Some ideas for President Obama's call to sacrifice
In his inaugural address, President Obama called on U.S. citizens to engage in the world in responsible ways, to lead by example, to sacrifice, argue professors Peter Cannavo and Karen Litfin. They offer a few ideas for how America can respond.
Special to The Times
"TO those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect."
These words by President Barack Obama marked a momentous change from his predecessor, who asked little of most of us, other than to shop, endure long lines at airports and cheer on those who volunteered to fight our wars. From reducing our dependence on fossil fuels to cutting parts of the federal budget to make room for public investments, Obama has repeatedly called upon us to sacrifice. His inaugural invoked the example of "men and women [who] struggled and sacrificed." Yet, is sacrifice anathema to the American Dream and to a nation already reeling from recession?
The economic downturn seemingly defines the present context, but a larger perspective can better illuminate the situation. The recession, Obama said, is "a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." The economic meltdown highlights the same lesson presented by even more thorny issues like climate change and peak oil: We now live in an era of planetary interdependence.
Globally speaking, the United States and other industrialized nations are the rich and powerful. Millions of people the world over make our gadgets, sew our clothes, and grow our coffee. America's military receives more funds than the next 40 countries' militaries combined. With less than 5 percent of the world's population, the U.S. consumes over 20 percent of its oil and emits roughly the same proportion of its greenhouse gases. Yet we've abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, despite its pitifully minimal requirements.
The actions of the rich and powerful have far-flung consequences. Yet even the privileged are not immune to these consequences, as the financial crisis shows. And the consequences are not just economic. The same orgy of spending and consumption that contributed to our economic mess also jeopardizes global security, enriches authoritarian regimes and ruins our environment. As Obama put it, "Each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet."
Given global interdependence and our lopsided power and consumption, we face a serious question: Can the 80 percent of humanity living in developing countries ever hope to live the American dream as we have known it? The disturbing, simple, and clear answer is: No.
What, then, of sacrifice, a complex, ambiguous term conjuring up everything from the bloody altar to the noblest selflessness? Its Latin roots sacre (sacred) and facere (to make) point to its larger meaning: to make sacred by offering. In its higher expressions, sacrifice is not about ritual brutality, but about acting beyond mere self-interest.
In his inaugural, Obama noted that Americans have a robust history of sacrifice: "Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the fainthearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame."
Indeed, during times of war we have energetically sacrificed, in combat and on the home front, to defend not only our own country but other nations as well.
But we do not need war to inspire sacrifice. In John F. Kennedy's inaugural, a famous call to service inspired generations of Peace Corps and VISTA workers. More often, as Obama pointed out, sacrifice is a daily, more mundane experience, taken on by "men and women obscure in their labor." Through sacrifice, whether in moments of historic challenge or in everyday efforts to provide for one's family, many Americans have experienced their greatest sense of connectedness, community and altruism, even their deepest fulfillment and joy: "There is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task."
With the inauguration of President Obama, we can again embrace a positive vision of sacrifice. "We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." In other words, we need to re-envision the American Dream, in "recognition ... that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task."
Now all of us, the president included, must follow through on this soaring rhetoric. Even as we rebuild our economy and help those who have lost houses and jobs, we must cultivate a way of life that recognizes our planetary interdependence. In terms of policy, this means more than funding renewable energy and green buildings. The federal government must use its leverage with automakers to promote a fundamental shift toward carbon-free vehicles. Federal infrastructure initiatives must focus on mass transit and reviving inner cities and older suburbs rather than on new roads and more sprawl. Farm policy must support local, sustainable agriculture rather than energy-intensive agribusinesses.
We must share our wealth and technological expertise with developing countries so that they can overcome poverty and leapfrog to a green industrial revolution. Finally, our nation as a whole must show courage, wisdom, and moral commitment by actively phasing out our fossil-fuel consumption, through a fair and progressive carbon tax that does not unduly burden middle- and lower-income families.
These policies will actually boost our economy through green investment. More fundamentally, they represent an ambitious, indeed challenging shift from a way of life that will only ruin us in the end. This is an ennobling vision, one that "sets aside childish things" and demands open-eyed, even joyful sacrifice — sacrifice we can believe in.Peter Cannavo, left, is assistant professor of government at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. Karen Litfin is associate professor of political science at the University of Washington.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.