A Sort of Apology

An open letter to our great-great-grandchildren on the occasion of the passing new year

Illustration by Bob AulAt the end of the 19th century, American Edward Bellamy wrote Looking Backward, the novel that launched a thousand socialist clubs with its depiction of a well-ordered future in which adults go to college and kids work like slaves. That hasn't happened yet—though Proposition 13 comes damn close—and one can't help wondering if you, our children, are as lucky as we have been. We're so lucky—aside from the Holocaust thing, of course, and a few other moments that have marked this as the Century of Murder —that we've decided to trash the planet in celebration. Here in Orange County (is it still called that? Have you ever held an orange?), we're doing our best to think globally and wreck locally. At the end of the century, beach closures due to pollution are at an all-time high; as I write this, officials in what we call Huntington Beach (but which you might call Sector 7 or something) have virtually surrendered in their effort to explain one mysterious toxic leak that has kept the beaches in that city closed for weeks—and perhaps for months more. I'm figuring that by the time you get this, beaches are closed all the time, and the idea that someone would swim in the Pacific is as alluring as the prospect of being jumped into a motorcycle gang that pees on new members. Of course, you probably can't get to the beach, so I don't really need to apologize: the roads have undoubtedly turned into something like used-car lots—unless you're using flying cars, in which case the skies are dark with your futuristic vehicles. No, we didn't spend a lot of time thinking about you, I'm afraid. If we had, we might have designed a mass-transit system that worked for everybody every day; instead, we argued for years about building a multibillion-dollar airport that would serve a very few on those rare occasions when they decided what they really needed was to jet to Auckland. At press time, I still can't tell you what happened with that. Given that we are fascinated with the air-travel needs of a few, most of us spend much of our otherwise-free time in traffic jams; we say we love our families, but many of us know far better the snug embrace of a car seat. By the time you get this, you'll have high school students writing reports on how much land we sacrificed to cars. Like the sheep of the previous century that destroyed pastureland, our cars eat up vast tracts of land for parking lots, streets, driveways, garages and freeways. Oh, and toll roads. Did those things ever pay for themselves? Or did they turn out to be one more way—in addition to the closed beaches and the lack of transit options—in which we screwed you out of your inheritance? Far from easing traffic congestion, the toll roads simply opened formerly isolated land to new development; the older roads became thicker with cars; our sewage systems burst asunder and fouled our beaches; the air became pink. No, we don't think much about you. If we did, we might have worked aggressively to bring the county's booming Latino population into the mainstream; instead, we wait for the invisible hand of the marketplace—or, barring that, the cops—to do the job for us. We hated taxes so much, you see, that we failed to understand that dirty water, polluted air, crawling traffic and uneducated, unhealthy kids are a kind of tax; perhaps even now you're reaping the harvest of that decision. But that's your problem. A bumper sticker popular a few years ago put it this way: WE'RE SPENDING OUR CHILDREN'S INHERITANCE. It was supposed to be a joke. I'm guessing you're not laughing—also not available at press time.

 
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