[Note: I became politically active and committed on the day 20 years ago when I realized I could stand on the front porch of my house and point to three homes where children were in wheelchairs, to a home where a child had just died of leukemia, to another where a child was born missing a kidney, and yet another where a child suffered from spina bifida. All my parental alarms went off at once and I asked the obvious question: What’s going on here? Did I inadvertently move my three children into harm’s way when we settled in this high desert valley in Utah? A quest to find answers in Utah’s nuclear history and then seek solutions followed. Politics for me was never motivated by ideology. It was always about parenting.
Today my three kids are, thankfully, healthy adults. But now that grandchildren are being added to our family, my blood runs cold whenever I project out 50 years and imagine what their world will be like at middle age—assuming they get that far and that there is still a recognizable “world” to be part of. I wrote the following letter to my granddaughter, Madeline, who is almost four years old. Although she cannot read it today, I hope she will read it in a future that proves so much better than the one that is probable, and so terribly unfair. I’m sharing this letter with other parents and grandparents in the hope that it may move them to embrace their roles as citizens and commit to the hard work of making the planet viable, the economy equitable, and our culture democratic for the many Madelines to come.]
I address this letter to you, but please share it with Jack, Tasiah, and other grandchildren who are yet unborn. Also, with your children and theirs. My unconditional love for my children and grandchildren convinces me that, if I could live long enough to embrace my great-grandchildren, I would love them as deeply as I love you.
On behalf of my generation of grandparents to all of you, I want to apologize.
I am sorry we used up all the oil. It took a million years for those layers of carbon goo to form under the Earth’s crust and we used up most of it in a geological instant. No doubt there will be some left and perhaps you can get around the fact that what remains is already distant, dirty, and dangerous, but the low-hanging fruit will be long-gone by the time you are my age. We took it all.
There’s no excuse, really. We are gas-hogs, plain and simple. We got hooked on faster-bigger-more and charged right over the carrying capacity of the planet. Oil made it possible.
Machines are our slaves and coal, oil, and gas are their food. They helped us grow so much of our own food that we could overpopulate the Earth. We could ship stuff and travel all over the globe, and still have enough fuel left to drive home alone in trucks in time to watch Monday Night Football.
Rocket fuel, fertilizer, baby bottles, lawn chairs: we made everything and anything out of oil and could never get enough of it. We could have conserved more for you to use in your lifetime. Instead, we demonstrated the self-restraint of crack addicts. It’s been great having all that oil to play with and we built our entire world around that. Living without it will be tough. Sorry.
I hope we develop clean, renewable energy sources soon, or that you and your generation figure out how to do that quickly. In the meantime, sorry about the climate. We just didn’t realize our addiction to carbon would come with monster storms, epic droughts, Biblical floods, wildfire infernos, rising seas, migration, starvation, pestilence, civil war, failed states, police states, and resource wars.
I’m sure Henry Ford didn’t see that coming when he figured out how to mass-produce automobiles and sell them to Everyman. I know my parents didn’t see the downside of using so much gas and coal. The all-electric house and a car in the driveway was their American Dream. For my generation, owning a car became a birthright. Today, it would be hard for most of us to live without a car. I have no idea what you’ll do to get around or how you will heat your home. Oops!
We also pigged out on most of the fertile soil, the forests and their timber, and the oceans that teemed with fish before we scraped the seabed raw, dumped our poisonous wastes in the water, and turned it acid and barren. Hey, that ocean was an awesome place and it’s too bad you can’t know it like we did. There were bright coral reefs, vibrant runs of red salmon, ribbons of birds embroidering the shores, graceful shells, the solace and majesty of the wild sea…
…But then I never saw the vast herds of bison that roamed the American heartland, so I know it is hard to miss something you only saw in pictures. We took lots of photos.
We thought we were pretty smart because we walked a man on the moon. Our technology is indeed amazing. I was raised without computers, smart phones, and the World Wide Web, so I appreciate how our engineering prowess has enhanced our lives, but I also know it has a downside.
When I was a kid we worried that the Cold War would go nuclear. And it wasn’t until a river caught fire near Cleveland that we realized fouling your own nest isn’t so smart after all. Well, you know about the rest—the coal-fired power plants, acid rain, the hole in the ozone…
There were plenty of signs we took a wrong turn but we kept on going. Dumb, stubborn, blind: Who knows why we couldn’t stop? Greed maybe—powerful corporations we couldn’t overcome. It won’t matter much to you who is to blame. You’ll be too busy coping in the diminished world we bequeath you.
One set of problems we pass on to you is not altogether our fault. It was handed down to us by our parents’ generation so hammered by cataclysmic world wars and economic hardship that they armed themselves to the teeth and saw enemies everywhere. Their paranoia was understandable, but they passed their fears on to us and we should have seen through them. I have lived through four major American wars in my 62 years, and by now defense and homeland security are powerful industries with a stranglehold on Congress and the economy. We knew that was a lousy deal, but trauma and terror darkened our imaginations and distorted our priorities. And, like you, we needed jobs.
