Conversations the other day and discussions that have been taking place prompt me to ask if we are truly ready for the future. To be ready for the future requires, I believe, a vision for the future and I do not believe that such a vision exists.
In the midst of rising energy prices, the predominant answer seems to be that we need to drill for more oil or find other sources of crude oil. Regardless of what some might say, the war in Iraq is as much about obtaining other sources of crude oil as it was ever about freeing a nation from the clutches of a tyrannical dictator. And even if the immediate answer is to drill for more oil, say on the North Slope of Alaska, we do not have the refining capacity to handle the additional crude oil and the additional crude oil will not reach the market for several years. And while obtaining supplies of crude oil that are independent of foreign dominance may lessen our reliance on such sources, it still does little to remedy the fact that we are dependent on crude oil for the majority of our energy, no matter the source of the crude oil. Nothing in the present debate about energy offers any suggestions that we are looking at alternative energy sources as more than some minor point in a discussion that will be (literally) covered over by crude oil.
We also have to realize (as I don’t think too many people do right now) that crude oil is not just the starting point for energy but the starting point for various and sundry other things, such as plastics. Our debate on energy fails to provide the answers for new sources and the alternative to a lifestyle that we have developed over the years. Our debate on energy must also take into consideration the environment, be it global warming or pollution issues.
Similarly, the abortion debate will again be a part of the political rhetoric again this year. Now, this is not about abortion but rather the fact that in the debate we offer no options. Those who are opposed to abortion are also opposed to almost every form of sex education and contraception but offer little in the way of how parents are going to support the child that they, the pro-life forces, insists has a right to be born. To discuss one aspect of this debate and leave the others out of the discussion is to say that we as a society do not care whether a child is born or not, all we care about is that our side of debate wins. Who will watch for this child as he or she grows up? The discussion that is taking place now is lacking in the discussion of the future.
What are the causes of terrorism in the world today? Can it be simply that people hate America? Or does it go beyond that? What causes people to rise up in revolution against their country and leaders? Why do dictators work so hard to limit dissent and opposition? How is it that we can celebrate a revolution in our own country yet are not always willing to support others who have the same goals and often use our very words to justify their revolution? We have supported revolutions in the past but only when it suited us; if the revolutionaries were attacking a government that supported us, we were just as likely to give that government aid so that they could crush the counter-revolutionaries.
When will there be a serious discussion of ending hunger and poverty in the future? When will our discussion of the future include suitable and sustainable housing for all, not just a few? When will there be a serious discussion of finding work for all that is meaningful and is more than just “make work”; when we will discuss making wages for the workers “living” wages so that people can truly live, not just survive?
These are the questions that we should be asking right now but we aren’t. We aren’t asking them because 1) we are afraid to ask them, 2) we don’t know how to find the answers, and 3) we may not like the answers that we find.
We too many times offer immediate solutions that do little to remedy the long-term problem. Isn’t time that we start thinking about the long-term and not just the day after tomorrow? There will come a time when there will be a problem for which we have no solutions because we have no vision for the future and there are problems that yet unknown. And while we may say that we will deal with the unknown problems of the future when and if they arise, how can we deal with them if we are not thinking in terms of what might happen in the long run? As long as our thinking is limited to the immediate and next day, we will never be in a position to think about long-term problems or those that have not yet arose.
And the problem is that the only ones offering a vision are offering a vision of a “Pax Americana”, of an imperial America that dominates the world through force and raw power. It is not a vision that offers hope or the promise of a better tomorrow but only violence and continued war.
The sad part about this is that many people today willingly accept this vision for it offers them security; even it does little to remove or solve the problems that cause us to need a stronger sense of security. The problem is that no politician is willing or even possibly capable of offering a vision that differs from this one.
First, their visions are merely packaged formulations of focus and study groups; at best, the visions they offer are merely an expression of what the people want at this moment. And the people want today what only can be found in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, the mystical city of Garrison Keillor’s imagination. It is a city and a society where all the men are good looking, the women beautiful and the children above average. At worst, the vision of the future is a restatement of the present or some idealized version of days past.
But the politicians only offer what people want to hear. The people do not want to hear that sacrifice will be needed or that they will have to pay for the commitments for the future. The people want to hear that the problems that we face are someone else’s fault and that someone else is going to pay to fix it.
There is a saying from the sixties that says “today is the first day of the rest of our life.” That is most certainly the case. We cannot, no matter how hard we try, go back in time. Unless something dramatic happens, time only moves in one direction and that is forward.
What we have to do is radically change our priorities. There is another saying from the sixties that says “it will be a great day for schools when the Defense Department has to have a bake sale to buy a bomber.” I have no problems with having adequate security for this country but what does it say when the expenditures for weapons and weapon systems far exceeds what we spend on people. And as our weapon systems become more and more complicated, where will get the workers to build the systems? What would happen if we were spending our money on people and making the lives of people better?
When President Dwight Eisenhower was preparing to leave office, he warned this country about the rising “industrial-military complex.” Sadly, his words came true. Everything we have done since 1960 has been directed towards the care and feeding of that beast and every dollar spent on that beast has been another dollar that could have gone to feed someone or build a home for someone or make the life of someone a little bit easier. Our greatest foreign policies triumphs in the 1960’s came when we sent Peace Corps Volunteers into the third world (the news today says that getting into the Peace Corps will be the toughest job you ever had). When we helped people, good things happened.
To be ready for the future requires that we start now. We start by changing the funding for our schools so that our schools can prepare our children for the future. We get rid of the “No Child Left Behind” act as it only prepares our children for today’s test, not tomorrow’s real one. Demand that money going into school systems flow past the administrator’s offices (have you ever noticed the disparity between the pay for administrator’s and classroom teachers?). Put the money into the classroom and make classroom teacher salaries competitive (make people want to become teachers as a first choice and not a last resort).
Make the educational process what it once was, learning how to think and respond. Too often, we are happy when our students can repeat what they were told, no matter how stupid or arcane that response might be. It is more important that they understand what they are saying and what it means; this will require a great effort because school systems, like any great bureaucracy, obeys Newton’s First Law of Motion (an object at rest will remain at rest and an object in motion will remain in motion unless a greater force acts upon it). If we do not impose a greater force on our schools, our schools will continue in the same direction they are presently headed and I am afraid that direction does lead to a good future (if it leads to the future at all).
Then we need to start working on building the future today. We do not need more bombers or fancier weapons systems. We need better ways of delivering food to the hungry.
We need homes for everyone at prices that everyone can afford. And we need to make sure that people have the jobs at wages that will insure that they can buy their house and keep it.
I am not calling for subsidized housing or “make-work” projects; I am not calling for big government programs. Those are the methods of the past; we are moving towards the future. But we will not even get to the future, let alone be ready for it unless we start today.