We have lost confidence in ourselves as America. Our collective expression is no longer government; it is politics—often hard-edged. We are too often marginalized as a national expression by a collection of very well organized and clever single interest groups. Life is simple for them; complex for us.
John F. Kennedy’s rallying cry — “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” is only faintly remembered. President Reagan’s call for the Soviets to “tear down this wall” (separating East and West Berlin) might well apply to today’s politics.
America ended the 20th Century prosperous. We had built and built and built, but too often we had taken the path of least resistance. And then twenty-one months into the new century we were attacked.
I remember, several hours after the twin towers fell to exploding planes, walking into Mt. Sinai hospital to give blood. There were so many of us wanting to give that the only type they would take was type O negative which is universally accepted.
America then fought two wars; well a few of us did. And to fight the wars we borrowed money. America was poised to sacrifice. Our political leadership decided to delegate our response to a few brave young men and women and bankers.
America has extraordinary strength; our political leadership is weak. And nowhere is this more apparent than in our response to the environmental threat of climate change—politics has overthrown science.
In recent decades Americans have led in virtually every expression of personal industry and resolve, but have rarely come together to lead as a nation. Recall an earlier time.
On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first humans ever to land on the moon. As he took his first step, Armstrong famously said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong’s expression became inspirational; when we faced challenges it was often said “if we can land on the moon we can ___________”.
It is increasingly clear, in small and large ways that our collective attention and strength need to focus on the space between the moon and earth – specifically the atmosphere. And, if you just dropped into this series on environmental damage, I would invite you to read the columns beginning with “The Issue of Our Times.”
To begin, America needs a President who believes the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). We have expended a sizable amount of our national treasure on understanding space – to reject its clear findings on climate change is, to say the least, irresponsible.
Our national leadership, understanding the enormous power of economic incentives, needs to focus a part of our capitalist mind on reducing C02 in the atmosphere. There is a coherent set of options that will in the long run strengthen us both environmentally and economically. If we lead the world, our enterprise and technology will create vast new opportunities. Efficacy of response is the overarching question; it will be determined if we can generate the same resolve that led us to the moon.
And our leadership, with the diplomatic respect demanded of international engagement, must help lead globally. I am all in favor of fair trade with China and India, but we also need to work toward environmental reciprocity. If improving the air and water and climate globally is too big a challenge for a would-be President, he or she shouldn’t occupy the White House. And, to risk the obvious, we can’t lead internationally if we don’t understand what we need to do in our backyard.
I was struck by the author, Sebastian Junger’s lament in his book, Tribe: “How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice?” We, Americans, need to comprehend our role and lead. What we buy, what we drive, how we produce and so much more impinge on nature’s infrastructure. Tens of millions of small steps day-by-day can make an extraordinary difference.
Let me end by drawing on the universal language, music. Tempo, rhythm and harmony are essential elements. Yet, it is often said that the lyrics make the song. In truth the music and lyrics must work together. And so it is with concerted action. Are there any good songwriters working the political beat?
Even the phrase “climate change” sends a variety of verbal warriors to their respective corners. Interests and conflicts swirl, producing very disagreeable music. We need outreach. We need a leader and then leaders who can inspire while working the halls of opinion – domestically and internationally – for end results. And, we need an upbeat tempo.
Will we be called on to sacrifice? Sure. Indeed one very understandable and public test will hinge on the word sacrifice. If none is called for, the plan will not work.
Now a final word; the politics of environmental stewardship is changing. The online publication Grist reports: “A new poll suggests that Republicans and Democrats between 18 and 38 might as well be in the same party. Any red-vs-blue difference between them “virtually disappears,” according to the survey from Ipsos and Newsy.”
Before this series of columns comes to a close, I will share some thoughts about how we, on a more individual level, can do more. But, unifying leadership will be crucially important – without it the weather’s temperature will inexorably increase and the political temperature will reach boiling.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.