During a meeting with my equivalent in Australia a few years ago, the two of us – government commissioners working on environment and development issues – reached a conclusion over a bottle of wine which provides a framework for my life report: he had grown up in Australia, I had grown up in the United States, both rich countries and the latter probably the richest country the world has ever seen. He had been too young for the Korean War, by a year or two; I had been too old for the Vietnam War by a year or two (I had exemptions as a student, as a married man and then as a father, which men a bit younger were not granted). We have been living the best lives in the history of humanity, defined by that gap of three or four years which kept us out of the horrible experience of war.
Among the benefits of that wealth has been a life expectancy in good health probably ten years longer than our parents, and indeed, I feel it. I have just published a book, my first if I except my doctorate in 1972, which wasn’t published, and find myself at 71 still planning career changes, career activities. This is in part possible because I spent my adult life as a college teacher in the Humanities, doing something I would have done for free but which, in contrast to the lot of teachers in the primary and secondary systems, left me with a flexible schedule even if my workload was comparable to theirs.
This flexibility allowed me to get involved, for free, in the environmental movement, starting when it started, in the 1960s. Even with a 70-hour a week teaching load at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was able to get involved, with others, in numerous aspects of the movement: population growth, energy development, urban planning, nature conservation – and even present an exhibit for the first Earth Day in 1970: I showed the different impacts of reusable bottles, one-use bottles, and aluminum cans. Twenty years later, I was the high government official in Quebec responsible for attempts to deal with the phenomenal growth in the two less environmentally friendly options, and twenty years later – today – the challenge remains about the same, but with much greater numbers all around.
I’ve reached a point where I’m convinced that we’re going to hit the wall that those of us in the environmental movement have been trying to get us to avoid for over forty years. In a note to a former teaching colleague just this morning, I sketched my portrait of the present situation: “the permanent recession in the rich countries is on its way (I think, humbly admitting my ignorance of things financial and economic!), but may be complemented – if we’re lucky – by a decision by China to mend its ways before it’s too late for them (they’ll be adapting anyway to the loss of their markets in the rich countries).”
I’ve been concerned for a long time about our social and environmental problems, and had the wonderful luxury of being able to deal with these other concerns even while I was deeply involved in my formal career as a teacher. There I lead seminars based on great books, and had the enormous pleasure of helping young minds develop skills with reading and the expression of ideas. For a long time, my students didn’t even know that I was active, parallel and full-time, in attempts to deal with planetary crises, on whatever level – I was able, with them, to experience one of the wonderful aspects of human existence, the chance for those of us who are lucky enough to be growing up in rich countries to lead “the examined life”, to quote my life-long mentor Socrates.
I have also had the fundamental human experience of being a father of two children and the partner of their mother for close to fifty years. Here again, the experience involved multi-tasking, the two children being born while I was a full-time student at the University of Chicago and a part-time teacher in a college in the area. It somehow all worked out, with a curious but absolutely pertinent net result, completely unexpected: our children have had no children. For someone for whom the demographic explosion of humanity, going from two billion to seven billion (this week!) in my own lifetime represents the fundamental element in the alarming portrait of today’s world, which I sketched above – and the prior decision to limit our family to two children was itself an attempt to contribute to this result, up front.
I’ve thus had a full family life, minus grandchildren, an extremely rewarding career as a teacher, mostly at two colleges in the United States and in Canada, and a rewarding experience as a volunteer which involved two different high points when my success in the volunteer work lead to my taking on responsibilities – well-paid! – at the top administrative levels of the provincial government in Quebec, in 1990-1991 and in 2007-2008. In fact, the second stint had me assistant auditor general, verifying the work of those in government itself, including my successors.
And yet I keep coming back to that conversation with my correspondent in Australia, that I’m lucky to have had the luxury of this life, lucky to have had the luxury of being able to lead a life both as an activist, as a father and husband and member of my community, and as a philosopher. I’m appalled by what has been happening to billions of people during my lifetime. And, in good health, I’m now involved in trying to understand and even contribute to what may be a momentous decision, when the Chinese government comes to terms with what it already knows: it can’t follow the path we’ve traced since World War II, and it has very little time (within a reasonable life expectancy for me) to make the change in its development path.
I’ll perhaps have lived, with a few others, the best life in the history of humanity, and even lived to see how humanity will have to come to terms with the excesses involved in that life – the “best life” only when looked at in abstraction from what has been going on, the destruction of many of the ecosystems which support our civilisation, poverty for billions and a return to reality and a much different and diminished life to come for those who follow, by comparison with the unsustainable mode that’s marked the seven decades I’ve seen.
That’s something of a life report!