"Why didn't our grandparents run the factories every other day?" a bright young girl once asked me. "Why didn't they drive those stupid cars just on the weekend?"
Our children know little but Arcadia, and this community is fully sustainable. We produce everything we need here in this corner of what was once the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. What we don't grow, we synthesize or create on our 3-D printers. We conduct limited trade with the few neighboring communities. If there is an unexpected death, we issue another birth permit. If our solar batteries run low during the winter, we ration energy. Everything is recycled, from our chicken bones to our night soil. The children of Arcadia don't understand waste.
They also don't understand the now-strange concept of an international community. They've never ventured beyond the walls of our little universe. It's only thanks to virtual tourism that they've seen the world outside, which just reinforces their desire to remain here. After all, the world out there is just a collection of sharp little shards, what my ex-husband used to call the "splinterlands" of this planet. My students can't comprehend how those shards, most of them exceedingly dangerous micro-environments, once fit together to form larger nations that in turn sometimes cooperated to solve common problems. It's like that old story of the elephant and the six blind men. The children of Arcadia can understand the parts, but unsurprising enough, given the events of the last three decades, the whole eludes them.
Think of that long-gone international community, I tell them, as a squalling infant born in 1945 to bickering parents. A troubled childhood was followed by an awkward youth. Only in middle age, with the end of the Cold War in 1989, did it finally seem to come into its own, however briefly. Unfortunately, within a few short years, it was prematurely in its dotage. In 2017, at 72, the international community was past retirement age, in frail health, and in desperate need of assisted care.
Once upon a time, this aged collective creature, this Knight of the Sad Countenance, was supposed to be our savior, the slayer of the horrible monster. When the time came, however, it could barely lift a lance.
Without some knowledge of the life cycle of the international community, my children can't possibly understand why global temperatures continued to rise in the first part of this century, despite the best efforts of scientists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens. Several countries, Uruguay and Bhutan among them, had gone to extraordinary lengths to reduce their carbon footprint, and more than a dozen cities eventually became carbon neutral. Individuals adopted vegetarianism, drove electric cars, turned down their thermostats in the winter -- as if lifestyle changes alone could slay the monster.
Unfortunately, a global problem really did require a global response. The Paris climate accord, which 196 countries signed at the end of 2015, was just such an effort. Only two countries refused to sign, one (Syria) because it was mired in a civil war and the other (Nicaragua) due to sheer cussedness. And yet the terms of the agreement were far from adequate. The international community, which had come together in this twilight of cooperation, well understood the enormity of the challenge: to keep global temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial average. At best, however, the Paris treaty would have kept temperatures from rising three degrees. And as everyone now knows, the best was hardly what happened.
In this way did that community abandon the very idea of sustainability and embrace its lesser cousin, resilience. I try to explain to my children that sustainability is all about harmony -- maintaining balance, never taking more than what we give back. Resilience, on the other hand, is about making the adaptations required by a crisis, about simply getting by. The judgment of Paris, with its nod toward resilience, was, in fact, an acknowledgment of failure.
Although flawed, it was at least part of a process. That's what democratic politics is all about, I tell my charges. You have to begin somewhere and hope to improve from there. After all, there's always the possibility that one day you might even graduate from resilience to sustainability.
But, of course, there's also the option of going backward, which is exactly what happened, big league -- to use an expression of the new American president -- in 2017.
The Trump Revolution
It's an unfortunate fact of our world that destruction is so much easier than construction. Anyone can wield a sledgehammer; few can use a trowel. An inadvertent sneeze can take down the most elaborately built house of cards.
Donald Trump was more than just a sneeze. His devotion to the destruction of the "administrative state" was impressive. At the time, we were all so focused on the domestic side of that destruction -- the toppling of the pillars of the welfare state, the repeal of universal health care, the rollback of legal protections and voting rights of all sorts -- that we failed to pay proper attention to just how devastatingly that destruction spread internationally.
Yes, the new president cancelled pending trade deals, thumbed his nose at traditional allies, and questioned the utility of agreements like the one that mothballed Iran's nuclear program. But those were largely bilateral attacks. Much more dangerous were his fierce sallies against the international administrative state.
The most important of these, of course, was his decision to withdraw from the Paris accord. Admittedly, it was a weak, voluntary agreement. Yet even that was too much for Donald Trump. The president declared that the agreement would disadvantage Americans and force workers and taxpayers "to absorb the cost" of reducing greenhouse gas admissions through "lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production." It didn't matter that none of that was true. Renewable energy programs were creating more well-paying jobs in the United States than the dirty energy industries were trying to maintain. In his surge of destruction, however, President Trump never felt the need to justify his actions with recourse to actual facts.
The United States, moreover, was both the richest country in the world and historically the largest producer of carbon emissions. As we tell our students here in Arcadia, if you're most responsible for the mess, you should be most responsible for the clean-up. It's a simple concept for children to absorb. Yet it was beyond the ken of most Americans.