In 2015, a lawsuit was filed by 21 plaintiffs against our government. All under the age of 18, the plaintiffs asserted that our government’s failure to act on climate change is a violation of the public trust doctrine and of the constitutional rights to life, liberty, and prosperity of generations to come. The case, Juliana et al. vs The United States, is still active, and the next hearing is scheduled for today: June 4, 2019.
What, dear America, will be the outcome? How do we begin to understand, let alone resolve, this conflict of interests? As an undergraduate I, like many young people, am acutely aware that my goals and dreams are hinged upon whether or not we are able to bridge this divide. As a result I, like many Americans, am trying to figure out how we can leverage our power in this democracy to make the necessary changes.
More and more I think that, for change to be possible, we must learn to perceive time differently.
Those who would dismiss the suit claim that because no harm is currently being done, there is no legal issue. This reflects clearly our present view of time on a human scale, measured by the variations of clocks and daily circumstances. On this scale, the natural world changes slowly; we do not see significant signs of alternation in a day or, historically, in a generation. Time, however, has other scales—scales which are measured by variations of rock layers and extant species—that we have yet to fully understand.
“[We] have not yet learned to think like a mountain,” Aldo Leopold wrote more than 70 years ago, and it seems many of us still haven’t. As a result, the land is often treated as a passive thing. The earth, however, is not passive. It is as sensitive and dynamic as we are. This concept is far from new to us—we know, from an early age, about the cycles of nature. We know the water in the river today is not the same water that will be in it tomorrow. Yet, too often we act in response to what occurs in a small area or a small amount of time without considering what our actions might mean for the future, without acknowledging that we may be toying with systems far more intricate than we could possibly imagine. I think of the story Leopold tells in A Sand County Almanac, about a great bear living on the mountain Escudilla. In the end, the bear walks into a set-gun trap and shoots itself. It’s only after this that those who acquiesced to the setting of the trap began to question if doing so was really progress. We, like Leopold and his comrades, are playing by the rules of economic growth without questioning. We strive for gain but neglect to acknowledge the cost of that gain to the systems our lives are hinged upon.
Lauret Savoy, in her book Trace, augments Leopold’s call for a broader perspective and more inclusive ethic. “The pace and degree of such environmental changes are unprecedented in human history,” she writes. “Yet the embedded systems and norms behind them in the United States, the most energy-consumptive nation, are not. Their deep roots allowed and continue to amplify fragmented ways of seeing, valuing, and using nature, as well as human beings.”
Such problematic deep roots are not easy to accept, nor are they easy to deny. Though the Constitution was established to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” our current policies reflect little interest in securing anything for future generations. The Declaration of Independence decrees it to be self-evident “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”—nevertheless, as Savoy points out, “without backing belief or means, ‘rights’ become limited and limiting to legal form and process rather than a moral imperative extending from heart and spirit.”
Savoy, recalling her family’s trip to Point Sublime, writes that the moments there “illuminated a journey of and to perception, another way of measuring a world I was part of yet leaving behind.” Throughout her life, she has remembered that day. “It’s impossible to step into that bright summer morning again,” she writes, “attentive to it, to parents alive, to an intact family drawn by hope and promise.”
We, too, are standing at Point Sublime, in awe of what is before us without fully acknowledging the meaning in those layers of rock or the direction we are headed. The difference is that for us, the bright summer morning has not yet slipped away. The sun is progressing across the sky, but we still have time to change the road we’re on.
A mountain’s moment ago, 13 colonies declared independence from a king who had plundered their seas, ravaged their coasts, burnt their towns, and destroyed the lives of their people. He had refused his assent to laws “most wholesome and necessary for the public good,” and “forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance.” Those colonies proclaimed that governments are instituted to secure the inalienable rights of their people, and that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”
Now, we plunder the earth’s seas and fill them with plastic. We ravage the coasts. Floods destroy homes by the thousands while droughts lead to wildfires that burn our cities to the ground. We have tested nuclear weapons, and continue to store radioactive waste, in the land we call home. Though we are a nation built upon and made strong by diversity in belief, language, and culture, we are cutting ourselves off from the world. Science, which the founders of the country held in high regard, is denied.
We cannot declare independence from ourselves, but we can declare independence from an unsustainable way of life. This is the demand of Juiliana et. al, and it is more than an issue for the courts. It is a demand that a country with the means to create positive change also summon the will to act. It is a demand that we at last learn to think like a mountain because, for a future to be possible, we must.
“America was ingenuity,” Ray Bradbury wrote. “It still is and could be.”
Dearest America, let us remember what we could be.
Sarah Inskeep is a rising senior at Kansas State University. As a physics major with a minor in conflict analysis and trauma studies, she is keenly interested in the relations between science, policy, environmental justice, and development. She is also a lover of books, foreign languages, and the martial art Aikido. After completing her degree at KSU she plans to attend graduate school, where she hopes to continue pursuing her passion for understanding the world in both the physical and the human sense.