I am feeling ashamed, and I do not like the feeling.
All my life, I’ve been into the heroic. I’ve taken pleasure in movies that provide admirable heroes to identify with, and in my own life– to the best of my ability and understanding – I’ve always tried to do what I thought a hero should. Love of the heroic is in my marrow.
That love of what is admirable makes it especially painful for me to see the “We” — of which I’m part — acting the opposite of admirably. That’s true right now for both the “We” of us Americans, and for the “We” of humankind.
I figure that if I’ve entitled myself to take pride, for example, in the heroic role that the United States played in World War II – as I always have — then I’m obliged also to take on the burden of shame for the role we’re playing now.
I feel obliged to say “We” — and not distance myself with a “They” — as I watch
- Our nation’s dominant political force degrading the sources of our past greatness—our constitutional order, our concern for the greater good, our respect for the will of the people. And
- Humankind generally (and America in particular) falling very far short of a heroic response to the urgent challenge of climate change.
I grew up seeing America as a nation like Shane – the hero who makes the valley safe for decent folks by standing up to the greedy rancher who hires thugs to drive the weak farmers off their land. The United States, too, freed the oppressed and stood up for people’s rights.
America was supposed to be Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where the hero is the guy who takes seriously the words inscribed on the monuments on the National Mall, and fights for justice and democracy against the corrupt political bosses.
But now, increasingly, it has been just such rich and power-hungry bosses who are choosing our course, attacking democracy in every available way (suppressing voters, stripping power away from the offices they’ve lost, defending a President against the rule of law), and passing tax cuts that widen the already too-wide gap between the richest and the rest.
We identify with the hero in Avatar, who fights a force of nature-raping greed willing to destroy a living planet to obtain the valuable mineral, “unobtanium.”
But, in the America of this era, a political party owned by interests insatiable in their greed has wielded enormous destructive power.
In the eyes of the people who have always been America’s friends, today’s America is regularly seen standing opposed to the causes the heroes in our movies always fought for.
Then there’s how the larger “We” – humankind — is dealing with the discovery that we have become a dangerous bull in the china shop of earth’s biosphere.
This discovery — that the cumulative alteration of the earth’s atmosphere we’ve been engaged in since the Industrial Revolution is dangerously destabilizing the earth’s climate system, with potentially devastating consequences — has confronted all humankind with a major test:
Will a species that’s intelligent enough to harness the earth’s energy powerfully enough to have a major planetary impact also be wise, moral, and clear-eyed enough –and heroic enough – to change its ways as required to avoid bringing the house down upon itself?
So far, we are not passing that test anywhere near heroically.
So far, in the face of that test, humankind has roused itself with nothing like the same sense of responsibility and determination that we brought to World War II. That’s so even though the potential stakes in this climate crisis are probably at least as great as were the stakes in World War II.
Established cultural habits can help explain our failure: rallying to win a war is a challenge civilized peoples have faced for millennia; whereas bringing ourselves under better control — for the protection of the health of the planet, and thus of our civilization — represents a heroic challenge of a new sort.
But we have minds as well as habits. And thousands of highly intelligent minds have put us humans in a position to know what is required of us.
Perhaps we’ll yet show the heroism we showed in World War II. Perhaps we’ll turn the corner successfully in the nick of time, just as the U.K. under Winston Churchill was able to come back from the verge of destruction under the Nazi boot and (with heroic American help) defeat and destroy the Nazi power.
But for now, we are – instead — England under the previous Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, ignoring the dangers we’re helping to create, failing to deal with problems that only get more dangerous with time.
Shame on us.