Betting on the Asteroid

If you  haven’t seen Greta Thunberg’s speech at this year’s Davos Forum (an annual gathering of rich people in Switzerland) it’s readily available on line. The diminutive high-schooler lectured an  audience of grown-ups on the urgency of a reduction in polluting emissions. She told them they would be held responsible for the climatic catastrophe awaiting her and her age-mates if things continue as usual. She reminded them of  something you hardly ever hear about anymore: the traditional parental commitment to a better life for the children. If you ask parents today whether they think their children will end up better or worse off than they did, most will be forced to say “worse.” This reflects widespread acceptance in America of a future marked by greater violence, insecurity, environmental pollution, moral and ethical decay, illiteracy, superstition, curtailment of individual rights, degradation of institutions, material poverty, and just plain bad taste.

Parents don’t seem to be particularly bothered by this. Greta’s reasoned critique notwithstanding, they don’t see themselves as reckless stewards who, unlike their own parents, squandered their children’s birthright. Rather, they take no responsibility whatsoever. “It’s human nature,” they plead helplessly. That may be. Never mind that responsible stewards, in the interest of civil life, have always worked to limit natural urges for the good of the group. Never mind that the complacent acceptance of less for posterity guarantees that Greta and her peers will suffer.

And so the average American grown-up, without regard to the possible consequences for future generations, consumes resources at a rate slightly exceeding that allowed by his or her material circumstances and at least ten times the rate of the average citizen of the world. Not only that, we repudiate laws and standards restricting our personal conduct and reject all forms of civic involvement. We require neither decency nor honor of our leaders.

This mass self-indulgence of grown-ups should at some point cause concern among the elders, but instead it gives rise to mass public denial. Greta’s remarks are suppressed or forgotten. There seems to be no hint in the heads of the current generations of adults that what they consume now won’t be available for their issue and that their failure to contol polluting emissions today will  make the world uninhabitable for their grandchildren. They’re acquainted with these facts, which are patent, but they have stricken them from consciousness, so that they can pursue their present activities in blissful ignorance.

Conveniently, science has given us a rational basis for dealing with the future in this way. We know that an asteroid will eventually hit us, and that it will destroy most life on the planet. We don’t know when this will happen, but it’s happened before repeatedly (as recently as 60 million years ago) and it will happen again. One way or another, the world will become hostile to human life. The people who are on the planet then will have to deal with it. No point in worrying the current occupants. Nothing can be done. It’s cold comfort for Greta, but a ready excuse for the rest of us to continue as usual. Sure, maybe our kids will inherit a damaged planet. but that’s the breaks. They’re probably going to be incinerated anyway, and if not them, their kids or grandkids. We’ll all be dead by then. Right?