A Moral Failure

I’ve already written about the economic and environmental costs of failing to deal with climate change. Both phenomena are well understood and the forecast grows increasingly disheartening. However, there’s a third story, a moral one. I’m not talking about the morality of increased incidence of famine, drought, and disease; those are the moral costs of a changing environment. I’m talking about what seems to be a growing trend in the United States’ ability to confront the challenges facing our generation.

This trend is perhaps best encapsulated in a political cartoon reprinted in the New York Times’ “Week in Review” section on Sunday. It shows the dome of the Capital and the tip of the Washington Monument rising out of an otherwise flooded Washington D.C. A text bubble attached to the Capital reads: “We regret that we have but one country to give for our lifestyle.”

After Pearl Harbor, the United States mobilized for war; the entire country became the arsenal, and bank, for democracy. After September 11th we were told to go shopping. From 1941 to 1945 the entire country was asked to sacrifice; other than the relative handful of military personnel who have lost their lives since the fall of 2001, we have been asked to sacrifice nothing, except perhaps our commitment to due process and the rule of law.

Why did cap and trade die? There are many reasons; everyone, including the authors of the bill, are at fault. But part of the reason is that it would have cost something. We have grown too used to putting off costs, using deficit spending so our wallets never feel the impact. But cap and trade would have cost us now; it would cost each of us something like $0.40 a week. The worst part of this is that, in the past, we have acted in spite of the cost; we used cap and trade to fight acid rain and the world mobilized to stop the use of chlorofluorocarbons when we realized that they were destroying the ozone layer. Has two decades been enough for our willingness to confront global challenges to erode?

But there is more to it than that. Between 1969 and 1975, the United States placed 12 astronauts on the Moon. These were the only humans to ever set foot on a natural object that was not Earth. When President Kennedy said we would reach the Moon within a decade almost none of the necessary technology had even been invented; the United States hadn’t even put an astronaut into orbit yet. This points us to two problems with our society today.

The first is effectively what I’ve already mentioned. After Sputnik, we were asked to make the commitment of money and will to beat the Soviets in the space race. After the BP oil spill, we were not asked to do anything. Our country is suffering from a vacuum of real leadership, leaders who are willing to ask us to do what is hard. Instead, they do everything in their power to allow us to indulge ourselves at the expense of our children’s future prosperity.

But it is not just our leaders who are at fault. Our proverbial house is on fire and, rather than call the fire department, we’re pretending that the flames don’t exist. Or worse, that they’re a good thing.

It seems to me that we as a people are no longer willing to make sacrifices for the sake of others. This is perhaps best exemplified by the “death panel” segment of our healthcare debate. The scare tactics about “death panels” involved fears about rationing in our healthcare system. But no reasonable person would argue that there wasn’t already rationing; “death panels” really meant that the individual in question preferred rationing based on income rather than need. In our current debate, we are unwilling to pay a little extra for energy. But if we don’t our children will pay a terrible price for our inaction.

What about when sacrifice is in our best interest? This isn’t just about saving the lives of our fellow citizens as with healthcare; it is about protecting our shared future prosperity. But we are much too busy watching American Idol to pay adequate attention to the governing of our country, never mind the experts on the grave issues facing our nation. There is a scientific and moral consensus about what needs to be done; why aren’t we listening? We seem to have lost the will and the drive to do what is hard, down the drain of the 24-hour entertainment industry. Where is my generation’s arsenal of democracy? Where is our moon landing? Why do we no longer desire to be the City upon a Hill? Where is our new birth of freedom?