Growing Up With Our Disasters

I've been throwing around the term “political maturity” with some of my friends, and until recently, I had only a vague idea of what it meant.

Something like “a view of politics informed by the most recent difficulties our society has faced.” It means, quite simply, that each generation must gain that hard-to-define something known as experience, no less with its government, than in personal matters like relationships, school, or finances.

This week is the anniversary of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and I had a chance to reconsider this concept I had been bandying around in light of that disaster.

To try and get a grip on the issue, I went back to Exxon Valdez, thinking that in order to understand what could be a defining environmental moment for my generation, I should look at what a previous disasters had taught to others. I found a report titled “The Day the Water Died,” which chronicles the reaction of citizens from Alaska as they testified on the spill. I had no idea what to expect, but what I found did seem to resonate with the idea that society learns by experience and that my generation, like those before it, will take lessons from our man-made disasters. Listen to some of the words that came from 1989:


“The single good thing to come out of this mess is the increased awareness of the public to environmental issues, and I hope that we can now grasp the opportunity to use that power to finally achieve some good for all.” – Mike O'Meara, Pratt Museum, Homer

“Damn, we have a pretty good world, us old guys. What is the future generation going to have if we keep going like this?” – Joe Lawlor, Citizen, Homer

There are more quotes in there about the need for a change in priorities and eternal vigilance, and all the rest. And yet, we see that foresight and political will have limitations, and so we have things like the BP oil spill 20 years after Exxon-Valdez. And heck, other world problems have cropped up again as well. We've seen Fukushima, about 25 years after Chernobyl, and the last time we tangled with Libya, was, well wouldn't you know it, about 25 years ago.

Notice the cyclical nature of these problems, replaying themselves, as biologists would say, over GENERATIONAL time spans. The vigilance that was called for came and then went, and the stage was set again for new problems and missteps. Our generation is being called to weigh in on these issues again in a massive DO-OVER of some of the big errors of the 20th century.

As I mentioned, this generation has now seen Fukushima, BP, Libya, and perhaps (depending on how much you want to include) 9/11 as well.

All of these things are setting the agenda for young people to grow as politically-engaged citizens and perhaps testing the degree to which we can identify and out think the complex trends of world affairs.

The people who came before us lived through the Cold War and the birth of the environmental movement, and now we are facing the war on terror (not a hot war or a cold war, but a warm war, always sizzling), the social media revolution, and the maturation of the same environmental movement (Earth Day is now one of the largest secular holidays in the world).

Are we learning our lessons? Are we taking the experiences being presented to us and using it to formulate a more mature political outlook? I think the answer is a tentative “yes” and this in turn is a tentative testament to our political maturity.

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons

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Jordan Wolf

My training is partially in philosophy and I'm interested in democratic theory, but more practically, I like thinking about media sophistication, data in politics, and ways to curb partisanship.

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