Elders, Natural Debt, Resilience… —by Jinny Batterson
Substantial numbers of my cohort of aging “leading edge boomers” have led charmed lives up to now. Medical advances have permitted us to live longer, with fewer health problems than our forebears’ generations. Technical advances and social policies have helped bring increased economic prosperity to those of us at upper income levels, especially those with inherited wealth and/or advanced formal educations. Yet lots of us are uneasy or depressed. What went wrong?
As we came of age in the 1960’s, ecologists continued issuing warnings about the impacts of unbridled “growth” on the natural environments that underly all living beings, including humans. Partly due to youthful protests, governments in some economically advanced countries began passing laws to curb or criminalize the most visible environmental abuses. Cleanup funds were established. Our skies became clearer, our rivers no longer stank. Also partly due to youthful protests, American involvement in a costly war in Vietnam came to an official end. We were told there was a “peace dividend” and it was safe to start raising families. We gradually left the streets for the suburbs.
Outsourcing and automation removed more and more routine, grimy or dangerous jobs to places most of us did not see. Occasional spot disasters like the Bhopal chemical release in India in 1984, the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in what was then the USSR in 1986, Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana/Mississippi in 2005, or the Fukushima tsunami/power plant disaster in Japan in 2011 briefly caught our notice, but mostly we did not pay attention. Such difficulties would likely never touch us, safely ensconced in our cushy American suburban cocoons.
Our cocoons are getting pretty toasty, abetted by record heat waves, wildfires, and tropical storms. The statistics are telling: In 2018, the U.S. suffered fourteen weather-related billion-plus dollar disasters. Bills for hurricanes Florence and Michael, already over $49 billion, are still coming in. Out west, a record-breaking wildfire season did more than $24 billion worth of damage. Here in North Carolina, I lived through my first 100 degree October day, after a record-setting dry, hot September generated a new weather label: “flash drought.”
Fiscal conservatives have long warned of the dangers of burgeoning public debt—the U.S. national debt recently topped 22 trillion dollars, or about $56,000 for every American. A friend and former colleague raises concerns about the hidden or belatedly recorded costs of “technical debt” (see http://techdebtpolicy.com) such as recovery from previous over-use of asbestos, whose fire-resistant properties made it desirable as an insulator before its human health impacts were fully understood. I’m most concerned about “natural debt,” a term gradually gaining currency for our drawing down of natural resources and our using our planet as a dumping ground, as in a set of posts by an India-based group, downtoearth.org.in.
It’s not too hard to see why natural debt is a growing concern, one that has many of us elders wakeful on October nights when the air conditioning is still on. Links likely exist between natural debt and increasing instances of human protest and conflict across all parts of the political spectrum and all regions of the globe.
People my age are closer to the ends of our lives than its beginnings. Our worst nightmares reflect the distress we’ve caused other humans and the natural world we depend on. If our imaginings goad us toward useful action rather than just handwringing, this is not necessarily a bad thing. By now, many of us have bounced back individually from financial, health, and/or family challenges. Beyond individual or family, though, we need to use the rest of our physical lives to help build more species-wide resilience. If we are to claim any prerogatives as an “intelligent species,” we’ll need to get both our individual and collective acts more thoroughly together. A compendium from our youth, The Last Whole Earth Catalog, said it on a back cover, showing a NASA photo of Earth taken from space: “We can’t put it together. It is together.” Together with or without humans, our choice.