The Paterno Path

A major tragedy has come to light this week. But the tragedy itself has been unfolding and developing and growing in a heartbreaking way for more than a decade. Its roots most likely lie even deeper and go back even further. Young lives have been horribly and unfairly damaged in ways that can never be fully repaired.

All of us, learning of these events – and this includes the majority of journalists and reporters – attempt to keep the focus here, where it belongs. However, it’s in the nature of things that the spotlight often shines in a harsh way on those leaders responsible in whole or in part, whether directly or only peripherally, for what happened, or even those who just had the poor misfortune to be in the vicinity. In the current time, with all its media coverage, you and are fascinated, maybe even preoccupied with such public figures and celebrities during their rise. What does it feel like to be that person? I wish my life, or my career, had turned out more like that. I wish my life were more consequential…that what I did made the news.

But our curiosity turns to obsession when things turn sour. Oh, man, that’s been going on all along? How could they? What about all that talk about character?  Sometimes, because falling short of our potential is universal, because we all bear some measure of guilt, we might think something even a little shabby… I may not be famous, but thank goodness my flaws are not such widely public knowledge.

Coach Paterno says, “I wish I’d done more.” And we wish he had too.


The lessons here apply broadly, to all of human experience. They’re stuff of current events, of history, and of literature and drama and art. Think Othello, Hamlet. The Greek tragedies. Death of a Salesman. And so on…

The lessons also explain what’s happening nearer to home, in and around our community focused on Living on the Real World. Look closely…

It’s common for cynics to rail against Earth scientists, to fault them (us), as a group, for what is called “unwarranted” alarmism. “Climate scientists cry wolf!”Environmental scientists use scare tactics!” “Global warming is the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Critics scornfully refer to “the scourge of global warming scare mongering.” We’ve heard all this, and worse, for as long as we can remember.

It doesn’t end there. Critics often see a cabal. They accuse climate scientists of a grand collusion, a conspiracy. They see scientists deliberately painting a dire picture for the Earth and its peoples out of community self-interest: “a blatant attempt to increase science budgets.”

But the Paterno experience says another motive, a more compelling one, is at work. With this story unfolding around you, put yourself in the place of that Earth scientist. You’ve been studying the death of a coral reef, and you realize that as the reef goes, the fish habitat is diminished and degraded. Other data show you the fishery is already overfished and stocks are depleted.

What should you do? (a) Publish your papers and tell your boss, maybe brief the coastal politicians, give an interview to a reporter, and go on to the next reef, and the next study. (b) Do all of that, but refuse to let the issue rest until the coastal politicians and the coastal community, maybe even the nation, take action.

You’ve been studying the flanks of Mount Rainier. You find that the volcano erupts maybe every ten thousand years or so. But the geothermal activity and the acidity of that steam is weakening the flanks, to the extent that every few hundred years earthquakes trigger a major mudslide. Some of these have reached Puget Sound. One hundred thousand homes are built on the sites of former mudslides. A quarter million people commute everyday across these mudslides to reach Microsoft and Boeing and other employers.

What should you do? (a) Publish your paper and move on to Mount Pinatubo? Or Arenal? (b) Continue to speak out in community against residential development in the mudflow zones, against locating schools and hospitals and other critical infrastructure there.

You notice that global concentrations of CO2 are rising, at about the rate you’d expect from the burning of fossil fuels. You see the global atmospheric temperature rising as the result. You find that sea ice and glaciers are melting. That patterns of flood and drought are changing, and that these changes are reducing agricultural productivity worldwide, just when we need it most.

You (a) publish your research and report this up the line? (b) Continue to reach out and alert everyone you know, anyone in a position of responsibility, any journalist, and newscaster, any public audience, that this is a defining problem?

This is sobering…but path (a) in each case is the Paterno Path. And today he says he wished he’d done more.  

None of us wants this ending to the world’s story, or to our part in it. That’s why, when you cry, “Give it a rest!” we don’t.


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