My father is a quiet man. Very smart, but not exactly philosophical. I once asked him if he had any wisdom to share with me after his long life and he said (in sum) “no.”
Which is why something he said to me many years before strikes me as all the more important. He said “I don’t think we’re leaving you a world as good as the one we were given.”
When you are a little kid that doesn’t really make sense. The world changes? The world gets better and worse? Why is it worse now? What happened to make it worse?
Now that I’m an adult it unfortunately makes perfect sense. And there are certainly many ways in which my father was right. For one, the environment is dramatically worse than when my father was a child near the time of World War Two.
My father spent much of his childhood in the towns that now compose the greater Los Angeles urban area. Back then they were separate towns. In between the towns were fields of oranges and other citrus. There were oil wells too. The towns grew into cities and merged into one massive city. My father loved the Southern California of his youth. But he hated the monstrosity it has now become.
Humanity has been very successful, but in that success we have abused the natural environment. Everywhere cities have expanded and destroyed the countryside. Farms and ranches expand to convert the land from natural to artificial. Habitats are obliterated and polluted. The cumulative effects include untold numbers of species extinct, carcinogenic and disruptive chemicals nearly everywhere, and the entire planet’s climate teetering near disaster. When we change the natural into the artificial we spread death, because nature is unpredictable, so we replace it with the predictable – dead things like bare dirt, metal, plastic, and concrete.* But nature cannot be tamed, and ultimately neither can artifact.
Our economy is a prime example of an untamed artifact. None of the experts who are supposed to understand it seem to actually understand it. And with no one to understand it, the great economic machine isn’t doing so well either.
Economically, opportunities are much different than they used to be. Today the economy is much more centralized and the people who hit it big are very few but very successful. Widespread, milder success has waned. Small businesses have been getting slammed by big business for decades: Walmart, Amazon, you name it. Money and power are centralizing, and they are not too keen on the idea of sharing. This has happened before and might just be a cyclical occurrence in history, I don’t know. But the overall effect is to change millions of people from a satisfied independence to a dissatisfied dependence. Self-reliance is no longer what it used to be. For many people, America’s frontier spirit has been sublimated into a spirit of raw survival and the entertainment to make it bearable. (The solution is twofold, to rebuild economic opportunity and to get a new frontier, but that’s another story.)
Politically the world might actually be safer than it was over the past 80 years. Terrorism is bad, and will likely be a long-term threat, but large-scale wars seem less thinkable than in the era of WWII and the Cold War. Yet at the same time, while external threats to the United States have decreased, internal threats have increased. The concentration of economic and media power endangers political freedom. It is no accident that government and big business are so cozy; it is a very intentional move by our governing powers away from the common good and towards the elite good, at our expense.
The environment, then is worse off over the past 80 years. The economy is better than in the Great Depression (woohoo.) but not as good as it was on average between 1945 and 2000. And politics is mixed – better in terms of general external safety (terrorism being nothing compared to mutually assured destruction), worse in terms of internal qualities, like participation and elitism.
What is better than in the past? Science, technology, and medicine have made fantastic advances in the last 80 years. Compared to the 1930s, the world is a completely different place, and these three fields have been the drivers of much of it, both good and bad. Environmental catastrophe is directly related to science and technology. Concentration of economic and political power is also directly related to science and technology. Yet at the same time we can be friends with people on the other side of the planet. We don’t have to worry so much about sickness and premature death. We are well-fed and entertained. We can post strange things on blogs, to be read by strangers – friends we haven’t met – around the world.
Science and technology have gotten us into some messes and out of others, and we must take heart in this – technology can get us out of messes too. Science and technology have given us tremendous powers to affect changes in the world. We can blow up people by remote control, and fly people to the Moon.
Power has also been democratized. One person can start their own media outlet (like a blog). One person can drive across the nation in three days (if you are fast). The early pioneers would be quite jealous. One person, like many volunteers who help the poor, can improve thousands of lives. Another person can commit 9/11, a crime previously only conceivable for national entities. One person can do incredible things, both for good and for ill. (How is it that power has centralized and yet democratized at the same time? Because the demos, while empowered, is not using that power for good. Only a few are choosing to exert power and not for much good, while the rest sit of us and take it.)
Two days ago I looked through a telescope and saw the surface of the Sun, boiling with movement, filaments rising into the solar atmosphere, sunspots dark on the surface, with the Moon slowly creeping to eclipse it. Galileo would have given a lot to see through a telescope like that. I just had to wait in line. And where was this wondrous telescope? Just behind some guy’s truck. (Thanks, man!) It was his personal telescope, $8000 dollars. Doing something which for most of human history was not only impossible, but unthinkable.
We are in many ways in both a Golden Age and an age of disaster. Or perhaps a Golden Age predicated upon disaster. Ultimately, I don’t know if the world is better or worse than when my father was born, but it is certainly much different. This is a world of constant luxury and constant danger, where some can do nearly anything they like, while others are trapped in horrible jobs and sooth themselves with television, and still others live wondering if the next day will claim their lives.
We have a great responsibility for the world we live in. We have a responsibility to our ancestors not to destroy what they have saved and made for us, and a responsibility to our children not to ruin the preconditions for their own survival and flourishing. For my own children, I wish I could tell them we were giving them a better world than I received. But perhaps creating a better world requires having better people than we are. I hope that if it is not us who can be so bold, so foresightful, so caring, that our future generations can be those people. Otherwise the outlook is bleak indeed.
But there is always hope. We are alive, and we can always turn ourselves towards being better, towards life and away from death in all its many forms: environmental, economic, political, personal, spiritual.** Don’t count on anyone to do it instead of you, find your friends and become better together. What we need now is infectious aliveness, people pursuing good as though their lives depended on it. Because they do.
* Pope John Paul II’s “culture of life” should not be limited to just traditional “life issues.” The “culture of death” exists when we are killing the environment too – God’s own handiwork – and any culture of life needs to remember that, because human life won’t be much if the rest of Creation is dead. The answer is not to oppose nature, but to cultivate it, to direct it towards the good.
** Deuteronomy 30: 19 “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.”