Reviewed by Andrew C. Gottlieb
Edited by Jennifer Sahn
Orion magazine and editor Jennifer Sahn have delivered us a thoughtful, slim book called Thirty-Year Plan: Thirty Writers on What We Need to Build a Better Future, a handbook of sorts for a consideration of the future. Not just what the future may hold but what’s needed now in order to prepare for, or accommodate and adjust to the coming world changes. The premise for the anthology is simple: with a window of 30 years, ask 30 writers for short essays on one thing they deem necessary for the world, for the human population living in this world, on this planet.
Thirty is a bit of a magic number. It’s the span of an approximate generation, it’s the lifetime of that famous carpenter, Jesus, in that large anthology we call the Bible, and it’s often the age at which humans tend to undergo a transformation to focusing on middle-age, beginning to tell untruths about their real age as they adjust to new realizations of mortality. As Sahn points out in her introduction, it also means “there’s no more time for arguing or hoping others will figure out how to fix things.” Climate change is occurring and that’s essentially what these essays focus on: how to think about a future world where change is happening on such a short timeline that the immediate effects are felt across a spectrum of human essentials: protection from the elements (storms); the need for food (shortages); protection from the ubiquity of diseases (cancer, asthma); the diminishment of natural resources upon which our society has grown dependent (oil, metals, etc.)
One of the strengths of this book is in the selection of thinkers collected here. There are a few of the usual suspects one might expect from an Orion publication: Jane Hirschfield, Terry Tempest Williams, and Elizabeth Kolbert. But also in these pages are folk-singer Pete Seeger, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and environmental activist and Patagonia-founder Yvon Chouinard. There are poets, professors, farmers, editors, teachers, chefs, and, of course, writers, though one realizes that for many of the intellects collected here, writing is a secondary occupation. It’s a diverse group, and this strengthens the variety of ideas proposed.
So what will a reader find here, idea-wise? What kind of plans are hatched between these covers? Some of the most powerful ideas are about changing perception, changing our system of beliefs and understandings: changing ourselves (first) to change our world (second.) Richard Louv, the founding chairman of the Children and Nature Network argues for a new environmentalism, a new movement that includes liberals and conservatives, a partnership in understanding and action that “isn’t about going back to nature, but forward to nature.” Louv’s new environmentalism includes teachers, design professionals, anglers, hunters, urban farmers: people who work to restore nature. Louv doesn’t offer his own clear vision, but sees a society who can collectively transform and create a new vision, “a compelling, inspiring society that is better than the one we . . . live in.”
Author Charles Bowden gets more specific along the same theme, arguing that the gated nature of the world needs to end, that we can no longer live in a bubble and pretend things are ok as long as we can keep gas in our own tank. That “the brightest minds seem to be focusing on how to satisfy aggregate demand, keep all those SUVs and McMansions humming…” even though “we can’t accomplish much except death by maintaining current levels of consumption.” He tells us the shared nature of the world must also include a redistribution of work, jobs for everyone. “I’ll make it simple,” he says, “we have people standing around idle as we face more work than we can ever possibly do . . . people don’t just need work for money, they need real work to feed their souls.” This, a tip of the hat to E.F. Schumacher’s brilliant book from the seventies, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, a book with which Bowden is surely familiar. He acknowledges that pleasure exists, that joy is a cornerstone of life, but the pragmatics of the change needed are chilling: “The nuclear shield is useless against changing skies, and none of the border patrols will prove sufficient when the tsunami of starving humanity arrives at the boundaries invented by nations.”
There’s a variety of styles as well as ideas, and with thirty writers presented, while to a great extent all offering value and insight, comparison is inevitable. Some of the ideas are concrete and specific, execution-wise. Others are vaguer. Nikki Giovanni’s short piece on fear, while reminiscent of Gavin de Becker’s fantastic book, The Gift of Fear, stands out as particularly abstract. Christof Mauch’s piece on hindsight, emphasizing the need for environmental history as an essential understanding for moving forward does seem true, and a valid argument, and yet the human race is so good at ignoring history lessons of all kinds—and we’ve been trying to teach the same history lessons to children for ages—that it’s hard to not to ask why we should focus on environmental history if we don’t improve and avoid repeating political history first, or history as a whole, under the assumption that politics and legislation drive so much public change. One might argue no slice of environmental history will help if we’re still killing each other in world wars. Everything’s connected, after all. Finally, if we consider Louv’s idea of the integration of all parties, what is missing here most prominently are essays by conservatives and politicians, though that’s also perhaps understandable.
Of course, slicing and dicing may be inappropriate here. As if we’re trying to critique the amount of butter in a chocolate chip cookie. The editor has done a fine job with a valid premise. The reader will understand that, as we face a challenging future, no one idea or approach is the winner. It’s an aggregation of execution, impact, and understanding that will either help the human race survive a difficult future or will doom us to extinction. And Thirty-Year Plan is an aggregation of thinkers that offers us all another tool as we try to change with the changing world.
Lights on Earth from space photo courtesy Shutterstock and NASA.