The clock ticks, time passes, and the earth and all of its inhabitants move closer to dangerous boundaries we can dimly discern but cannot see clearly.

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Robert Engelman
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Dear Lucy,

Dear Lucy,

If you wanted to be born at all, you had to be born at this time.

That was the hook of a song I started to write not long after your birth, feeling joyous about that event but ambiguous—or downright bad—about the world you were inheriting. The song (I never got beyond the hook) was an effort to come to terms with my conflicting feelings about being a father to a newborn human being in 1987. You’re turning 31 in a few weeks, but as I move into the category of “old” I might find the time and inspiration I need to finish that song. It could apply, of course, to any newborn in our extended family. And “extended” can be as big as all outdoors when applied to “family.”

In the meantime, I can bask for a moment in gratitude for the blessings that you and I have both received in the last three decades. We are clearly among the fortunate ones on earth, privileged. We’ve had nutritious food, durable shelter, and all the creature comforts and pleasures anyone could reasonably ask for. So have so many other people that it can be hard to call attention to a predicament we’re all of us, all living beings, in together. Yet still the clock ticks, time passes, and the earth and all of its human and non-human inhabitants move closer to dangerous boundaries we can dimly discern but cannot see clearly. These are boundaries placed by nature, human and non-, on the endurance of civilization and the habitability of the planet. They are boundaries of climate change—how warm will the planet become, how acidic the oceans, how brutal the extremes of weather—and just as hazardously boundaries of the availability of fresh water, of the fertility of soils, of the extent of intact forests, of the biological and genetic integrity of life itself. And, in conjunction with all these, the ability of humans everywhere to tolerate their difference, to mediate their disputes, and to live and survive on a changing planet together in peace and mutual compassion, trust and understanding.

As you are aware every day, very many people on the planet have been much less fortunate than we are. They have lived and increasingly are living in much closer and more painful engagement with the way the earth is changing. Many of these changes—especially climate change—are due in greater measure to the way you and I have lived than the way they have lived, they who are most affected, who are most forced to adapt or suffer. There is a moral and ethical dimension to this mix of privilege, lifestyle, behavior, human numbers, suffering and forced adaptation that you and I both wrestle with. In recent years I’m both proud and sheepish about the fact that you are wrestling with it more often and intensely than I am. I take some comfort in the fact that I’ve spent several decades of my career working on many of these issues, and if even a milligram of weight on the right side of the balance has resulted from my work, at least it hasn’t been a waste of time and resources.

On your side, my comfort comes not just from your own passion to make a contribution to the world. I’m happy to know you are grateful to have joined humanity, despite its flaws and its history of horrible actions towards itself and towards this achingly beautiful planet. I know you are committed to contributing to positive change and yet also resilient enough to manage difficult times ahead that it’s too late to prevent. You understand that neither prevention of potential change nor adaptation to certain change should be pursued to the exclusion of the other. While I’m less optimistic than many about the long-term prospects for humanity and nature, I’m at least at relative peace about life itself and this mystery, a universe bursting with planets and almost certainly life. A big part of my sense of peace, to understate the case, is you and Daniel. And I am constantly reminded that your education and experience have taught you to make the best of the world and the universe as they are, and to consider always those who need the most consideration. I love the fact that you do not demand or expect for yourself comfort, security or monetary wealth in a world as chaotic and uncertain—but still in so many ways wonderful—as this one in which you had to be born, if you wanted to be born at all.

Much love to you both,

Dad

 

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