Sorry we spent your inheritance on all that cheap bling and, especially, all those weapons of mass destruction. That was crazy and wasteful. I can’t explain it. I guess we’ve been confused for a long time now.
Oh, and sorry about the confusion. We called it advertising and it seemed like it would be easy enough to control. When I was a kid, commercials merely interrupted entertainment. Don’t know when the lines all blurred and the buy, buy, buy message became so ubiquitous and all-consuming. It just got outta hand and we couldn’t stop it, even when we realized we hated it and that it was taking us over. We turned away from one another, tuned in, and got lost.
I’m betting you can still download this note, copy it, share it, bust it up and remake it, and that you do so while plugged into some sort of electrical device you can’t live without—so maybe you don’t think that an apology for technology is needed and, if that’s the case, an apology is especially relevant. The tools we gave you are fine, but the apps are mostly bogus. We made an industry of silly distraction. When our spirits hungered, we fed them clay that filled but did not nourish them. If you still don’t know the difference, blame us because we started it.
And sorry about the chemicals. I mean the ones you were born with in your blood and bones that stay there—even though we don’t know what they’ll do to you). Who thought that the fire retardant that kept smokers from igniting their pillows and children’s clothes from bursting into flames would end up in umbilical cords and infants?
It just seemed like better living through chemistry at the time. Same with all the other chemicals you carry. We learned to accept cancer and I guess you will, too. I’m sure there will be better treatments for that in your lifetime than we have today. If you can afford them, that is. Turning healthcare over to predatory corporations was another bad move.
All in all, our chemical obsession was pretty reckless and we got into that same old pattern: just couldn’t give up all the neat stuff. Oh, we tried. We took the lead out of gasoline and banned DDT, but mostly we did too little, too late. I hope you’ve done better. Maybe it will help your generation to run out of oil, since so many of the toxic chemicals came from that. Anyway, we didn’t see it coming and we could have, should have. Our bad.
There are so many other things I wish I could change for you. We leave behind a noisy world. Silence is rare today, and unless some future catastrophe has left your numbers greatly diminished, your machines stilled, and your streets ghostly empty, it is likely that the last remnants of tranquility will be gone by the time you are my age.
And how about all those species, the abundant and wondrous creatures that are fading away forever as I write these words? I never saw a polar bear and I guess you can live without that, too, but when I think of the peep and chirp of frogs at night, the hum of bees busy on a flower bed, the trill of birds at dawn, and so many other splendorous pleasures that you may no longer have, I ache with regret. We should have done more to keep the planet whole and well, but we couldn’t get clear of the old ways of seeing, the ingrained habits, the way we hobble one another’s choices so that the best intentions never get realized.
Mostly I’m sorry about taking all the good water. When I was a child I could kneel down and drink from a brook or spring wherever we camped and played. We could still hike up to glaciers and ski down snow-capped mountains.
Clean, crisp, cold, fresh water is life’s most precious taste. A life-giving gift, all water is holy. I repeat: holy. We treated it, instead, as if it were merely useful. We wasted and tainted it and, again in a geological moment, sucked up aquifers that had taken 10,000 years to gather below ground. In my lifetime, glaciers are melting away, wells are running dry, dust storms are blowing, and rivers like the mighty Colorado are running dry before they reach the sea. I hate to think of what will be left for you. Sorry. So very, very sorry.
I’m sure there’s a boatload of other trouble we’re leaving you that I haven’t covered here. My purpose is not to offer a complete catalog of our follies and atrocities, but to do what we taught your parents to do when they were as little as you are today.
When you make a mistake, we told them, admit it, and then do better. If you do something wrong, own up and say you are sorry. After that, you can work on making amends.
I am trying to see a way out of the hardship and turmoil we are making for you. As I work to stop the madness, I will be mindful of how much harder your struggles will be as you deal with the challenges we leave you to face.
The best I can do to help you through the overheated future we are making is to love you now. I cannot change the past and my struggle to make a healthier future for you is uncertain, but today I can teach you, encourage you, and help you be as strong and smart and confident as you can be, so that whatever the future holds, whatever crises you face, you are as ready as possible. We will learn to laugh together, too, because love and laughter can pull you through the toughest times.
I know a better world is possible. We create that better world by reaching out to one another, listening, learning, and speaking from our hearts, face to face, neighbor to neighbor, one community after another, openly, inclusively, bravely. Democracy is not a gift to be practiced only when permitted. We empower ourselves. Our salvation is found in each other, together.
Across America this morning and all around the world, our better angels call to us, imploring us to rise up and be as resilient as our beloved, beautiful children and grandchildren, whose future we make today. We can do better. I promise.
Chip Ward, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded HEAL Utah and led several grassroots campaigns to make polluters accountable. He wrote Canaries on the Rim and Hope’s Horizon, was an administrator of the award-winning Salt Lake City Public Library, and then retired to the canyons of southern Utah. His latest work, just published, is Dance, Don’t Drive: Resilient Thinking for Turbulent Times. His essays can be read at chipwardessays.blogspot.com. He can be written at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.