My youngest son was born in 1981 and grew up as Americans began, for the first time in my lifetime, 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 eco-terrorist” as we got into the car for the drive home.
I first remembered this event from three decades ago when President Trump, in one of his first decisions as President, announced that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement last year; I’ve recalled it several more times as the current administration has actively rolled back and undermined legislation and policies intended to protect the environment. The day after Trump removed the U.S. from the Paris accord, 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 ever put on Facebook . 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 on Fifth Avenue, entirely agreed and continue to agree with the expressed reasons for his decision.
The spurious and immoral ways in which debates about climate change and the environment in general are almost always fashioned are familiar to everyone. “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.
Satire often provides the best refuge from reality. Recently, The New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz saved the day with “Calling Earth a ‘Loser,’ Trump Vows to Make Better Deal with New Planet.”
In a surprise announcement, Borowitz reports, Trump tells the White House press corps that “Earth is a terrible, very bad planet. It’s maybe the worst planet in the solar system, and it’s far from the biggest.” The President goes on to criticize former President Barack Obama for committing the United States to planet Earth, saying that “Obama is almost as big a loser as Earth.” Looking to make a better deal with a planet that is less of a failing loser, Trump was vague as usual about the specifics. But Trump’s proposal, for once, attracted favorable support from Germany’s Angela Merkel, who said that “I strongly support Donald Trump leaving Planet Earth.”
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 before realizing that it is satire. Would that reality were really that funny; I clearly remember the moment when, in the summer of 2016 after hearing of Trump’s latest Republican primary win, I said to Jeanne that “this isn’t funny anymore.”
Attitudes about the environment such as that described above fit nicely with the perspective of many evangelical Christians. By believing that human beings are authorized to use the Earth for their own purposes, and by 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 his 2012 book 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.” Donald Trump has made it abundantly clear that his vision of American greatness is self-centered, myopic, exclusionary, and dismissive. There is nothing more un-American, or un-Christian, than that.