By William S. Becker
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
That quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald is worth thinking about this Earth Day. It is at the heart of what the day should be mean. In fact, it goes to the heart of one of life’s necessary skills: Being conscious that we each are individuals, but also dependent on one another. That is true for nations, too, and for our species’ place in the planet’s web of life.
This is not a new-age head trip. The duality of the part and the whole is one that many of us, including many of our leaders, seem unable to grasp and sustain. For example, nationalism – the doctrine that our nation, or any nation, is independent from and more important than all the others — is a fiction. Nations have never been more connected and interdependent than they are today with the Internet, the ability to travel to anywhere in a few hours, the world economy, the threat that a pandemic will take the next flight to New York, and the fact that one leader in a moment of anger can push a button that will end life on Earth as we know it.
The conceit that we humans are superior to and stand apart from everything else in the biosphere is fiction, too. It seems harsh, but it is nonetheless true, that that anyone, any group and any nation that serves only itself and not the whole is the equivalent of a parasite or worse, a cancer.
Every Earth Day should be like every New Year’s Day, when we stop to reassess ourselves and to make resolutions for doing better. How well we are holding the opposing ideas of “I” and “we” in mind? Global warming, global poverty, and the historic loss of species – among the other adverse consequences of our choices – are indications that we are not very good at it.
Speaking of reassessment, we who are privileged to live in the United States need to get our heads straight about a few other things. What do we mean by being “great” again? Rather than defining progress by GDP alone, shouldn’t we measure social progress — the capacity of society to meet our basic human needs while giving us all equal opportunity to improve the quality of our lives and to reach our full potential? What does it mean that we are the world’s richest economy, but only the eighth best country to live in? Or that we rank only 24th in the world on social progress? Or that we are one of only six countries in the world where social progress has declined? Or that one in 88 Americans is behind bars? Or that we are the most dangerous place in the developed world to birth babies?
Are we great when a third of Latino families and a third of Black families have “negative wealth”? Or when 44% of Black families own their homes compared to 72% of whites? Or when college graduates begin their careers weighed down by more than $1.5 trillion in debt? Or when the income gap between the top 1% of Americans and the bottom 20% has reached levels we have not seen since just before the Great Depression? Or when the top 1% of families are making 25 times more income than the bottom 99%? Some of our politicians mock the Green New Deal. We should ask them whether these conditions are the Deal with which America should be satisfied. And if not, what their plans are to make things better.
More questions: What does the right to life mean in the Bill of Rights? Shouldn’t it mean in part that we all have a fundamental right to drink water, eat food and breathe air without being poisoned? Don’t we have a binding obligation to protect the natural resources on which life depends including oceans, forests, soils, fresh water and the atmosphere? Shouldn’t each generation hold those resources in trust for future generations? Can’t we create an “economy in service to life”, as author L. Hunter Lovins puts it? These rights and obligations seem self-evident, so why have American children been forced to sue our government to secure them?
But back to Fitzgerald. How do we hold in our minds the opposing ideas of our sovereignty as individuals and our duty to the whole? Or the responsibility of each generation to all generations? Or the knowledge that we are a species whose welfare is connected to all species?
If that’s what first-rate intelligence is, then we should resolve to achieve it. Maybe refreshing that revolve is what this and every Earth Day should be about.