The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Back to the Future
This fall, we remember three momentous events from 1957. The 50th anniversaries of at least two of them are being noted widely in the media.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik into orbit, and the space age began. Nine days before that, on September 25, US military forces were sent into Little Rock, Arkansas, to back up the federally ordered desegregation of a high school. And, on the very same day that Sputnik first circled the planet, Leave It to Beaver debuted on TV.
Many commentators are looking back to reflect on the importance of Little Rock and Sputnik. From our historical distance of a half century, the world of 1957 seems both foreign and oddly familiar. The cold war and racial tensions which shaped the events of that fall generally make sense to us, but they also make us aware of how much has changed. The upper-middle class suburban setting of Beaver seems a bit quaint, but we can still "suspend our disbelief" well enough to enjoy the storyline.
What seems more interesting to me, though, is that today's world would be incomprehensible to the folk of 1957. We can look back without too many problems, but their 50 year jump into the future would be mind-blowing. If, as in some B-grade science fiction movie, June and Ward Cleaver walked out of a TV set and into the US of 2007, they would not be able to cope with what they encountered.
Eventually, the Cleavers would be able to figure out many of the changes in technology. We've gone from Sputnik to an international -- US and Russian! -- space station, and the super-rich are booking seats for tourist flights to outer space. Slide rules have been replaced by calculators, and most of us have think hard to add and subtract in our heads. Jet planes fill the transportation niche that busses did in the 50s. Typewriters and carbon paper are gone; word processing software and photocopiers have taken their place.
The social impacts of technology would be far more difficult for them. Cell phones and email have created an always-connected world where communication around the planet is cheap and easy. Business and finance have been transformed by credit cards. Self-service transactions at the supermarket and gas station mean we never talk to a clerk. Big-box chain stores have supplanted the friendly neighborhood merchants of Mayfield. Computer games bring a hyperactive pacing that is utterly foreign to the bike-riding childhood of Wally and the Beaver, and DVDs at home mean that we rarely go to the movies. The folk of the 50s would feel overwhelmed and anonymous.
Even harder for them would be the reality of profound social changes. In the all-white world of the Cleaver family, even Little Rock's desegregation was unmentionable. The multicultural US of today -- with "majority minority" school districts, Spanish programming common on TV and radio, and Thai restaurants as a normal part of small-town life -- would shake the bedrock values and assumptions of their family. Outsourced jobs in a globalized economy have erased the secure careers that are so assumed by all the dads in the show. Add in the dramatic changes of the women's movement and gay rights, divorce and single-parent families, and the Cleavers would be hard-pressed to find a suburban street where they would feel at home.
I don't think that the characters of Leave It to Beaver could make sense out of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as leading presidential candidates. What is showing now in their prime-time TV slot would horrify them, and that's without getting into the "premium" cable channels. The US as an oil-importing nation, and China as a manufacturing powerhouse would be hard for them to grasp. They wouldn't know the word "environmental", and the very idea of global warming would be incomprehensible.
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Looking back to 1957 gives me some hope as I ponder the need for profound and rapid social change in the eco-justice cause.
Through the last 50 years, change has happened incrementally. There have been occasional big shocks, and countless small shifts. Bit by bit, we have created a radically different world. Without judging the changes as good or bad, the fact of change is inescapable -- in technology, business and economics, social relations and social values.
I have hope, then, that equally profound changes can happen in the next few decades. Technologies that are virtually unknown now will be woven into the fabric of society. International economic rules could bend commerce toward sustainability. Transformed social values can make today's norms seem obscene. Could conspicuous consumption become as offensive as the blatant segregation of the 50s, or smoking in an elevator?
Looking back half a century allows me to reject the pessimism of those who say that the changes that we need to make toward a just and sustainable society are too big and too hard. If we've made it from Little Rock and Leave It to Beaver to where we are now, then coming years can also bring a depth of change that would be hard for us to grasp.
Looking back also makes me get serious about working hard for intentional change. The transformations of the last 50 years didn't just happen. Impassioned constituencies planned carefully and strategically for civil rights, and struggled for causes that often seemed hopeless. The spread of new technologies has been guided by massive investment of government funds, whether in computer networks or Interstate highways.
Change is possible -- and it can happen in many different directions. If we want to see our society headed in a new direction with a lighter environmental impact and a broad commitment to justice, then we need to be very clear about the values that we hold dear. We need to identify the trends we want to reinforce, and the ones we want to hinder. We need to plan carefully for how we will start to advocate for the changes we want to see. We need to assess political, economic and cultural power, and make intentional decisions about how to wield our own power in significant ways. Religious institutions have often been important in defining values and in organizing communities. We need to reclaim and reinforce that role for churches and other faith communities.
In the face of the looming reality of climate change, 2050 is a target date for many policies. Within 43 years, we'll need to transform infrastructures, reformulate business, and implant different values. It is a daunting task, but not impossible -- if we work hard and with a clear focus.
May the astounding changes since 1957 -- the days of Little Rock, Sputnik and Leave It to Beaver --give us hope as we work into our future with passion and vision.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * Home Page: www.eco-justice.org
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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