In the formative days of these United States, an immigrant had sufficient freedom to test his abilities in the pursuit of a better physical and spiritual life than that which he had left behind. This vision of new possibilities was the embodiment of the American Dream: “If I can only get to America, I can become and have whatever I want.”
As a child I had a vague notion that it was the American Dream that made America truly great through unconditional caring for the well-being of others. But now I perceive a different reality, one in which we seldom live up to the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights—the founding concepts around which the American ideal is built.
Today, I see a nation of people rapidly losing their spiritual connection with the land, and I watch the delicate umbilicus of human morality being replaced by greed and materialism. I see banks and buildings of commerce command the skyline of cities, where churches were once the dominant features. And I watch as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and I’m told that, “It’s not personal. It’s business.”
Looking at our nation today, I see not a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but rather a mostly—but not totally—corporate/political machine composed of people concerned with their own, self-centered agendas. I see also a gridlocked government comprised largely—but not solely—of juvenile-minded, squabbling adults so bound in their own petty biases that they are further endangering the options for our children’s environmental heritage through all the generations to come.
Have we really become so disconnected from our feelings, from our sense of moral relationship with one another—especially our children—and with the Earth in general, that we can no longer see beyond the worship of money? Is our sense of morality based solely on the size of our profit margins?
I have wondered these things ever since I attended a meeting in Slovakia to help examine some major environmental problems. The meeting was one in which the Slovakian people asked for views from foreigners whom they believed to have greater experience with these problems and therefore a broader perspective than they themselves had.
Among the speakers was an American giving the Slovakian people a sales pitch for his product, a plastic with which to line landfills to prevent leakage of toxic wastes. As I listened, my feeling about his lack of interest in the well-being of the people became confirmed when someone asked him if his company had programs to educate the public about recycling waste. His reply was to the effect: Why would I do that? My business is built on the production of waste, and it needs more and more to grow. Increasing waste is how I make my money.
Here was the epitome of the “Ugly American,” that which I’ve seen condoned and encouraged by a number of political administrations. When I mentioned this to my Slovakian host, he said, “Don’t listen to him. I’m not.”
“I can’t help listening,” I replied, “he’s an American speaking English and he’s what I think the ‘American Dream’ has come to represent—individual profit at any cost, regardless of the expense to others.”
In another instance, a businessman on a television program discussed American investments in Siberia. The Siberians had asked American business people to help them, to believe in and care about them as people, and to invest in their communities over the long term. The American’s reply had the tenor: The people of Siberia have the human resource and the natural resource, but we have the financial resources, and we won’t invest anything until we’re sure we can make a profit in the short term. Ours is strictly a short-term view. If something good happens in the long term, that’s fine, but that’s not our concern.
Clearly the intent of the American investors in the timber of Siberia’s vast forests was to cut and run as they have done in the United States and are doing abroad wherever they can. Sadly, we’ve yet to learn that if we’re not one another’s keepers we become one another’s destroyers.
Is it too late to create a dream for a nation that honors people with real equality and justice? Is it too late to build a nation that is, in fact, of the people and is governed by the people for the people? Does monetary gain prevent us from seeing into the hearts and souls of people desperately in need of love, trust, and respect—none of which money can buy?
I ask these questions because we’re no longer just the “American people,” but rather part of a global society. I ask these questions because I’ve seen the technological innocence and the environmental/cultural vulnerability of the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe after forty years of isolation behind the communist wall of silence. I ask these questions because I know the technological savvy and greed of the West, and I see Western business poised to take advantage of the vulnerability of Central and Eastern Europe.
I believe that if we, as a nation, claim technical superiority, then we must also become one another’s keepers, investing in one another as human beings first and foremost and in the products of each others’ land and culture second. Being one another’s keepers means sharing our technology with other peoples—but at the same time informing those who would acquire it of the environmental and cultural costs of having it.
To illustrate, in eastern Slovakia I evaluated the condition of the native forest of Čergov, which is primarily European beech with an admixture of white fir. The native forest was being clear-cut rapidly and replaced with plantations of Norway spruce and such non-native species as larch and pine. The biological and economic errors of “scientific” forestry made in Germany, the United States, and Canada are all being repeated in the forest of Čergov and for the same reasons—short-sighted, immediate monetary gain.
Among the most graphic examples of the cost of technology involved in clear-cutting is the loss of topsoil. Within an hour after each thunderstorm, and there were several while I was in Čergov, all the streams and rivers fed by clear-cut slopes went from clear water to chocolate brown as the forest soil was washed to the sea.
Prior to importing the technology of clear cutting, the forest of Čergov was logged with horses. For centuries, careful horse logging led not only to a biologically sustainable native forest but also to the economic sustainability of the small mountain villages located in the upper valleys near the edge of the forest.
Now in the villages, the jobs once sustained by horse logging are gone like the topsoil. Instead of careful, selective logging with horses, which produced annual employment for the village economies, the forest has been clear-cut, leaving acres that do not produce jobs until plantations become of harvest age, some forty or more years hence. Along with this loss, the secondary jobs of milling logs into lumber have been moved out of the villages into the cities.
Today, because of uncritical acceptance of Western technology as a panacea for short-term economic problems, the people who once made their living from the forest must go to the cities to find work and the villages have lost—perhaps forever—part of their cultural heritage. The foregoing are but two of the costs incurred through the blind use of Western technology aimed solely at the acquisition of short-term profit.
In Slovakia, I was reminded of my early version of the American Dream and of the thin line I, as a visiting “expert” must walk. I can offer only the benefit of my knowledge and my experience of the consequences of decisions and actions, and this must be solely an unconditional gift of ideas, of possibilities. It’s for the local people to decide what works for them and what doesn’t and what price they’re willing to commit their children to pay later for our Western technology.
There must be no judgment of how the people use the ideas. There must be no “you should do this” or “you should do that.” Such an admonishment is strictly self-serving because each “should” has hidden within it a favorable stimulus for the guest’s ego, a financial benefit for the guest’s business, or both. Each “should” is thus a compromise with what is truly best for the people of the host country.
A guest I must be detached from the outcome of my visit because at times I need to tell my hosts things for the benefit of their children and grand children that they may not want to hear. After all, if I would live in a truly democratic world, I must be everyone’s keeper to the very best of my ability so that everyone can be mine. To me, this is the essence of the real American Dream.
Text © by Chris Maser 2011. All rights reserved.