11/02/2012 06:37 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Hurricane Sandy, And How Our Descendants Will View Our Choices

As Sandy reminds us of the reality of climate change, I want to share an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Return of the Light: A Political Fable in Which the American People Retake Their Country.

In the book, it is the night of the Winter Solstice in 2120. At one of thousands of community gatherings across the United States, a storyteller does the annual retelling of how, back in 2023, a decade-long movement culminated in the people taking over their own government, making it a means for mobilizing their collective power to promote peace, social justice, environmental responsibility, and a society hospitable to the needs of the human spirit. She first explains why they had to do so, surveying the effects of every area of public policy being dominated by corporate interests. Here the storyteller speaks about the environment.


The elders among us, those in my generation and older, are beginning to see the earliest fruits of the restoration of the earth that is part of The Change, at least — Madeleine smiled — if our memories are good enough. Day and night skies are already a bit clearer than they were when we were children. At that time, there was almost nowhere left in accessible locations in nature where one could drink the water without some kind of treatment, and in many places it was dangerous to bathe. We can be around more wildlife than we could in, say, 2050, as a new ecology develops.

One of the changes that has had a dramatic effect on our calmness and sense of well-being is much more quiet. People had gotten used to very high sound levels, as the fabled frog gets used to the water in a pot being raised to boiling. This was true not only in the cities, but even in many rural areas, because of the high levels of air travel, from motorways, from unmuffled tree-removal machinery, and so on. But the people were generally unaware of the impact on their nerves.

The denial of the need for far greater measures to reduce environmental degradation than were taking place before The Change was dramatic. The first wave of environmentalism was in the 1960s, and — after a great deal of agitation by its activists — some of the worst abuses of air and water pollution and destruction of animal habitats were curbed. But, as with every regulatory reform that cost influential businesses money, enforcement was gradually and quietly reduced in the following decades, although Democratic administrations generally did a little better than Republican ones.

By the 1980s, environmental scientists were sounding the alarm about global climate change. Their calls were urgent, including suggestions that the process might be irreversible after a decade or so. First they were unheard. A man who was an environmentalist at heart was Vice President during the Democratic Clinton Administration. But, in a stunning demonstration of the limits of what the old politics could accomplish, he was silent while that administration's representatives created obstacle after obstacle during negotiations to establish the first worldwide treaty to deal with the issue and silent again when that administration failed to seek ratification of the treaty in the Senate. He ran for President in 2000 on a platform that finally mentioned climate change, but neither then nor four years later did that platform call for the United States to join the treaty group.

In other words, the two-party, corporate-funded politics of the time just could not face the issue with realism, but only in a way-too-little, way-too-late fashion that has left us working so hard to protect ourselves from extreme and unpredictable weather patterns. They were so like alcoholics trying to cut back their drinking a little that they simply could not envision how good life could be without tens of millions of engines burning petroleum distillates for hours on end. They had mobilized their entire country for war in the 1940s, devoted massive resources to fulfilling a dream of letting astronauts walk on the moon, and spent billions upon billions to create so-called Stealth bombers and other extremely advanced weapons systems.

Had they been able to face the emergency they were in, and been willing to look at solutions that would threaten many corporate interests in the short run, they would have cut 40 or 50 years off theprocess of getting to where we are today: massive and ingenious uses of solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal power; mass transit and reconfigured cities and neighborhoods that give us a far better quality of life than they had, as they were trying to get around in their cars all the time; not just tinkering with energy-efficient buildings, but investing in finding the best techniques and universalizing them; living happily without extremely wasteful patterns of production, consumption, and packaging and without shipping out-of-season produce all over; recognizing that recycling of materials that had wastefully replaced reusable containers is not a major part of the solution, given the effects of trucking, sorting, and remanufacturing the stuff; and going back to the use of dignified human labor, the labor of those who would otherwise be unemployed or under-employed, instead of burning fossil fuels to mechanize every job that could thus be made more "efficient," in the narrowest sense.

Goodness. I thought I'd never finish that sentence. But I hope you get the picture. Those who brought us The Change lived with a background level of anxiety that you can only know if you are stuck in a pattern of doing something terribly destructive to yourself and others, cannot stop, and are doing your best to pretend it isn't happening.