(TomDispatch) [Writer's Note: I became politically active and committed on the day 20 years ago when I realized I could stand on the front porch of my house and point to three homes where children were in wheelchairs, to a home where a child had just died of leukemia, to another where a child was born missing a kidney, and yet another where a child suffered from spina bifida. All my parental alarms went off at once and I asked the obvious question: What's going on here? Did I inadvertently move my three children into harm's way when we settled in this high desert valley in Utah? A quest to find answers in Utah's nuclear history and then seek solutions followed. Politics for me was never motivated by ideology. It was always about parenting.
Today my three kids are, thankfully, healthy adults. But now that grandchildren are being added to our family, my blood runs cold whenever I project out 50 years and imagine what their world will be like at middle age -- assuming they get that far and that there is still a recognizable "world" to be part of. I wrote the following letter to my granddaughter, Madeline, who is almost four years old. Although she cannot read it today, I hope she will read it in a future that proves so much better than the one that is probable, and so terribly unfair. I'm sharing this letter with other parents and grandparents in the hope that it may move them to embrace their roles as citizens and commit to the hard work of making the planet viable, the economy equitable, and our culture democratic for the many Madelines to come.]
March 20, 2012
I address this letter to you, but please share it with Jack, Tasiah, and other grandchildren who are yet unborn. Also, with your children and theirs. My unconditional love for my children and grandchildren convinces me that, if I could live long enough to embrace my great-grandchildren, I would love them as deeply as I love you.
On behalf of my generation of grandparents to all of you, I want to apologize.
I am sorry we used up all the oil. It took a million years for those layers of carbon goo to form under the Earth's crust and we used up most of it in a geological instant. No doubt there will be some left and perhaps you can get around the fact that what remains is already distant, dirty, and dangerous, but the low-hanging fruit will be long-gone by the time you are my age. We took it all.
There's no excuse, really. We are gas-hogs, plain and simple. We got hooked on faster-bigger-more and charged right over the carrying capacity of the planet. Oil made it possible.
Machines are our slaves and coal, oil, and gas are their food. They helped us grow so much of our own food that we could overpopulate the Earth. We could ship stuff and travel all over the globe, and still have enough fuel left to drive home alone in trucks in time to watch "Monday Night Football."
Rocket fuel, fertilizer, baby bottles, lawn chairs: we made everything and anything out of oil and could never get enough of it. We could have conserved more for you to use in your lifetime. Instead, we demonstrated the self-restraint of crack addicts. It's been great having all that oil to play with and we built our entire world around that. Living without it will be tough. Sorry.
I hope we develop clean, renewable energy sources soon, or that you and your generation figure out how to do that quickly. In the meantime, sorry about the climate. We just didn't realize our addiction to carbon would come with monster storms, epic droughts, Biblical floods, wildfire infernos, rising seas, migration, starvation, pestilence, civil war, failed states, police states, and resource wars.
I'm sure Henry Ford didn't see that coming when he figured out how to mass-produce automobiles and sell them to Everyman. I know my parents didn't see the downside of using so much gas and coal. The all-electric house and a car in the driveway was their American Dream. For my generation, owning a car became a birthright. Today, it would be hard for most of us to live without a car. I have no idea what you'll do to get around or how you will heat your home. Oops!
We also pigged out on most of the fertile soil, the forests and their timber, and the oceans that teemed with fish before we scraped the seabed raw, dumped our poisonous wastes in the water, and turned it acid and barren. Hey, that ocean was an awesome place and it's too bad you can't know it like we did. There were bright coral reefs, vibrant runs of red salmon, ribbons of birds embroidering the shores, graceful shells, the solace and majesty of the wild sea...
Chip Ward, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded HEAL Utah and led several grassroots campaigns to make polluters accountable. He wrote "Canaries on the Rim" and "Hope's Horizon," was an administrator of the award-winning Salt Lake City Public Library, and then retired to the canyons of southern Utah. His latest work, just published, is "Dance, Don't Drive: Resilient Thinking for Turbulent Times." His essays can be read at chipwardessays.blogspot.com. He can be written at firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.