A spring day

March 18, 2011

Although spring doesn’t officially start until next week, today was the first day the change of season made itself felt in northern New Jersey. Temperatures reached the upper 70’s (Fahrenheit) this afternoon, and the sky was blue. For the first time this year, I put a folding chair outside, and did some reading and writing while sitting under a tree. Also, a sure sign of something happening: flowers (crocuses) were seen to bloom near the road. Tomorrow, temperatures are supposed to drop back to normal for this time of year.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, tens of thousands of Japanese are missing after last week’s earthquake and tsunami, countless multitudes are homeless, and prospects for averting a catastrophic nuclear meltdown grow ever dimmer. It would be untrue to say that the thought of other people’s misfortune completely blights the simple joy of a spring day, or that it should. Nevertheless, it does have a sobering effect. I could wish that I were able to do more to help my fellow human beings upon whom these unspeakable calamities have descended. But part of growing old is learning to accept one’s natural limitations. The internet and other forms of instantaneous global communication present one with the illusion that the whole world is one’s immediate responsibility. I try to remind myself that my immediate responsibilities are far more circumscribed — commenting on students’ papers, singing at a funeral service this evening, sending out a résumé, making some progress on my translations, cooking supper. Tolstoy, in War and Peace, says somewhere that the way a society most effectively responds to a disaster (in the case of the novel, the disaster of the Napoleonic invasion) is when everyone pursues his own small, private interest and tries to get on as best he can with everyday life: the natural urge for survival, for the continuance of normal life, on the part of each man, woman, and child, when added together is what finally brings about the survival of the society as a whole.

This is not to say that people are not called upon to make sacrifices for the good of others. I have to think that those workers who are, at this very moment, on site at the Fukushima Dai-ni nuclear plant trying to bring electricity back on line there and get the cooling systems working again are the great, unsung heroes of the present day; they are doing more for the good of humanity than most of us will ever have the chance to do in our lifetimes; they should be rewarded with immediate retirement, full pensions, and full health benefits. They will need these things, especially the last-mentioned.

[Note: It seems that other people have had the same thought. Wei Hsien Wan sends a link to the following article: Tom Peck on the “Fukushima 50.”]

I have never been a great supporter of nuclear energy; the idea of producing electricity for twenty or forty years while generating radioactive wastes that remain deadly and must be hidden safely in the ground for ten thousand years has never seemed to me a reasonable exchange: will not our great-great grandchildren curse us when they inherit from us a poisoned planet? If reason had as much force as vested economic interest in the halls of American government, we should see laws passed requiring solar paneling on every public building and every new private house by the end of the decade. Instead, we will be lucky if we can keep such environmental laws as we still have; our tea-partying House of Representatives — or, more exactly, the House Energy and Commerce Committee — voted the other day to remove the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases (see Bob Berwyn, “House vote on EPA bill ‘an insult to all Americans'”; also, a Scientific American article on the same subject).

Someone might object that I am being inconsistent here. First I extol the virtue of free enterprise in the pursuit of private good; then I urge the continuance of regulations that restrict such economic pursuits. Is this not a contradiction?

I do not think so. Tolstoy, when he talked about the myriad personal decisions that keep a country’s economic life going, nowhere denied that government has a legitimate role in regulating commerce. Nor did Adam Smith, whom Tolstoy may be echoing when he discusses these matters. The libertarian view that government is always the problem, that “choice” is always good, and choice is facilitated by removing all restrictions to private gain, whatever the circumstances under which gain may be acquired, has always seemed to me to be mere madness. Where there is a perceived threat to public safety and welfare, governments have the responsibility to keep economic activity within certain bounds, allowing certain things and prohibiting certain other things. The real question is, whether a continued increase in atmospheric CO2 levels represents a genuine threat to public safety and welfare. Most of the scientific community believes it does; the Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have unanimously asserted that it does not. That is, by their vote, they have declared that global warming is not something to worry about. For my part, I trust the views of the scientific community on this question more than I trust the eco-sceptics in Congress, just as I trust the views of the medical community more than those of big business or the advertising industry when it comes to matters of personal health.

May the merciful and loving God, who holds all creation in his hands, help and protect the people of Japan at this time of great danger and need. And may he grant the people of my own nation to wake up from their dogmatic slumbers, whether of the Right or of the Left, and start caring about the common good.

One Response to “A spring day”

  1. Cristian C. Says:

    Wonderful essay, thank you.

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