Last week, Mother Nature cast an early vote, with Hurricane Sandy reminding us all that there’s just one overarching priority for the next administration and the next Congress.
This week, it casts another vote: Another storm is brewing, and while it’s not as strong, it will almost certainly add to the destruction and misery that’s being felt up and down the northeast coast.
Last night, when President Obama spoke to his supporters and to the nation, he laid out his priorities for the next four years:
In the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together. Reducing our deficit. Reforming our tax code. Fixing our immigration system. Freeing ourselves from foreign oil.
Referring to the growing onslaught of climate change, he said:
We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.
He talked about the fact that a divided country is going to have to come together:
By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock or solve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin.
He illustrated this by pointing to how people came together in the wake of Hurricane Sandy:
I’ve seen it on the shores of New Jersey and New York, where leaders from every party and level of government have swept aside their differences to help a community rebuild from the wreckage of a terrible storm.
And he ended by saying that “we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests.”
I wish him well. I wish the Congress well. I wish us all well. But the great divide that threatens this nation is not between Democrats and Republicans, nor between the rich and the poor, nor the red states and blue states. The overarching priority for the coming years is not one that can be addressed by such things as “reaching across the aisle.” Nor even by reaching across any of the larger divides that separate nations, religions and cultures from each other. We can either be part of settling the account with nature, or it will be settled without us.
The challenge we now face can only be addressed by reaching across the ever-widening divide that separates us humans from all the other animals and from the world of nature.
It’s good to know that the President recognizes that we are “threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” and that we should be “freeing ourselves from foreign oil.” But oil is oil, whether foreign or domestic. Whether we drill for it in the Middle East, in the Gulf of Mexico, or in your backyard, it all still ends up fueling “the destructive power of a warming planet.”
As long as we continue to plunder the Earth like it’s just a “resource” for a bloated human population, things will get worse for us – much worse.
Very simply, we can’t just go on “growing the economy.” The resources of the planet are finite. At some point, we run out of what, where and how we can grow. And many economists (let alone wildlife and environmental experts) agree that we’ve already reached that point, and that that’s one of the reasons we and the rest of the world are having such a hard time “growing” our way out of this long economic slump.
In any case, to treat our fellow animals, the oceans, the forests and all other living things as simply “resources” is to make a grave mistake. They do not exist for our benefit. They exist for their own benefit. As Henry Beston famously wrote:
We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.
Hurricane Sandy was but a small taste of what is to come. The natural world we so easily patronize and plumb can shrug us off like a dog shakes off a fly. In the greater scheme of things, we are recent arrivals – an invasive species that’s grown out of control and contributes nothing to its environment.
Nature couldn’t care less whether we fix social security, find more jobs or reform the tax code. Nature doesn’t have opinions or make political deals. Nor can we dictate terms with nature. The way it works is that sooner or later the accounts are always settled and a new balance is restored. That time has come. We can either be part of settling the accounts, or they will be settled without us.
The problem is not that we’re borrowing too much from China or from our grandchildren. It’s that we’ve borrowed too much from nature itself. And that’s the budget that is now starting to be balanced.