I set aside some time recently to watch the Ken Burns documentary series, “The Dust Bowl,” which aired on PBS. The promotional text describing the series reads:
The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, in which the frenzied wheat boom of the “Great Plow-Up,” followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s, nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation.
Typical of Ken Burns’ style as a documentary film maker, the series chronicles the experience of those in the southern plains region of the U.S. most directly affected by the combined impacts of an aggressive cultivation of the low-moisture, high-wind prairie ecosystem; a severe and prolonged period of drought; and the collapse in wheat prices associated with the Great Depression. Blending photographs, film clips, maps and interviews, the story is told from the perspective of those who survived the experience as children and teenagers, now in their elder years. The oral history is riveting as the tragedy of loved ones lost long ago surfaced tears as if the loss still seems very near. It was a narrative of courage and determination in the face of immense challenge, and yet a reflection of bewilderment as short-term, narrow self-interest overwhelmed reason and the well-being of all.
Now more than 80 years since the early days of the Dust Bowl, we face similar questions about the trade-offs between immediate economic interests and prolonged environmental impact. The challenges of the 1930s led to innovations in agriculture spurred by partnership of federal and state agencies, coupled with private enterprises that have avoided similar tragedies. Yet, even the Ogallala Aquifer, which serves as an underground source of irrigation for the southern plains, is gradually being depleted. Is it possible now to avoid future risk well in advance of a repeated tragedy or will we choose to live at the edge of risk?
Regardless of how or why the climate of the earth changes or global weather patterns shift, one thing is certain – in the end, the climate wins. Accordingly, mitigating the risks of climate change for the future would seem to make sense. The problem is we would have to agree we have a compelling interest in future generations.
For me sustainability is about “intergenerational equity.” This is a term we often use in the context of endowments at colleges and universities. Boards of trustees are charged with a fiduciary responsibility to ensure the endowment for an institution is both serving the needs of the present, and yet preserved for the needs of future generations. We spend a little now. That’s necessary and appropriate. But we also remain very conscious of our successors, including the trustees of the future.
As a nation we can point to the work of previous generations and see the benefits and risks we now derive from their legacies of investment. As I assess the work of today in anticipation of tomorrow, there are days when I feel incredibly grateful for the inheritance I have received and yet disappointed for some of the “investment” decisions of the past that placed us at greater risk now and in the future. I am also very conscious I am equally responsible. Now in my 50s I already have done much that will be passed on in the endowment I leave. I consume far too much and preserve far too little. I find it easy to think in short time horizons and have to force myself to be disciplined about embracing longer arcs of history. The tyranny of the urgent can be very destructive. Somehow I must protect that which matters most. This leads me to consider the decisions I face today as a citizen.
The majesty of the ocean and our inherent desire to see its expanse, hear its playful splash, smell its life-sustaining breeze, and feel the personal renewal we experience when we walk on its shore or sail its waves, masks its immense power. We would like to think we can command the waves to obey, but a hurricane is a reminder that when we live at the edge of risk we accept a responsibility to respect a power we do not control and the consequences we must own.
The rain is a fountain of blessing when it falls at the times we predict, in the places we have planned and in the amounts we need. We have tolerance for variability, but when the patterns reach levels too far above or below our thresholds we find living at the edge of risk comes at a price. The beautiful view of the valley gives way to the power of the rain to erode the hillside on which we perch. The dryness of the parched field is set ablaze by a careless act or a lightning strike.
The land is a sponge that absorbs what we set before it. It’s strong and will accept whatever we give it to hold. Yet as we seek to move the land and shape its waterways making it conform to our wishes, it simply gives back what we have placed in its care. It will faithfully return to us all we have given it.
The air is a net that captures what we send its way. We blow with ever increasing force a breath that is gradually less fragrant. It returns to us only what we give it, for its source of nourishment is the ocean, the seas and the vegetation of the land.
And so it has ever been. The climate has so much to give and demands so much from us. If we live in humility, embrace simplicity and give to the earth the respect it requires of us, we will pass on an endowment that will preserve many generations to come. That is, if we chose not to live at the edge of risk.