ roll provided the pleasure of rebellion without any consequence. Great medical advances came along just as we needed them, and Medicare to pay for them. We are lucky to have been born when we were.
I see the thousands of young protesters in the streets of Glasgow bearing signs such as “I Have To Clean Up My Mess, Why Don’t You Clean Up Yours?” and “The Dinosaurs Thought They Had Time Too” and “Stop Climate Crime” and “If Not Now, When?” at the UN Climate Change Conference, where the United States and China have issued vague promises of eliminating carbon someday but without a timetable. So much for American leadership; I guess we’re waiting for Iceland or Ecuador to show the way.
The young people in the streets are aware that a time of suffering lies ahead. Science is pretty clear about the
ecological impact of industrial agriculture and the rapacious destruction of forests and overfishing of the seas and the virtual disappearance of many insect species, but none of this has enough political impact to turn the ship of state. Statistics don’t move people, recognizable images do, such as the plight of a polar bear on an ice floe miles from land. We’re fond of polar bears in zoos, and if we could get a video of this bear drowning in glacial melt, it would move people. Or if Yellowstone blew up and ushered in a year of darkness. That could be the Pearl Harbor that moves our country to action.
Greta Thunberg, the 18-year-old Swedish activist who, in 2018 after Sweden’s fierce hot summer of wildfires and omens of disaster, sat outside the Swedish parliament every day to get her message across. Her message was simple: “Our house is on fire.”
Five words, not one wasted, and you could paint it on any wall and everyone would know what you mean.
Children have great power to shame the rest of us, as every parent knows, and this cause is worth their effort. It’s about the survival of our kind. Everything we love is in the balance, language, art, music, history, the art of story, dance, Eros, baseball, bird-watching, and the effect of apocalypse on the bond market would not be good.
The last Good War was won by boys who rushed to sign up, after seeing newsreels of sunken battleships in Hawaii. My hero Bob Altman was 16 and lied about his age to get into the Army Air Force and pilot a B-17 bomber in the Pacific. The children marching in Glasgow are capable of heroism, but they’ve put their faith in the conscience of politicians, not a good bet. One of the two major American political parties is in denial that global warming exists because it is devoted to an illiterate leader. That party appears likely to take over Congress in 2022 and two years later No. 45 may well become No. 47. If he does, we may have a constitutional convention at which the presidency is made a lifetime term. Meanwhile, we have a Supreme Court with a solid majority of Ayn Rand justices who deny that the state has the right to govern individual behavior. Gun control will be dead, conservation will be an individual responsibility.
I don’t see that bunch leading the country toward clean energy. So we’ll go on enduring wildfires and horrific hurricanes and drought and the melting of the arctic ice cap and nothing will change. We’re living in a tunnel and a train is approaching. Mr. Bezos and Mr. Musk can move to the moon but the rest of us are earthlings.
I put my faith in scientific enterprise. Someone will come up with a way to turn plankton into something that looks like and tastes like ground beef. Someone else will figure out how to make linguine from dead leaves. Then there’ll be nuclear airliners.
People don’t like to be lectured and made to feel stupid, Mr. Science. Get busy and invent a car that runs on urine. So much gas is wasted by people driving around looking for a lavatory. This will come as a great relief.