atlantic1.jpgSo we’ve seen much of the so-called intelligentsia ignore the global warming issue when asked by the Atlantic Monthly to consider the greatest challenges to the American idea. But not all of those asked were so short-sighted.

You would expect the one environmentalist they asked, Edward O. Wilson (essay below) to get it right. But what about a Harvard constitutional law professor and his policy analyst/linguist wife?

Lawrence H. Tribe and Carolyn K. Tribe: “Our greatest national challenge is to reverse the profoundly misguided course the last two presidential elections have set, while doing three things … Third, cooperating with the international community before it is too late to restore the degraded health of our fragile planet and to protect the well-being of all its inhabitants.”

Who else got it right, or partially right? John Updike, Anna Deavere Smith, and even Stephen Breyer:

John Updike: “The American idea, as I understand it, is to trust people to know their own minds and to act in their own enlightened self-interest, with a necessary respect for others … The challenges ahead? A fury against liberal civilization by the world’s poor, who have nothing to lose; a ruinous further depletion of the world’s natural assets; a global warming that will change world climate and with it world geopolitics. The American idea, promulgated in a land of plenty, must prepare to sustain itself in a world of scarcity.”

My point exactly!

Stephen Breyer: “This implies a shared commitment to practices necessary to make any democracy work: conversation, participation, flexibility, and compromise. Such a commitment cannot guarantee success in overcoming serious problems: terrorism, environmental degradation, population growth, energy security, and the like. But it does imply a certain attitude toward finding solutions.”

Anna Deavere Smith: “Even as I write this, sitting here in front of a bank of mountains and looking up at the very wide blue sky of the American West, anything seems possible. Actually, the environmentalists would say anything is possible — and that the possible is not necessarily a good thing. What is the future of the land? …

Another essential element in the American idea is “for all” — as in “justice for all,” or “education for all,” or “health care for all.” Too few of us respond to the notion of “for all”; too few can even imagine “for all.” We endanger the survival of the American idea by that failure of imagination.The American idea is transforming itself — and not necessarily for the better. Even as I look out at this land, I find myself in doubt, about our environment and our society. Will we be able to ensure a future in which everyone on this land will be able to move from one valley to the next — to climb this mountain or the other one over there?

Alan Brinkley gets partial credit for saying the U.S. should be “an exemplar of ideals of potentially universal appeal: human rights, environmental responsibility …” Stan Lee mentions global warming in a comic strip response he did, though he writes “Is the warming of the earth mere fancy or fact,” so he can’t really get any credit for advancing the issue.

The prize, unsurprisingly, goes to E. O. Wilson:

The central issue for America is sustainable development. Somehow we, and other countries, have to find a way to continue raising the quality of life without wrecking the planet.

Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

Let’s not kid ourselves that the United States is blessed by God. Our mostly European forebears were not given this land as a gift. They conquered it, and in the process they swept aside one race and enslaved another. They took possession of the world’s richest remaining store of natural resources and set out to use it up as fast as possible. We inherited from them, and still possess, a rich and bountiful country. Although we’re halfway down the barrel of nonrenewable resources, we have enough time remaining to learn the prudence necessary for sustainable development.

The problem, simply put, is this: Long-term thinking is for the most part alien to the American mind. We have to change that. To look far forward and to acquire enough accurate vision requires better self-understanding. That in turn will depend on a grasp of history — not just of the latest tick of the geological clock that transpired during the republic’s existence, but of deep history, across the hundreds of millennia when genetic human nature evolved. Our basic qualities may seem a crazy jumble of tribalism, piety, ambition, fear, envy, exaltation, and spirituality, but they make sense in light of humanity’s deep history. They are our essence, and now, unfortunately, a few of them also present the greatest risk to the security of civilization.

Conservation and environmentalism are not hobbies; they are a survival practice. America invented conservation; we launched the environmental movement. Now we need a stronger ethic, one woven in more effective ways from science and poetry. The foundation of it will be the recognition that humanity was born within the biosphere, and that we are a biological species in a biological world. Like the other species teeming around us, we are exquisitely adapted to this biosphere and to no other — in anatomy, physiology, life cycle, mind, and, perhaps in us alone, spirit.

An allegiance to our biological heritage will be our ultimate strength. If we ignore that reality and continue to degrade the world that gave us birth by extinguishing natural ecosystems and species, we will permanently harm ourselves. By cutting away our own roots, we risk losing the dream of sustainable development.

Hear, hear!

This post was created for, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.