“It’s the not the kings and generals who make history, but the masses, the people.” – Nelson Mandela
Are you a king? A general? No?
Good news! You and I can work together and make a little history.
Here’s what we’re talking about. Remember that year in school you were studying American history? You read about the slave trade, and how millions of people were brought here against their will, but set into motion a chain of events, some sorry and despicable, some noble, that helped make our country what it is today. You came across the California gold rush of 1849. You read about how word spread of the gold find out by Sutter’s Mill, and how for the next few years afterward, great numbers would gather in or about St. Joseph Missouri every spring. Each family would buy a Conestoga wagon and a team of oxen or horses. They’d load up the kids and all their worldly possessions. Then they’d head west as soon as the spring rains had dried up enough to keep the wagon from being mired in mud. That growing population out west triggered in turn the influx of Irish and Chinese laborers who built the first transcontinental railroad. Subsequent massive migrations from Europe fueled the Industrial Revolution, launched the growth of today’s major cities, produced the soldiers who fought in two world wars. Today’s global labor force is driving an IT revolution that is reshaping the possibilities for the human race.
How many of these folks do we know by name? Maybe one in a million – someone famous, perhaps, but more than likely, a family ancestor. To everyone else, our ancestors were just faces in the crowd. The next year, when you studied world history, it was the same thing. The Babylonian empire. The Roman Empire. Genghis Khan. The Black death. The Arab conquest of lands from Spain to Indonesia. The great sweep of history, everywhere, at all times, has been accomplished by the many, the multitude. Nelson Mandela had it right.
So far, so good. You and I are anonymous – we’re eligible to do something historic! But where’s the great arena today? How is our generation making history? What will people remember us for? Well, they’ll remember the IT revolution for sure. They’ll remember what’s happening in the life sciences and biotechnology. Maybe – just maybe – they’ll remember an entertainer or two of all those figures who dominate our television screens and those magazines in the grocery checkout lanes.
But here’s a forecast. All these issues are destined to be second or third tier, at least for the 21st century. They’ll be harnessed to achieve a larger end, at least by our generation. Those who follow will remember us more as the generation who found the keys to sustainability, and shaped forever, or at least for a very long time, the kind of future our descendants will be able to enjoy on this planet.
In that future – is life good? Will our offspring’s offspring find that the resources they need to sustain a high quality of life are plentiful, abundant, and renewable? Will the natural world still be a landscape of unspoiled beauty, populated by an incredible diversity of species? Will natural extremes – cycles of floods and drought, storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions – be events of interest but not cause for dismay? If so, our descendants will credit us for this.
Or, conversely, in that future – do our children’s children find themselves in straitened circumstances? Are resources dwindling? Is the once-beautiful natural world a distant memory, captured in a few videos, which are themselves facing extinction as decaying technologies break down? Is the fabric of society starting to come apart, frayed by growing poverty and want, ripped by catastrophes of widening scope and impact?
[Ironically, in this latter scenario, we also have few worries. How could that be? Because we’re told that history is written by the winning side…and in the Mad Max scenario, there will be no winners. History itself will become a casualty in this future. So future generations should, but won’t, blame us. Instead, they will be experiencing a collective amnesia. They’ll know things are grim but lack an understanding of why.]
Now one of the challenges or burdens we shoulder today is that we all see the odds of the good scenario and the strained one as being about equal, or maybe the odds of the strained and constrained future as being quite a bit higher. We scorn those who think the future is bright, don’t we? We admire pessimism and pessimists. But hark back to all those historic trends described at the beginning of this post. All those folks felt the same burden. And they were wrong – almost universally so. They totally underestimated their capabilities and prospects.
Here’s a small story to illustrate the point, from my uncle. Over dinner this evening he was telling me that in 1943 he was about thirteen years old, and living in Greensboro, North Carolina, one of the largest wartime concentrations of soldiers anywhere in the country. He was in a movie theater, mostly filled with soldiers, where they were showing a film entitled, “For the duration,” referring to the duration of the war. The film had a subtitle: 1941-194? He said, when the subtitle appeared, the soldiers actually jeered. No one in the theater thought the war could possibly end before the end of the 1940’s. He felt a frisson, realizing that in such an extended war he’d be drawn into the combat himself.
But within two years, the war was over, and soldiers were coming home.
Another case in point. Many of us remember the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the collapse of the former Soviet Union some two years later. In hindsight, these events seem pre-ordained. But in the mid-1980’s, you could have gone up to anyone on the streets of any major city worldwide, and had a conversation like this:
“Do you think communism is a good idea? “No.” “Do you know anyone who does?” “No.” Do you think communism will fall any time soon?” “No, it’s here to stay.”
These examples abound.
So this is not a forecast, but at least the surfacing of a possibility: it may be that this combined challenge of coping with the world as resource, victim, and threat can be resolved within our lifetimes.
So are you up for it? Game to make a little history? Or would you rather just be surprised by those who do?
 A cautionary note…remember that sustainability is an oxymoron.