A Baby Boomer's Lament
by Jeff Jacobsen
I was born in the US in1955, ten years after World War II, but smack in the middle of the Cold War. I lived near an air force base that had B-52 bombers flying around non-stop, ready to drop nukes on the Soviet Union should we be attacked first. We didn't practice hiding under our desks at grade school, but I'm sure that's just because everybody knew if the time came we were all screwed anyway.
Us Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) lived through technological change never before seen. Looking back, things seem so old. On my grandparents' farm on the other side of the state was a phone on a community line. The other farmers in the neighborhood were on the same line, so if you heard the phone ring (certain rings for certain customers), you could surreptitiously listen in on any phone call. Black and white TV had 3 channels available. Drinking water was hauled in from the artesian well. When it got hot, there was no air conditioned room to relax in. Life in the city where I grew up was easier, but of course many things we take for granted today just didn't exist yet there either. Still, new inventions were always coming along, like color TV and portable phones. It was assumed that life would just keep getting better. Grownups would talk about how their main goal was that the next generation would have things better than it was before.
I remember mostly this optimism of the times, thinking things could only get better. There were good paying jobs. People owned their homes and had a car. Capitalism was creating more and more comfort and ease for daily living. Science was moving ever forward with better designed everything. We were comfortable and reasonably happy, despite the underlying nuclear fears of instant annihilation. This was the time before people started becoming concerned about the long-term effects of our new lifestyle.
There was that underlying nervousness at all times, though. The Cold War was ever present. We'd see how horribly wrong we could be with the Vietnam War, which we at first joined to prevent the spread of communism. We learned how quickly hope can evaporate with the killings of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. So the optimism was saddled with fear and uncertainty.
After reaching adulthood, the first concern I personally remember was that we were overspending on the military. It took a lot of manpower, fuel, and money to keep those B-52s in the air circling around waiting for the order to go destroy another country. A lot of scientists were tied up making faster jets, better bombs, more efficient ways to kill. A lot of our taxes went to maintain ourselves as the most powerful country in the world. And why did we have that burden? Was our great enemy really going to attack us? Was all this just a huge mistake and waste? Outgoing president Eisenhower warned us to beware of the Military Industrial Complex.
It was hard to break from the idea, though, that things were continuously getting better for everybody. Sure, there was pollution, but look what we gained from a bit of bad air – cheap and speedy travel, lighting, air conditioning. The trade-off seemed acceptable. And it wasn't like we knew where things were heading. Who knew how many cars, trucks, planes and trains there would eventually be? Growth was not planned for and sometimes not expected. We weren't planning to burn so much coal and oil. It just happened.
Eventually some scientists started suggesting that by making things better for ourselves we might be making things worse for others and even for our planet. The government formed the Environmental Protection Agency after deadly air and burning rivers made the problem obvious. Rapidly filling city dumps suggested that perhaps we could recycle some of our ever-growing waste instead of trying to just bury it all. Maybe our headlong rush toward “progress” needed a step back to look for long-term effects that would negate the “progress.” In Los Angeles, for example, the freedom to drive wherever you wanted became a desire to drive someplace out of town where the air was breathable.
We gradually started to realize that improvements in one area might have consequences in another that just made things worse in general. Fossil fuels gave us so much toward our race to the future, like cheap electricity and ubiquitous transportation. But they also gave us lung cancer and started warming the globe. Was this a good trade-off? Doubts were forming.
But Baby Boomers are a stubborn lot, so it took a lot of explaining and cajoling to get us to start thinking about our freewheeling ways. It started to look like we weren't really going to hand our children and grandchildren a better world after all. Sure, they could watch movies on their smart phones, but it might have to be in a storm cellar from the increasing and stronger storms. Scientists had started to warn us. Mother Nature started to teach us. But was it too late?
Now we come to the part, in our twilight years, where we check and see how my generation did. Did we leave our children a better life than we had? Or did we doom them to spend their lives cleaning up after us?
I'm going to give us an A for Enthusiasm, but an F for Results. The explosion of knowledge, invention, and attempts at improvements have surpassed any time before us. But on the other hand, we never gave thought to the side-effects of our incredible leaps. SHOULD we start using plastic as a container for everything? SHOULD we go with individual cars and trucks instead of mass transit? SHOULD we allow corporations to decide what new products would come on the market without a check on what any long-term results might be? I think our enthusiasm pushed us forward haphazardly to bad results. And what did we spend our money on? The military took a huge chunk, mainly because we feared so much. We feared the Soviet Union. We feared the loss of access to resources. We feared that democracy might actually be fragile and susceptible to outside influence.
Now we are, one by one, leaving you. You have huge student debt when we got almost free education. You have no home-ownership when even lower-class Baby Boomers could afford a home. We enjoyed the benefits and marvels of oil and coal, while you now get to try to survive global warming. We made health care almost impossible to afford or figure out. You don't have to worry AS MUCH about being obliterated by an atomic bomb, but there's still plenty to cause anxiety.
Although I admit I'm part of the problem, I don't think we've completely destroyed the world. Things can be changed. Mistakes can be corrected. A toxic mindset can be tossed. Despite all our errors, I am somewhat optimistic that those who come after us can still set things right.
I have been thinking about these things and have a few recommendations. Most things, though, like global warming, are beyond my little brain. But here goes:
All aspects of human action should begin with the phrase “first, do no harm.” This includes businesses, governments, religions, associations, etc. If you feel you have to harm somebody else or dirty up the planet to accomplish your goal, start over.
We need to think about long-term results. Sure, we CAN burn oil (for example), but what might happen if we start burning a lot of it? It's great for everybody to have their own private transport vehicle, but might that not mean that our cities are overwhelmed with so many, and simpler methods like mass transit can do just about as well? Science lets us do so many more things that at first seem incredible and useful, but let's think ahead a bit and try to prevent blowback in the future.
There should be a baseline below which we don't allow any human to go. Everyone needs food, a roof over their head, social interaction. Society needs to help those who haven't been able to supply these things for themselves, or help them up to where they can support themselves.
Nobody needs to be a billionaire. Heck, nobody needs to be a hundred-millionaire. There's only so much wealth in the world and we don't want to go back to the days when the family in the castle held all the wealth and the rest of us just had to rely on their good graces. And what if the billionaire is a little bonkers? That much power can cause a lot of damage. Abolish plutocracy.
The US spends more on defense than the next 10 countries combined. What are we so afraid of? Now that Russia has proven to have a much weaker military force than we thought, that pretty much leaves China to fear. But we are starting to see it has its own huge problems. Our decision to try to keep at least a modicum of worldwide control over raw materials and countries that don't want to go along with our ideas has left us much poorer than we could have been. Defense should only be that, defense.
So now that us Baby Boomers have left a world worse than how we found it, our time is about over. The next generations get to deal with the result of our greed and short-sightedness. Please don't throw up your hands in despair. There are tools and ideas out there that can work to right our wrongs. It's your planet now. Learn from our mistakes.