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Brian Till
27 Jan 2010
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Truths We Know

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Among the first things we learn as children is that actions have influence on our surroundings: A touch to our skin creates feeling; objects can be picked up and moved; a cry garners a reaction. Nothing is cemented in our world. Everything can be manipulated and changed.

Convincing ourselves, then, that more than 6 billion of us — each American, for his or her part, producing 4 pounds of garbage per day and emitting 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year — haven't impacted the globe betrays perhaps the first and most poignant thing we learn: Everything we do has an impact. Every sneeze, every step a reaction.

Rejecting this truth, like hoping the old garage shelf crowded with paint cans and old tires will endure a bit longer, is contrary to what we know at our core.

There exists this tension in our country and in our hearts between what we know is necessary and right, and what we are willing to admit and sacrifice. A recent Gallup poll showed that the percentage of Americans that believe climate change is driven by human activity dropped 20 points in the last three years, from 77 percent of respondents to 57 percent.

Even among those that are willing to recognize the severity of the problem we face, there's an intransigence. In the book "Cape Wind," Robert Whitcomb of the Providence Journal and Wendy Williams chronicle the battle of installing wind turbines in the Nantucket Sound. The story pits the well-moneyed interests of property owners on Cape Cod and Nantucket — a portion of whom, at least, support the idea of wind power, so long as it's not on their coastline — against the greater share of the Massachusetts public, which supports the $900 million project.

The arduous battle highlights the qualms within even the liberal side of this debate: To what extent should we sacrifice our scenic landscapes to the will of energy companies and speculators? What constitutes majestic beauty; what an eyesore?

In 1979, Jimmy Carter offered a speech that would become known as the "malaise" speech, though, he, in reality, never used the word.

It's the subject of an interesting new book by Kevin Mattson, titled, "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?"

In the speech — properly known as the "Crisis of Confidence" speech — President Carter, for all his shortcomings, laid out a prescient analysis. America, in the throes of an energy crisis as a result of the Iranian Revolution, was helplessly beholden to foreign powers and, once the crisis was navigated, had the choice of making costly investments and reducing its dependence, or continuing down a course of dependence and denial.

There was another message: "Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption," Carter said. "Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns."

The speech gave Carter's approval rating an 11-point bounce in the polls; it's a figure that's almost unimaginable as the result of a single speech today. But a year later, the nation chose Ronald Reagan, who told the nation three months after Carter's address, "I find no national malaise. I find nothing wrong with the American people."

Of course, our own intransigence wasn't the only reason for Carter's defeat. There was the hostage crisis; there was the assault from the left from Ted Kennedy and the national sentiment that he was ineffectual as a leader. But the vision he laid out for an energy-independent America by 2000 certainly seems appealing, given our national security quagmire; as does the relatively carbon-friendly solutions he endorsed, given our climate change quagmire.

There are things that are so fundamental that we understand them at our roots, whether it's 1979 or 2009. The hard part has been, and always will be, doing what we know is right. It requires putting aside personal interests; it requires dotting nature's beauty with steel towers and panels; and it requires living more humbly. But, of course, it's what we've always known we must do.

Brian Till, one of the nation's youngest syndicated columnists, is a research fellow for the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. He can be contacted at till@newamerica.net. To find out more about the author and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS.COM



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