A recent article, the title of which is unfortunately lost to me right now, explained that the moratorium on forgiveness is over. We cannot continue to blame the past for climate change. In particular, we cannot continue to blame our predecessors. The greatest generation-a phrase used here a little hesitantly-helped to industrialize the country with unprecedented efficiency. They provided for us more food than silos could store. They were there when the doors to China opened and they helped to accelerate the waxing age of plastics. They built homes with glass and steel and stone which were meant to be closer to the natural world. They also indirectly encouraged pollution, over consumption, and consumer culture. In good ways and bad, we grew up in their world.
And when they left to take that final phone call…they skipped out on the bill.
My plan was to calculate roughly the severity of my inherited carbon footprint. I thought of my grandfather and the world he lived in. The world I inherited, the one I am living in now, is marked all over with his name. My father told a younger me the inflated stories; my grandfather Bernard could climb a tree like a black bear. He would race his boyscout troop up mountains and win. He hunted rattlesnake. He ate rattlesnake. Bernard only wore shoes in the winter.
I don’t know how cigarettes affect the environment . Two packs of Pall Malls a day were his own contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. My grandfather’s livelihood was large scale construction. The carbon footprint increases. The V8 Jeep wagon that he drove was hard on gas. The engine would still run today, but would have been sequestered during the days of “cash for clunkers.” Even so he walked over a mile to buy milk from a local farm until his health prevented it. He raised and butchered pigs. He kept a garden. He re-purposed and built his own. He consumed reasonably. The carbon footprint decreases. Before lifestyles were green or sustainable they were just lifestyles; and through retrospect his good habits offset his bad.
But Bernard also joined the burgeoning Air Force for free false teeth. He went to a war, survived it, and then stopped talking about it. When he saw Vesuvius erupt from the air, it may or may not have been accelerated by a few of his squad’s errant munitions.
Thirty years later an errant Pall Mall started a forest fire in Central Pennsylvania. The acreage burned is unknown, but Bernard took the blame. It’s in these parts of his chronology where his carbon footprint increases the most.
The point in categorizing those passed endeavors is that we all have inherited debts, positive ones which we renew and negative ones we reconcile. We can’t begrudge the past for existing. By acknowledging the debts we’re born into we can better appreciate the ones we leave.
When Bernard died in the early 1990s I found a cigar box in his desk drawer. In it were twenty–thirty rattlesnake rattles. I wanted to run through town shouting that the stories were true; all of them. They were. That also means that the rest of the stories were true. The forest fires and the gas guzzlers-the realness of his life lived-were the same as the homestead and the fresh bacon.
If we were to calculate the dividends for which we are accountable the results would be hopeless; and so it behooves us to forgive and to move forward with reverence. Surely enough we’ll need forgiveness for our more conspicuous excesses. Can we minimize those personal transgressions? The goal then, I suppose, is to foster lifestyles that we will be thanked for once we skip out on the bill. It is how we move forward that matters.