How Will Our Grandchildren See Us?

Thirty years ago, Alex Haley’s “Roots” on television inspired millions to sleuth their blood ties to history. On this anniversary, let’s imagine what our own descendants will make of us when they look back.

What they will see is that Earth’s people more than tripled between 1950 and 2050. They’ll see that halfway through this explosion, American material consumption had grown so voracious that four Earths would be needed for everyone on the planet to live the same way. And they’ll see that billions tried.

They’ll see that this combination exhausted and poisoned water supplies, exterminated hundreds of thousands of species, and plowed under forests and grasslands, eroding essentially irreplaceable soils.

They’ll see that what fueled the “free market” was humanity’s biggest free lunch: We exploited energy accumulated over millions of years — coal, oil and natural gas. And we did it even though we knew we’d run out.

They’ll see that burning these fossil fuels raised temperatures and sea levels to drive tens of millions from coastal cities and drown rich delta soils, turned rich midcontinent farmland into desert, and made storms in wetter regions destructively stronger and erratic.

They’ll see that even during this delayed reaction to the Big Burn, fossil fuels petered out, and with them the irrigation and fertilizer that made it possible to feed so many extra billions.

And they’ll see that before the resulting hardships, people in the richest countries got much fatter, yet no happier.

They — the Children of the Great Depletion — will see that we squandered Earth, their birthright, for the sake of the “good life.”

This portrait in the making, some of it based on climate modeling but most of it already fleshing out in fact, is grim. But we can leave a better picture if we work now to save a planet that’s still in many ways a garden.

This will require us to radically redefine progress and what we mean by “standard of living.” We can’t measure these only with material yardsticks, aiming only for “efficiency” with energy and materials, which just frees capital for more consumption. The goal will be what writer Wendell Berry calls “poorer in luxuries and gadgets, but richer in meaning and more abundant in real pleasure.” We must make an honest accounting of what our planet can support long term. We must remember that human endeavor is merely a subsidiary of Earth Ltd.

Since the free market has failed us here, we need new rules of taxation, regulation and treaty. So:

— Make the American way of life negotiable. Our fuel burning pumps into the atmosphere more global-warming carbon dioxide than any other nation, even though No. 2 China has more than four times as many people. We have to lead the way out.

— Do this by taxing fossil fuels to slash release of greenhouse gases. Price these fuels at their true, long-term cost, including illness from pollution and food production lost to climate change. Invest the revenue in sustainable alternatives. Do it soon: Leading NASA climate scientist James Hansen reckons we have a decade at most to start reducing greenhouse gases before drastic climate change becomes inevitable.

— End tax exemptions for any more children than two — those predating the rule excepted. Through government subsidy make contraceptives and sterilization surgery free. Even if nothing else about sex is taught in school, explain exponential growth.

— Negotiate with other affluent countries to cut consumption. Again, it’s our responsibility to lead.

— For poor nations, greatly expand aid, but make it conditional: They must control population and pollution, and protect land, air and water. This investment could be far less than current military spending, yet better for long-term national security.

— And for policy and individual conduct in general, recognize that what we call economic growth, running now on so much principal from the natural world, cannot last. Instead of spending like there’s no tomorrow, conserve — make this the United States of Conservation — and pass along a good life to our descendants.

What could make them prouder?

SCOTT BONTZ wrote this for the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of the Land Institute, Salina, Kan. He edits institute publications.