The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Commentary February 8, 2008

Commit Now to a Greener Future

To the Editors:

Welcome back and happy 2008!

A lot can happen in a year. A year ago I moved to Oberlin from Madison, Wisconsin and started a new job as the college’s first Sustainability Coordinator. In November, I became an uncle for the second time and was struck by the fact that miracles can happen in only nine months. New houses, new cities, new jobs, new babies, what will the next year bring?

But before we look forward, let’s look back even further to 1908, a year characterized by unbridled optimism, hope and promise. A year, says Smithsonian, where astonishing inventions, predictions, stunts and breakthroughs propelled America into the modern age.

1908 started with the first-ever ball drop in Times Square and ended with a nearly two-and-a-half hour flight by Wilbur Wright, the longest ever made in an airplane.  In between, U.S. citizens enjoyed the highest per capita income in the world, the U.S. Navy’s Great White Fleet set sail on a voyage around the world, stupendous new buildings reached dizzying heights in New York City, Henry Ford introduced the Model T and Admiral Perry began his conquest of the North Pole.

Americans in 1908 shared a fierce hope that the future would be better than the present.  The achievements of 1908 reflected and expanded Americans’ sense of what was possible. In 1908, said Thomas Edison, “Anything, everything, is possible.”

So here we are now in 2008 and it’s striking to realize how much more hopeful Americans were then than we are today. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that barely 1/3 of Americans say children today will grow up to be better off than people are today.  A solid 50 percent say they will grow up to be worse off.  The world is a scary place.

In Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech he tells us that we are confronting a planetary emergency — a threat to the survival of civilization no less — that is gathering ominous and destructive potential.  He warns of the consequences: massive droughts, melting glaciers, unprecedented wild fires, flooding and people in the frozen arctic and low-lying Pacific islands quite literally making evacuation plans to leave the places the have long called home.

And here is Oberlin celebrating its 175th anniversary.  And we must ask ourselves, what do we want our legacy to be for the next 175 years?

We have reached a point in history where we cannot make decisions for the future based on our assumptions of the present and the past.  The future, Al Gore says, is knocking at our door right now.  We have to find a strong willingness to act boldly, decisively and quickly to solve what we can no longer pretend is anything but a crisis.

We must commit ourselves, in no uncertain terms, to massive changes in technology, practice and mindset. We must find the political will. And we must do this — act — with the same moral courage, the same hope, the same promise and the same sense that anything, everything, is possible that defined us a century ago.

Nathan Engstrom
Coordinator, Office of Environmental Sustainability


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