The year my son was born was the year Bush was reelected President. “Okay,” I said to my son, “let’s talk about epistemology.” He cooed and dribbled back at me. “To understand how people come to know things,” I said, “is to understand how culture works.”
As he gnawed on a chubby fist, I explained to my infant boy about how, since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, its meaning had been skewed into one of entitlement. People are supposed to have the right to pursue happiness, but nowhere in there does it say “at any cost.” Wealthy white landowners not wanting to pay their taxes notwithstanding, the group of rebel artisans who crafted the fabled document knew what it was to receive the butt-end of overlordsmanship. Ultimate power corrupts, ultimately. So, very likely it was tacit within the Declaration that the pursuit of happiness was to be counterweighted with responsibility and sustainability.
My son nodded at me. Or perhaps he was falling asleep.
I wondered to him, could we ever go back to a time at the dawn of the industrial revolution and explain the need for sustainability to people? Likely it would have come across to them as “socialist” or a concept at least an impediment to progress, and, therefore, un-American. Already, the hook had been likely set. Conflating with our growth was the idea that anything which suggested we take measure of the future ramifications for our actions, or the strain they imposed on the earth, was to countermand the essential birthright of an American, which was unbridled progress. The pursuit of happiness — with no exceptions.
Quite possibly, progress is in our nature. At no time can we seriously imagine inserting ourselves into history and saying to our predecessor, “Hey, stop. Let’s think about this. Can we do this with an eye towards the future? Put that wheel down – don’t discover that fire. Don’t pave to road or try and make a better life for your family.” Of course we couldn’t. Nature is red and tooth and claw and survival is man’s first instinct. The bar for survival is constantly raised, the essence of it always changing. We are still at its mercy, trying to climb atop the heap of the world or carve out a space for ourselves in it. So it’s not a matter of eradicating something so innate within us – this striving for bettering our lives – but to temper it with responsibility.
Is growth at odds with sustainability? Are they mutually exclusive concepts? How do you progress – make something better, or get more of it – and keep it sustainable at the same time?
“This is what you’re tasked with,” I told my son, who was definitely asleep now, “reconciling human nature with the finite resources of the earth and the necessity of maintaining them.”
No small task, indeed. Soon after our discussion, he farted.