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The Spoiled are Spoiling Earth
Published on Friday, March 23, 2001 in the Seattle Post Intelligencer
The Spoiled are Spoiling Earth
by Deborah Mathis
WASHINGTON -- Capitalism has its cruelties, but when you're on its good side, it can be very good.

We Americans, therefore, are a pretty fortunate bunch. To be here, in the seat of capitalism, is to be awash in ambition and competition -- great antidotes to boredom and stagnation -- and to be surrounded by the fruits of those qualities.

In other words, a human being can hardly be happier than here, since we are, by nature, a self-indulgent, pleasure-seeking species, always looking for the next best thing to make our lives more indulged and pleased.

Where better to reap those satisfactions than the U.S.A., with its peerless talent for baiting and selling? And for turning so many luxuries into necessities. Just think of the things now considered must-haves and compare them to the truth about oxygen, nourishment, water and some amount of shelter.

That's not entirely fair. Capitalism redefines "necessity." To survive in this system, you really do need transportation and communication devices, so I guess my daughter was not exaggerating when she said she had to have a Palm Pilot last Christmas.

So it is with all understanding, considerable empathy and some fondness that I say that an absence of self-centeredness is not a big problem in America. People from other countries say this all the time as a put-down -- which makes me, being a patriot, defensive and upset -- but I mean no harm by it. It's just a plain, inarguable fact. We are, in the main, spoiled.

Which leaves me really worried about this global warming business.

I've been trying to dredge up what Mrs. Blackmon told us in Earth Science way back in the eighth grade, but I don't remember anything about ozone and climate changes and such. I do remember studying the balance of nature, but that was more about eat-or-be-eaten than long-range effects of particulates and pollutants.

My year with Mrs. Blackmon also predated the Environmental Protection Agency by four years, so, except for when someone burned the toast or littered or put soapsuds in the lake, we were oblivious to the condition of the air, land and sea. I'm sure we assumed they would always be there -- clean, plentiful and free.

How things have changed.

Now we all know what dirty air, dirty water and toxic soil look like and smell like, as well as the dangers they pose. Most of us have at least a faint familiarity with Love Canal, Three Mile Island and Prince William Sound. Many of us have added "acid rain," "brownfields" and "Superfund" to our vocabularies. And it's only been 35 years since a 13-year-old could believe a healthy environment was just one of life's permanent, immutable freebies.

Whether the planet is heating up too fast, whether we human beings have anything to do with it, whether we have any ability to change it -- not even the experts can agree on this. I don't know what the ratio of global warmers to non-global warmers is, but there is no shortage of devotees on either side.

A lot of us average folks have noticed that the seasons seem different from the way we remembered them growing up and until as recent as a decade ago. And there's no dispute that the crush of people and industry -- and the runoff from each -- aren't helping the planet; only question is whether they're hurting and, if so, how much?

A United Nations report says there's no doubt manmade pollution is creating conditions that cause the Earth's average temperature to rise. They have predicted that, over the next several decades, the climate change will result in violent weather and droughts.

Which brings us back to this spoiled business.

As much as anyone, I understand the importance of energy to our lives. I know how messed up my family would be if we couldn't get, or couldn't afford, gasoline for the car. I know how terrible it was for my Aunt Millie when the power went out at her house in Fresno during one of California's so-called "rolling" blackouts. I realize that I can't even imagine the ways a real energy crisis would hit and hurt.

But just as I would rather not find out the hard way, I would rather not learn -- say, 35 years from now -- that the doomsayers were right and that they now were tracking the last molecules of clean air or last drops of clean water, predicting when they would expire the way astronomers now track comets.

I think it's time someone asked us cushy Americans to make some sacrifices. Sure, we'll yell and scream and cuss up a storm. There will be sit-ins and walkouts and petition drives.

But I don't see how we can just keep piling up and adding on, expanding and extending, growing and gathering, using and discarding, ad infinitum, without some kind of hell to pay eventually. If not us, then our children.

The politicians told us it would be immoral to leave future generations with a fat national debt -- the tab for their ancestors' self-described necessities.

What kind of sin would it be to leave them with a dirty, dysfunctional and perhaps dangerous planet?

Would someone in leadership please challenge us, for heaven's sake? You know we're not going to do it on our own. But, we're pretty good at rising to the occasion.

Go ahead, Ms. Whitman, Mr. President. Somebody.

Ask us to ask not.

©1999-2001 Seattle Post-Intelligencer


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