When Tom Wolfe characterized the '70s as the "Me Decade," he was on to something. It was during those years that self-indulgence, riding a wave beginning in the '60s, began its transformation from undesirable behavior to national religion on a trajectory still waiting to reach its apogee.
For many of us whose only experience with deprivation is having the waiter at our favorite restaurant tell us the catch of the day is sold out, the word "sacrifice" carries quaint connotations associated with persons we deem religious fanatics or swooning Victorian heroines encountered in 19th-century novels. This explains, at least in part, why "change" has become the mantra of this year's presidential election and why, while we may hear a president use the "s" word, it is unlikely to ever pass a candidate's lips. Sacrifice is never going to make it onto those placards we see waving behind any politician who wants our vote.
And that's too bad, because real change, the kind that scares the crap out of most Americans, is not something to be ordered up like a Big Mac with fries. Any significant change--the kind causing a seismic shift in the national agenda--will require sacrifice. At the very least, it will demand sacrificing our comfort zone for the unknown and uncharted. Only candidates Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul offer the possibility for this kind of change, and we all know how well they've fared this primary season.
Presented the chance for a significant overhaul of broken systems and institutions, Americans are willing to go only so far. For example, though access to health care is couched in uncertainty or is outright unavailable for an embarrassingly large percentage of the nation's population, we skitter around with half-assed measures while politicians offer ridiculous solutions such as requiring people to purchase health insurance--a "fix" guaranteed to get the insurance lobby applauding.
But if by some miracle, tomorrow we woke to the news that all Americans had access to quality health care; that the days of for-profit medicine were over; that health decisions were going to be made solely between doctors and patients; and that the pharmaceutical industry was no longer getting a free ride from the Food and Drug Administration, it's likely the news would not be universally met with approval and relief. And when people learned that the price tag would be a substantial tax increase, it's certain that a sizable portion of the population would prefer to return to a broken system, resume their grumbling and keep their taxes among the lowest (if not the lowest) of any industrialized Western nation. Personal financial sacrifice for the public good is simply not part of the American ethos.
The challenge of climate change, if it is to be met in any meaningful fashion, also requires personal sacrifice translated into substantive actions. And it is not a question of whether we can meet the challenge, but whether we have the will to do so. Unlike wars or economic depressions, where the threat is real and immediate, climate change is largely an abstraction (at least so far), thus it is more difficult to mobilize people to make the necessary lifestyle adjustments.
Suppose--and I know it's farfetched--the federal government decided to get serious about controlling emissions from automobiles while at the same time ending our dependence on oil from the Middle East. To that end, in cooperation with the states, it created an agency responsible for reinventing the way we get around. And suppose this agency had real deadlines, say, one year to get people out of their cars, or nine months to build mass-transit systems that combined the latest green technology while getting people where they needed to go, or six months to resurrect a national train system coupled with local trains, buses and light rail that connected cities to towns, towns to villages and villages to the most remote hamlet. And, finally, suppose this agency's mandate was to ensure that within two years of its inception, the greatest icon of American mobility--the automobile--would be obsolete. Talk about sacrifice.
While voters and candidates drone on endlessly about change, the reality of change is far more daunting than the average American is willing to accept. It's not like we have a national fairy godmother to sweep over the nation, sprinkle a magic potion on us as we sleep and then find us awakening to a transformed nation where the economy is robust, all our energy sources are clean and renewable, and we all live happily ever after.
Before we can have meaningful change, we have to first recognize the necessity of personal sacrifice. One thing is certain: The generation chanting the change mantra the loudest is the same one least likely to give up its habits of self-indulgence. And that's the one thing that has to change, or the rest will indeed be a fairy tale.