The Question is:
What sets our species apart, besides opposable thumbs, is relentless ambition. We want to do well and we expect our children to do even better. This makes for a challenging and changeable world.
My wife and I are grateful that our son is not living in the basement, but rather on the left coast, where, at 31, he is doing better than we ever did.
My parents scrimped and labored to send my four brothers and me to college. We all were expected to earn at least a portion of our academic keep. Having risen from humble circumstances, our father knew that work and education were the keys to a brighter future. He and my mother also served the wider community in various ways.
It is a noble endeavor, helping the next generation thrive. Many species leave their offspring out in the cold to fend for themselves — some right away, and most within a relatively short time. Female coyotes, for example, prepare for the mating season by expelling their loudly complaining yearlings from the den in the dead of winter.
Our admirable quest for a better life for our offspring has one glaring blind spot: the very world itself that we are bequeathing to future generations. Our planet is not getting better, or even staying the same. Rather, our rising numbers and great expectations sorely tax Mother Earth.
The signs of global trauma are boundless. As our species proliferates, many others decline, near and far. The Great Barrier Reef off Australia— at 1,400-miles-long, the world’s largest coral reef system— is less great with each passing year. Unprecedented bleaching recently killed two-thirds of the coral in one 430-mile expanse, a recent scientific study found. The relentless die-off of coral is a worldwide phenomenon affecting many fish species that depend on healthy reefs for food and shelter.
The continuing decline of iconic wildlife in Africa is well known, but in North America creatures from polar bears to backyard songbirds are struggling. The former depend on ice sheets to catch seals, and since the late 1970s Arctic sea ice has been declining by as much as 12 percent annually. Avian species are affected by habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as the vagaries of increasingly extreme weather patterns.
Here in Connecticut, we pay less and less attention to the natural world every year and it shows. State and federal researchers recently gave our coastline a grade of 27, or “fair,” on a scale that designates 50 and above as “good.” We have fallen behind on our goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preserving open space. More than two-thirds of our rivers are unsafe for swimming. Lobsters have all but disappeared from Long Island Sound, a quarter of whose warming waters now have inadequate oxygen or extreme hypoxia.
Yet in every budget our leaders in Hartford slash funding for the department that is supposed to be protecting our land and waters. Enforcement of laws monitoring such things as the use of pesticides is termed a “polite fiction” by the chair of the state’s environmental watchdog agency.
The rationale for such backsliding is that the natural world can wait: we have other fish to fry. What harm is there in a wee bit more pollution or fewer scarlet tanagers? Who swims in rivers nowadays anyway? Or notices birds when our noses are glued to our glow-phones day and night?
No, the better world we covet for our children clearly doesn’t extend to the world itself. The price to maintain the same habitat that nurtured us apparently is too steep. Not all of us are willfully remiss, like the gang of eco-bandits that we sent to Washington. Many of us simply don’t give it a thought. Or perhaps we hope that all will be well despite our own least efforts. Or God will provide.
But neither malfeasance nor negligence, hope nor blind faith are solutions. The world has diminished greatly over the past half century, and by virtually every informed prediction (not to mention common sense) it will decline further —very likely disastrously so— in the next 50 years. Try to imagine the world your descendants will inhabit in 2068: a world without polar bears, coral reefs, and swimmable rivers.
Most of us have made admirable sacrifices for our children and grandchildren. The question we should be asking ourselves is: Have we done enough?