Living on the real world is getting tough. Resource extraction is more difficult. The rate of habitat loss, reduction in biodiversity, and environmental degradation are picking up speed. Age-old hazards pose greater risks, and new hazards bring new dangers.
This is how it feels when things are going well.
But don’t take my word for it! Listen to what William Shakespeare, Tom Brokaw, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant have to say.
Let’s start with Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” (As You Like It, 1600)
Any quarrel with the Bard? Not really, right? So think on this, if you and I are merely players, then what we want most is to be players in a great worldwide drama, not some sitcom. We want to matter! And that is precisely the role we’ve been offered. We’ve hit history’s sweet spot. Suppose that we’d been born into some golden age, some period of peace and plenty offering few real challenges, and only the chance to stumble. Not much real opportunity to shine there!
Suppose, by contrast, that we found ourselves at the other extreme…where humanity was in fact doomed, and we were coming on stage only to preside over the play’s tragic end, and the fall of the stage’s curtain. That role lacks appeal as well.
But you and I have lucked out. We’ve found ourselves going on stage at one of those periods where events and outcomes truly hang in the balance. How we perform will determine whether future generations find themselves in a golden age, or a Götterdämmerung, or, as is more likely, somewhere in between – on a great stage of their own. Will we be able to internalize all those externalities in our economy, particularly those ecosystem subsidies on which we depend? Will our economy, through our efforts, come to reflect the true costs of using fossil fuels, or nuclear energy, or wind- and solar-power, for that matter? Will we slow, or maybe even arrest, the rate of environmental decline, if not everywhere, over much of the Earth? Can we build community resilience to hazards? In one location? In several? The stage lights are up; they’re cueing our lines.
So where does the newscaster Tom Brokaw come in? Well, back in 1998, he authored a book entitled The Greatest Generation. A really inspiring read! Through stories of “ordinary” individuals, he paints a picture of an entire generation of Americans, who grew up through the Great Depression, soldiered and fought, or supported the war effort, in World War II, and then built the great postwar economic boom.
Since then, we’ve all acknowledged the contributions of this greatest generation. Use the phrase, and most people immediately identify this group. That’s who they were! They came on the world’s stage at an historic moment, and they delivered their lines and played their roles with no complaint, no self-indulgence, no undue pride. They were just “doing their job,” “meeting their responsibilities.” We rightly admire them, and acknowledge their heroism and steadfast pursuit of what was right and necessary.
How do Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan play into this picture? In this way. Imagine that you’ve been granted the privilege to have lunch with Kobe. Over the main course, you ask, “who was the greatest basketball player who ever lived?”
He might quickly say, “Michael Jordan.” He might cite the statistics. The University of North Carolina’s national championship season. Jordan’s leadership of the Chicago Bulls as they staged an NBA “three-peat,” winning back-to-back championships in 1991, 1992, and 1993,. Jordan’s record career regular-season scoring average of 30.12 points per game.
But Kobe’s heart wouldn’t be in it. Because Bryant lives and dreams of one day knocking Jordan off this pedestal, of supplanting him as the greatest basketball player who ever lived. All great athletes are this way. They don’t allow themselves to settle for second best.
In that same way, perhaps you and I shouldn’t so readily cede the title of “greatest generation” to our parents and grandparents. Look around. Perhaps by working together, you and I can foster sustainable economic development. Maybe, just maybe, we can protect endangered species and habitat, clean up the air and the water, not just in the United States, but worldwide. Conceivably – not inevitably, but just possibly – we can protect and cities and our countryside and their populations from the destructive force of natural hazards, reduce industrial accidents. Then we could turn to that most daunting of all challenges, and address the poverty, disenfranchisement, bitterness and mistrust that foment war and terrorism.
If we accomplish these great things, then history might label us “the greatest generation.”
Don’t just breeze past that last line. Think about it. Reflect.
A shoo-in? Hardly. A stretch? For sure. But not impossible.
And if we succeed, even Will and Tom, and Michael and Kobe will cheer.
So let’s get back to it!