At a neighbourhood cocktail-party recently, I was doing my usual thing—wandering casually from group to group, wine glass in hand, smiling and nodding, overhearing and eavesdropping, trying not to engage directly— biding my time until it was time to go.
My wife, who works a room like the most polished politician, understands this about me, and seems not to worry about leaving me to my own devices.
I was brought up short, however, when one fellow—an acquaintance more than a friend, but pleasant enough—pointed at me as I approached the small cluster of folks he was with.
“Here he is,” he said, “the guy I was just talking about.” Draping one arm over my shoulders, he drew me into the circle.
“Oh, oh,” I joshed. “This can’t be good.” They were all smiling, though, so I raised my glass as I nodded hello.
“I was just telling everybody that I’m a regular reader of your blog,” the fellow said. “Good stuff! Really enjoy the articles.”
“Good, good,” I replied, nodding, waiting for the But…
“But,” he said, “I’m curious about one thing.”
“And that is?” I asked, casting an eye to see if I could locate my wife. This was exactly what I try to avoid.
He dropped his arm from my shoulder to reach for a canape on the tray being passed by one of our hosts. Shoving it into his mouth, he said, “I don’t know how you can be such a Pollyanna optimist about things. So much of your stuff is about the end of the world, about how we’re all going to die, about the mess we’re leaving for our kids. And yet, you come across as confident that things are going to change.”
I shifted slightly away so he couldn’t drop his arm on me again. Everyone was still smiling, but expectantly now, wondering, I suppose, how I might respond.
“Well,” I said, shrugging, “we are going to die. Nobody disputes that, right? And I think we are making a mess of the planet, which may not affect us in the time we have left, but will surely have an impact on our kids and grandkids. But you’re right, I don’t think it’s too late to do something about it. Not quite yet.”
I gestured to the group, hoping to elicit a response. “What do you guys think?” A woman across from me opened her mouth, but not quickly enough.
“I don’t think anything we do makes one iota of difference to the planet,” my erstwhile friend said. “You think blue boxes are going to solve the problem? Most of that stuff ends up in landfills, so what’s the point? You think changing your personal carbon footprint, whatever that means, is going to help the planet while billions of people in China and India are spewing pollution? Please!”
We waited for him to go on. “Here’s my theory,” he said. “Every one of us was born into this world.” He paused for a swallow of his drink. None of us could question his theory to that point.
“We didn’t make that world,” he continued. “We got what we got. Our parents called themselves the greatest generation. They did the best they could with the world they inherited, and now we have to do the same. Am I right?”
“I don’t know,” I said, gesturing again to the group. “What do you guys think?”
But the fellow was on a roll. And I must concede, no one seemed inclined to step in. He was compelling—even if (in my opinion, at least) a tad pompous. I reminded myself that he was a loyal reader of this blog, and took another sip of wine.
“And we are doing the best we can,” he said. “Nobody I know goes out and deliberately befouls the planet. Hell, right in this neighbourhood we’ve got a group that’s adopted a stretch of county road so we can clean up the trash and litter.”
I couldn’t restrain myself. “Where does the trash and litter come from?”
People’s eyes were shifting back and forth between us now, as if courtside. And I don’t even like tennis.
“From idiots who don’t know any better,” he said. “My point is that, for every ten of them, there’s only one of us who cares. We’re outgunned.”
“What do you guys think?” I asked again, facing the group.
The same woman said, “I think there’s…”
“Excuse me, Marilyn,” the fellow interrupted. “Sorry to butt in. The thing is, no matter how many of us try to do the right thing, it’s not going to work. There’s too many of them, the ones causing the problems.”
“Problems like the great plastic patch of trash in the Pacific?” I said. “I’m told it’s larger than the state of Texas.”
“Yeah, that’s a big one,” he said, waving his glass.
“Or the wildfires in California and Australia?” I said. “Or the melting of the polar ice caps, the rising sea levels, the increase in global temperatures? Problems like that?”
“All of those,” he said. “You think we’re going to solve them in our lifetimes?”
“Maybe not in our lifetimes,” Marilyn said, quicker off the mark this time. “But we could at least make a concerted effort. Are you saying we should do nothing?”
“No, no, that’s not what I’m saying,” the fellow protested. “I’m just saying we got what we got. We didn’t ask for it, we just got it. There’s five billion people on the planet, or whatever, and the planet can’t sustain that. Not forever. All we can do is what we can do.”
No one could dispute that last statement. The question, though, is whether we will do what we can do.
“So, here’s the question then,” Marilyn persisted, on her own roll now. “Will we do whatever we can do? Or will we just bury our heads in the sand?”
The fellow’s wife, drawn by the sound of his voice, was at his elbow now, smiling brightly. “George, there’s someone over here I want you to meet.”
He smiled down at her. “Okay,” he said, “but let me say one last thing first. Everybody knows we got problems, nobody’s arguing that. My point is, there’s nothing we can do about them that’s going to make any difference to our kids and grandkids. It’ll be up to them to deal with the world they live in, just like we had to.”
“So, you’re saying it is what it is?” I asked.
He nodded emphatically, setting his empty glass on a table. “Exactly! It is what it is! Always has been, always will be.” And with a cheery smile, he allowed himself to be escorted away by his wife.
“Always will be?” Marilyn said. “I wonder.”
As I nodded goodbyes and wandered off in search of my own wife, I wondered, too. We know how it’s been; we know how it is right now. Is this how it always will be?
What do you guys think?