What happened to all the big, sweeping ideas?
Growing up, I knew America was the country of grand ideas carried out from the moral high ground. We could put a man on the moon, we could end institutionalized racism, fight a war on poverty and try to wipe out air and water pollution. It was part of our national identity.
Those days are gone. Those sweeping programs and ideas that galvanized almost the entire country just aren’t around today. Banality and boorishness rule in the current state of politics, and problems fester for decades.
This realization hit me after I received an email from Brent Martin. Brent is the Southern Appalachian Program Director for the Wilderness Society, and he’s based in Sylva. We published an article in last week’s edition by Martin that called attention to the Weeks Act, federal legislation approved 100 years ago on March 1 that authorized the creation of the our national forests (www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/3359-nantahala-pisgah-national-forest-turns-100).
Here’s an excerpt from that article: “... But drive or walk anywhere in the Western North Carolina region and you will likely see beautiful forested mountains. I think we will have these for years to come, and this is due to the vision of many who came before us over one hundred years ago. This gives me hope.”
Virgin forests from Maine to Alabama had been cut over by 1911, leaving a swath of environmental and cultural destruction unknown in America to that point. The purchase of these devastated lands from timber companies was a sort of first step in land development regulations, a way to make use of the country’s resources while adding a new layer of federal protection through ownership.
I haven’t done the research, but can only assume the Weeks Act did not pass without some squabbling about the government takeover of private property rights (amazing how some things never change).
Can we ever do something like the Weeks Act again, find the political will to do something so big and so good?
I had this same kind of sinking feeling about our national spirit a little while after attending space camp with my son when he was in the fifth grade. We spent two days in Huntsville, Ala., learning all about U.S. space exploration from the Mercury missions up through the shuttle. And we heard talk about a manned Mars mission NASA was planning, and we left intrigued and inspired, and I saw the wonder of a 10-year-old thinking about space and planetary travel.
Over the ensuing years, though, we read how the idea was scrapped and how there just wasn’t enough money. A big, sweeping idea finds itself on the scrap heap.
One of my good friends, a bright guy who always thinks out of the box, says our country’s great opportunity in this century is with energy. Spend every penny on cutting our dependence on oil, figuring out the most efficient renewable sources while making energy reduction — mass transit, better cars, better light bulbs, etc. — the number one national priority.
If we could turn that corner on energy, we could save those same forests Martin wrote about while also leading the way through this century that is certainly going to create unimaginable challenges for industrialized countries.
Anyone think we will be the country to lead the way? Can we get going before Brazil and China leave us in the dust? Right now we’re taking baby steps while letting crazy despots ruling oil-rich Arabian kingdoms determine the fate of our economy.
I’m an optimist at heart, always will be. Can’t help it. So maybe the reality is that every generation doesn’t get the opportunity to think big. Maybe that post-World War II generation or two learned lessons that helped them change society. Maybe we haven’t learned those lessons, or perhaps we’re just bogged down in the fast-changing, overwhelming information age that leaves too much to comprehend.
Our challenge? Perhaps it’s the more mundane task of picking our way through a minefield of seemingly trivial stuff, setting the stage for a big show for our kids. We have to figure out how to keep our government from going bankrupt (Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare). We have re-draw the lines defining the proper reach of government (taxes, regulations, unions) in a free and democratic society. We have to determine how much influence the largest corporations the world has ever known will have over governments and personal lives.
Perhaps working through these issues will re-shape a new identity that will define America in the coming century. The optimist in me is hoping that is indeed the case.