State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


“We All Cherish Our Children’s Future. And We Are All Mortal.”

This has been an intense week. Even here by the beach in Long Island, the air is so thick you could slice it, and the electric grid is straining to meet our demand for cooling. Donald Trump is pretending he didn’t send veiled death threats to Hillary Clinton and trying to walk away his assertion that President Obama started ISIS. In my personal life, we buried my 83-year-old mother, a life force who went by the name Shirley, a woman of her time and before her time. When you lose a parent, I now know you enter a time of tremendous reflection and introspection. I rarely share my private life in any public sphere, but I feel compelled to relate my mother’s life to her American story and to my great pride in being an American.

This is a great country. It is far from perfect, but make no mistake, we need not “make America great again”—it is great. I am astonished that Trump’s antipatriotic rants find any support at all, but I remain confident that in the end the American people will reject him. I simply believe that America is too good to do this. Again, not perfect, but too good. My mother’s story, like her family’s story and my own, is nothing less than the classic American dream. All four of my grandparents came to America in the first quarter of the 20th century from Russia and what was then Poland.

My mother and father’s family have greatly benefited from my grandparents’ decision to come to this country. We benefit every day. In my current work I travel all over the world and see how lucky we are to be here. Yes, we have a great deal of work to do. I am on the board of an organization called Homes for the Homeless here in New York City and the persistence of poverty and racism in this country is real. We have a responsibility to our community that we are not meeting. We are an aging nation and we already face challenges addressing those needs. And of course we need to figure out a way to grow economically without destroying the planet.

But America, for all its imperfections, draws its strength from the diversity and energy of its people. During my mother’s Shiva observance (a Jewish mourning ritual), my brother Robby was looking through her papers and found an article from a June 22,1962, edition of the New York World-Telegram and Sun. It describes hundreds of mothers with their children marching in front of the old Board of Education building in Brooklyn protesting for more classroom space for their children. My mother is in the lower left corner of one of the photos in the piece on the demonstration, wearing pearls and very fashionable white cat-style sunglasses. The president of the Parents’ Association of my elementary school (PS 236) was not impressed with the reaction of the bureaucrats at the Board, and observed that “even though 200-400 new houses would be occupied by the end of this summer, the [Board official]…would like to wish them away.”

You didn’t mess with the mothers of Brooklyn school kids in 1962, and you’d be foolish to try in 2016. And my mother and the other folks demonstrating that day got what they wanted and didn’t end up imprisoned in some remote Gulag for daring to take on the authorities. The small donations for President Obama’s 2008 campaign, the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, and, yes, today’s Trump campaign are part of the modern version of the mass movements of the past. Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, and the Tea Party movement are all part of the same rich American tradition of mass grassroots participation that remains at the core of what continues to make America great. (Again—America is great, not perfect.)

And America has contributed to the creation of a global economy that all of us benefit from. It too has many flaws, but the technology and production processes that caused the global economy have made it possible to envision a sustainable world without poverty. The oil embargo of 1973-1974 made us hunger for independence from foreign oil. The end of labor-intensive mass production factories in the industrial northeast helped build support for trade policies that might bring jobs back to America. But we are nostalgic for a time that will never come back and for an economy that will never be “independent.” Look at my home city: After World War II, the biggest business in New York City was clothing manufacturing. The High Line was a freight train that moved raw materials and products to and from the docks on the west side of Manhattan. Today the docks are gone, the train is gone, and the factories are gone. They’ve been replaced by one of the most innovative parks in the world, a super-fashionable neighborhood, and thriving 21st century businesses in software, the arts, design, education, health care, communications and media. It was a painful process, but the new economy has replaced the old one.

My mother saw the world transformed before her very eyes. She remained open to learning about that new world. Over this past week I have thought about her life and the lives of the women of her generation. They were deeply wounded by sexism, and many were never able to reach their full potential. I’ve thought a great deal about American values and the universality of the human experience: How all over the world children are burying their parents, and reflecting on who their parents’ really were and how they lived. How family, friendship, love and loyalty are enduring and universal human values, and how much we need to ensure the maintenance of the political and economic stability that enables those values to endure. America is great because we have managed somehow to build that stability. But there is never a guarantee that what we have built in America will continue.

I know that the parents of some public school children today might receive harsher treatment in a protest rally than my mother did (although probably not in New York City, with its diverse and professional NYPD). But the Trump campaign seems to have encouraged some of the authoritarian and racists parts of our society. As a student of American politics, I am seeing something in this election I have never seen before and it scares me.

It is very important that our politics reflect the universality of human experience as well as the distinctiveness of this place we call America. John F. Kennedyunderstood this when he gave his famous speech at American University less than a year after my mother and her friend’s picketed 110 Livingston Street, the home of New York’s Board of Education. JFK urged Americans to rethink our view of our enemies in the communist Soviet Union. He reminded us that fundamentally, we are all the same. Certainly there is evil in the world and we must be vigilant and fight it. But, as always, it comes down to this:

“…our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

That is what my mother taught me, and reflecting back on the past week it is what, in some way, most mothers teach their children as well. Let’s treasure our common values and distinctiveness and make a world safe for both.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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