Saturday, November 22, 2008

On November 22, We Weep

Little or no mention in today’s newspapers regarding the assassination of John Kennedy -- very different from the evening papers of November 22, 1963.

During English class that day, the principal announced over the school’s public address system that the President had been shot and that we would be dismissed early. The boys all became silent; most of the girls started to cry.

I delivered an evening newspaper. On this afternoon, we newsboys waited for the papers to arrive. They reached the distribution point about an hour and a half late. The editors only had enough time to splice a special headline story on to the first page. Eerily, the rest of the paper contains all the “America as usual” stories that would have run anyway that day.

Kennedy served less than three years of his first term. Some consider his impact significant. Others contend that, despite the notable achievement of even becoming elected (defeating Richard Nixon in a close race, becoming the first Roman Catholic President, etc.), and despite efforts he initiated early in his presidency (notably civil rights efforts, or, as one T.V. commentator put it in 1963, “dealing with the fomenting Negro crisis”), he actually accomplished very little.

In any case, the events of the 1960s left indelible marks on all of us who had a commitment to social issues and community welfare. Tragic murders of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, other civil rights activists, students at Kent State, and others, shocked us. The land of the free was not supposed to experience these types of events. Protests and other acts of support for civil rights and against the War in Vietnam became a daily focus.

The “up” events of the time created a sense of optimism and hope. They stimulated ideas for a new, changed, improved world. The “down” events were discouraging, depressing, and led to soul-searching. However, they had the effect, for many of us, to increase – not decrease – our determination to pursue the dream of a better political and social future. What we learned and experienced during the decade convinced many of us to enter the human services field, to look for ways to strengthen communities, and to mold inclusive, creative political philosophies that we could translate into just social policies.

Any parallels to the election of Barack Obama? Both Kennedy and Obama, as Presidents-elect, were intelligent, ground-breaking individuals. Kennedy broke the religion barrier (no Internet at the time, but rumors circulated that, “if he’s elected, he will do what the Pope tells him to do”). Obama broke the race barrier (despite many different rumors about his background and motivations, and what he might really do once in office).

One of the newspapers which I saved from the days after the assassination was the November 24th edition of the New York Sunday Herald Tribune. Art Buchwald wrote a column that has appeared in bits and pieces in many places since then (including the Congressional Record). Excerpts from the beginning and end appear below.

We Weep

We weep for our President who died for his country.
We weep for his wife and for his children.
We weep for his mother and father and brothers and sisters.
We weep for the millions of people who are weeping for him.
We weep for Americans, that this could happen in our country.
We weep for the Europeans
And the Africans
And the Asians
And people in every corner of the globe who saw in him a hope for the future and a chance for mankind.
We weep for our children and their children and everyone’s children, for he was charting their destinies as he was charting ours…
We weep for all the tortured and warped people who could not accept the decent things he stood for.
And we weep for all the hatred and prejudice that fill the hearts of such a small segment of our society.
We weep because there is nothing else we can do,
Except curse those who would destroy a man in hopes of destroying all of us.

Friday, November 21, 2008

If we can't breathe, we can't do much else ...

“If human society is to approach sustainability…” there should be “incentives for the world economy to be based on nature’s ‘income’ rather than depletion of its ‘capital’.”
--Murray Gell-Mann, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, in “Visions of a Sustainable World" (1990)

“California has the worst air in the country, and 20 million people living in the dirtiest regions account for billions of dollars a year in economic losses because of premature death, chronic illness, hospitalizations and missed school and workdays.” (The San Francisco Chronicle reporting on a recent study from California State University Fullerton)

“The best estimate of total costs of environmentally attributable childhood diseases in the state of Minnesota is $1.569 billion per year…” (The Price of Pollution)

“A noxious cocktail of soot, smog and toxic chemicals is blotting out the sun, fouling the lungs of millions of people and altering weather patterns … The byproduct of automobiles, slash-and-burn agriculture, cooking on dung or wood fires and coal-fired power plants, these plumes rise over southern Africa, the Amazon basin, and North America.” (The New York Times reporting on a just-released U.N. report)

What’s next – for all of us? Human activities throughout the world, the behavior of the world’s human population, seem to be putting a severe strain on our capacity to have a high quality of life, and possibly to survive at all. I personally do not relish the idea of premature death (a fate for many in California). However, what alternatives do I have to breathing the air?

Most of us have a limited focus day to day. We go to work; maybe we run a business. In the nonprofit world, we teach, we heal. In government, we administer critical services. However, no matter what our major interest or profession, no matter how we choose to contribute to our communities, no matter how small or large the focus of our primary daily attention, we can’t afford to ignore environment trends. We can’t deny the change that has occurred in the quality of the world’s air, water, and land. We can’t pretend that the pollution caused in all parts of the world does not affect everyone throughout the world. We can’t ignore our responsibility to change the behaviors that directly and indirectly contribute to a damaged environment, poorer health for ourselves and our families, higher health care costs, and lowered economic productivity. Our best efforts, no matter how diligent and steadfast will bear no fruit if our planet becomes uninhabitable.

Twin Cities Compass has added environment indicators to make environment information more accessible to all of us and to promote action on our part. I encourage you to look at them. As usual, we have “key measures”, which provide a “tip of the iceberg” indication of how our region is faring; we also have “more measures” which enable you to explore trends and issues in depth.

Two thoughts. First, the environment crisis affects all of us – old, young, wealthy poor, no matter where we live. Wealth can help to mitigate some effects; some regions may have less air or water pollution than do others. However, the U.N. report makes evident the interconnectedness of all parts of the globe. Pollution in Asia affects North America, and vice versa. The life-diminishing shadow of an obscured sun will fall on the rich as well as on the poor.

Second, we all need to change. Curing the problems of the environment will require change by virtually everyone on this planet (other than those few who live exclusively in remote locations using only completely renewable resources). It’s not just those with incomes over $250,000 per year. It’s everyone – high income, middle income, low income, or living in poverty. Everyone has to make decisions within their sphere of influence.

We all need to change our individual behavior and to let our public officials know that we expect them to work on environment issues in ways that will produce results.

So, are you willing to take your lunch in a permanent container, rather than disposing of a paper bag each day? wear a sweater, rather turning up the heat another degree? buy in bulk, to reduce individual packaging? purchase wood products only if the seller can prove that the products do not come from illegally harvested timber?

If a hundred million of us take simple steps like this, it will help push things in the right direction. There’s far more to do, but this is a start.

Wilder Center qualifies as a Gold LEED office building. It makes me proud to contribute to the sustainability of our region and the world at the same time that I’m working directly on social and health initiatives that can improve the quality of life for our region.

The most pessimistic prognosticators feel it’s already to late. We’re doomed. I’m more sanguine – cautiously optimistic that we can turn this around. I hope that you agree and that you have the desire to work on it.