My youngest son was born in 1981 and grew up as Americans began, for the first time in my life, to be aware of simple ways, such as recycling, that each of us can contribute to the health and maintenance of our planet. After a picnic at a Wyoming lake with his grandfather and me, my son (then about five years old) noticed that Grandpa had just thrown all of his garbage, including a couple of plastic containers, into the same garbage can rather than separating out the plastic stuff to be placed in the recycling bin three or feet away. “Grandpa, you have to put the plastic stuff in there,” he told his grandfather as he fished the bottles out of the general trash container. My dad, who never took well to being corrected about anything, wanted to know who the hell cared whether the trash was separated properly, grumbling about Communist plots, Big Brother, and violations of the American way. “You may not care if our planet is ruined by the time I’m grown up,” my son replied, “but I sure do!” Complaining about the brainwashing of first graders, my father called his grandson a five-year-old ecoterrorist as we got into the car for the drive home.
I remembered this event from three decades ago last Thursday as President Trump announced that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement. I posted on Facebook that “There have been only a few days in my sixty-plus years that I have been embarrassed to be an American. Today is one of them”—the post attracted more likes, emojis, and comments than any blog post or other communication I have put on Facebook in over a year. Although it provided me with yet another opportunity to complain about Trump, I have no doubt that millions of Americans, including some who are not part of the 38% who would support the President if he shot somebody in Times Square, entirely agree with the expressed reasons for his decision. That’s because of the spurious and immoral way in which debates about climate change and the environment in general are almost always fashioned. “Regulations and policies intended to protect the environment and slow climate change are job killers!” is an argument guaranteed to reveal basic American myopia and self-centeredness. For jobs are about me and now, while environmental issues are always about a future that, depending on one’s age, will happen after one’s demise. Unfortunately, many American adults lack the moral vision that my five-year-old son had. We have moral obligations to people and things other than ourselves, even to those people and things from whom we cannot benefit because we will no longer be here.
On days like last Thursday, satire often provides the best refuge from reality. Fortunately, The New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz saved the day with “Calling Earth a ‘Loser,’ Trump Vows to Make Better Deal with New Planet.”
This is what we have come to—a world in which satire from Andy Borowitz or The Onion requires a moment or two of reflection to realize that it is satire. Would that reality were really that funny; I clearly remember the moment a bit over a year ago when, after hearing of Trump’s latest Republican primary win, I said to Jeanne that “this isn’t funny anymore.” Unfortunately, such attitudes about the environment fit nicely with the perspective of many evangelical Christians who, by both believing that human beings are authorized to use the Earth for their own purposes and considering our earthly stay a temporary stopping point on the way to a lot more fun in heaven, believe themselves authorized to care little or nothing about our planet’s health and stability. In The Great Partnership, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells a tragic Jewish joke—the sort of joke that perhaps only a Jew should tell. In 1938 Germany, a Jew enters a travel agency and tells the travel agent that he would like to buy a ticket for a foreign journey.
“Where to?” asks the travel agent.
“What are my choices?” asks the man.
The travel agent passes him a globe. He turns the globe slowly, looking at country after country, knowing that each has closed its doors to people of his faith. He pushes the globe back to the travel agent and asks, “Don’t you have another world?”
Unfortunately, we do not have another world—satire aside, we can’t leave our failing, loser planet behind for a winning competitor. Basic morality tells us that we have duties and obligations to future generations; those who profess the Christian faith know that the obvious answer to Cain’s question about being his brother’s keeper is “yes.” Within the past two weeks Donald Trump has made it abundantly clear once again that his vision of American greatness excludes anyone and everyone whose immediate contributions to our perceived success is in question. There is nothing more un-American, or unchristian, than that.