07/12/2010 06:27 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Scarlett Syndrome

The U.S., with about 5 percent of the world's population, contributes 19 percent of the world's greenhouse gases. But, with some exceptions at the state level, the government has so far relied on voluntary efforts and market incentives to reduce atmospheric carbon. Many, many of us continue to favor style, power, and size in our vehicles over fuel efficiency. We're so intent on keeping energy prices low that we'd prefer to risk another gulf oil spill to do it: a June 16-17 Rasmussen Poll found that roughly equal numbers want to "keep the cost of energy as low as possible" as want "clean, environmentally friendly sources of energy." We acknowledge that there may be a global warming problem, but an increasing percentage of us are not sure that increased carbon emissions are the cause. Until we know for sure, solutions can wait.

The U.S. national debt ceiling now tops $13 trillion, with annual budget deficits running near or above $1 trillion. At a personal level, we owe nearly $2.5 trillion in consumer debt (an average of over $15,000 per household on credit cards). Both the national debt and consumer debt are viewed as serious problems, but they are not matched with serious solutions.

Scarlett O'Hara had an approach to serious problems. Many of us seem to share it. When faced with the fact that Rhett Butler was finally leaving, she agonizingly proclaimed: "I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow."

There are many reasons we put off tough choices. Sometimes, as with global warming, we argue that the evidence is inconclusive. Sometimes, as with the national debt, we cite more urgent matters, such as the need to stimulate economic growth or help disaster victims. Sometimes, as with personal debt, we rationalize our behavior with an appeal to our own self-interest (though clearly, illness and lost jobs also lead to credit card debt for many). Sometimes we count on time to take care of things. Americans, we know, always respond best when a crisis comes.

But many of our problems, from global warming to national and personal financial debt to glaring infrastructure problems in our roads, rails, and bridges, may never rise to the definition of "crisis" -- a time when something must be done to avoid total breakdown or disaster. Irreversible damage may be done before we have the "proof" that a crisis exists. Many problems will continue to gradually worsen as we continue to ignore the symptoms, much as happened with Scarlett through all the years of Rhett's pleading. When she finally acknowledged the problem, it was too late.

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to James Madison in 1789, had a point of view on this: "The question whether one generation of men has a right to bind another. . . is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also among the fundamental principles of every government. . . . I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self-evident, 'that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living' . . .." Jefferson meant that the current generation had a right to make decisions as long as they do not damage the world it handed off to the next generation. Thus, Jefferson could say to John Taylor in 1816 that "I sincerely believe...that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity under the name of funding is but swindling futurity on a large scale."

It's not clear what it will take to change our preference to "think about that tomorrow." Despite his theory, Jefferson was terrible in practice, dying over $100,000 in personal debt. Some evolutionary biologists have even suggested that ignoring the future has been bred into us, since survival depended on attended to immediate dangers, not sitting in caves and pondering long term ones.

But we cannot continue to ignore intractable societal problems. Political leadership on the national level, religious and civic leadership at the local level, and personal leadership, especially leadership by example, at the family level are needed. The first task will be to have honest conversations about our current predicament, where we are heading, and what it may take to change course. The second task will be to formulate action agendas and to marshal public opinion and personal will to demand a change. This will include not only an honest and massive campaign of personal and public education but a forceful re-ordering of laws and moral imperatives. We must arrive at the point where cutting greenhouse gases and retiring our personal and public debt, to name just two examples, are goals that are both morally and legally compelling.

Gone with the Wind ends before we get a chance to see if Scarlett does think about it tomorrow. The betting money is not in her favor. But at least she will only hurt herself by her inability to face life head-on. We will not be so lucky.