It is February 6th, 2021. One day until the Super Bowl. Five days ‘til the New Moon. Eight days until Valentine’s. Twenty-one days to the Full Moon. There are forty days until March Madness starts and fifty-eight days until the madness ends. Spring will officially/astronomically arrive in forty-two days, although Punxsutawney Phil suggested it would be 45 days.
Now pause for a moment and reflect upon all the things you will accomplish before Spring begins. What experiences might you have? What will you learn? What could you learn? Who might you meet? What ‘forgotten memory’ will be renewed?
At times I think about how fast our daughter grew – and grows – and the touchstone moments that mean so much. First look, first touch, first hug, first sounds, first smile, first tears, first word (No). But she said my name first. Then there was the crawling, standing up, first steps, drawing, reading, writing, first school day, new friends, and bike riding. Those were followed quickly by getting a dog, a phone, a computer, becoming the head of household IT and learning to drive. Her speed of learning, growing, maturing, being self-confident and independence were a blur. Birth to high school graduation was 6867 days – and they went by in a flash.
I grew up in a household where it was assumed and accepted that each generation had, and accepted, the responsibility that the next generation had it better than the former. And I believe it is my duty to do the same for my daughter. The issue we struggle with is what does “better” mean?
For my father and grandfather “better” was clearly about economics and financial security. They had each been in their generation’s world war and both had strong memories of the Great Depression. I’m a boomer. I grew up with DDT, Robins falling out of trees, being able to set creeks and streams on fire, and air pollution you could see, smell and taste. I also grew up near an Olmstead Park, watching the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, National Geographic Specials, roaming the countryside of Kentucky, sailing the coastal waters of New England, reading Rachel Carson and other naturalists, volunteering with wildlife specialists and being captivated by the space program. Let me simply say that there was a generational divide around the word “better.”
In a letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson1 wrote; “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living.” According to Investopedia2, “A usufruct combines the two property rights of usus and fructus. Usus refers to the right to use something directly without damaging or altering it, and fructus refers to the right to enjoy the fruits of the property being used. A clearer expression, also attributed to Thomas Jefferson is: “The earth belongs to each generation, and no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.”
My generation, and those previous, have broken the intergenerational promise of leaving the next generation better off because we have not paid our environmental debt. We have been inventive, but not responsible. We have focused on the harvest of nature’s bounty, without consideration of reciprocity. We embrace the take, and ignore the give back. Whether we prefer to think of this as reducing the viability of the biosphere or as an act of intergenerational tyranny we place upon our heirs is a difference without distinction.
The illiterate of the future will not be those who cannot read and write,
but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.
Our debt is manifest in many forms. We can see it in the increase of air pollution and particulates. We can measure it by monitoring the increase of all greenhouse gases as they accumulate in the atmosphere. We see it on the news and on the business page with the increasing costs of storms, hurricanes and extreme weather events. Even Covid-19 is part of our environmental debt, as the drivers of zoonotic disease emergence are changes in the environment usually the result of human activities.
I do not believe that we meant to create an environmental debt and leave it as a legacy for the future. We were doing what we thought was best for the welfare of our families, our communities and ourselves. We just had a worldview that did not match the reality of the planet.
Now we are at a crossroads. The environment is calling in our markers. If, as I believe, we did not mean to create the debt, then it is time to restructure our portfolio so we do not incur any further debt and start an aggressive repayment plan.
There will be some who say it is too expensive, which really means I would prefer my grandchildren to suffer mightily rather than be personally inconvenienced.
There will be some who will deny and disavow the debt, primarily because their vision is limited to their own reflection.
There will even be some who simply say it cannot be done. We do not have the time, the resources, the capability or the capacity to see a future that is not based on the limitations of our habits and thought models of the past.
These claims and their brethren have been made before regarding other challenges that could and should be overcome.
But to do nothing is to shirk all our responsibilities for our actions and to condemn the future. Who gave us that right? What happened to our faith and trust in our collective capabilities as well as our can do spirit?
We know how to grow highly nutritious and affordable food without the need of synthetic chemicals, large machines, and GMOs. We know how to light our homes without fossil fuels. We know how to transport people without the internal combustion engine. An ever-growing number of people are completing the 3-steps of learning, unlearning and relearning needed to make the transformation to a prosperous and vibrant future without generating environmental debt.
The scientists, economists, millennials and Gen Zs say that we need to do this and can do this. There is even a timeline. We have 3250 days to change our operational paradigm and not only end debt creation but to make a significant repayment.
All of WWII was 2193 days. Pearl Harbor to the end of WWII was 1366 days.
On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy3 said: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon 2503 days later.
So who wants to look in the eyes of the youngest family member and say: I’m sorry, but I really cannot be bothered with paying off this environmental debt so you have a healthy planet to put your home on.
We have 3250 days to show the life of the future that we are going to hold up our end of the intergenerational bargain and so should they.
We have 3250 days and counting.
1. To James Madison from Thomas Jefferson, 6 September 1789
2 Keeton, Will., Usufruct,
Investopedia.. Updated Dec. 12, 2020
3 Kennedy, John F. Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort, 12 September 1962