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Reinvent ourselves!

Before it ended in the late 1800s, the American frontier gave freedom to the human will. If you didn’t like the life you were living, you came to the frontier and reinvented yourself. The frontier forged a vibrant American spirit based upon opportunity.As the frontier era came to an end, De Tocqueville wrote: “It is new in the history of society to see a great people turn a calm and scrutinizing eye upon itself.” Today we stand on another frontier where that same scrutiny is essential for reinventing ourselves as human beings.The new world on our horizon is evolving from an old world defined by boundless consumerism pushing up against natural carrying capacity. The frontier we’re facing today is defined by the obsolescence of past beliefs.Newsweek reported recently that physical effort is not a bane, but a boon to our lives. A few generations ago, labor-saving devices were cheered for liberating us from perspiration. Born were the couch potato and the TV remote control. Obesity and ill health followed, culminating in prohibitive health-care costs. The “no sweat” society was a failure.Science is now encouraging us to get off our duffs and do something physical, even if it just means pacing the floor while we’re on the phone. Forget the ease and indolence bred by technology. Science is telling us to work our bodies for benefit of body and mind.Personal health is intertwined with global health, which demands that we repudiate our materialistic Manifest Destiny. The cornucopian credo of capitalism upon which our society has grown into a powerhouse of prosperity is under assault because it’s killing the natural world and us along with it.We’re not going to shop our way out of this one by ignoring the limits imposed by global climate, species extinctions, population and pollution. We’re called upon instead to recognize the pending crises and our role in them.Yet, who among us will accept the responsibility? Who among us will dare to challenge the mantra of growth-at-any-cost, convenience-at-all-costs? As the world changes, we must change with it, so it’s up to each of us to cast that “calm and scrutinizing eye” at ourselves.We need a cultural apostasy that debunks the mythology of redemptive technology. We’ve been so reliant on machines that we’ve become like them – automatons gnawing away at the natural systems that underpin the web of life.Efficiency is not the quick fix we hope for because there is no quick fix in reversing climate change. Our salvation will not be found in fabricating efficient implements to better consume energy and disperse carbon. The solution is doing without so many implements in the first place.Curtailing the use of natural resources should be our No. 1 priority, and it should be done with urgency. Look around and tell yourself with honesty that our current level of consumption is sustainable. You can’t do it with a straight face or believe it with integrity. Cutting resource use must become a global crusade.The new frontier is forcing us to come to terms with the spiritual vacuum in our culture, with the duality between man and nature. We need to approach this new frontier with a sense of opportunity coupled with a pioneering frugality of self-imposed limits.We need to work our bodies and improve our minds to make us equal to the task of creating a healthy society that is reverent to the values of life. Otherwise, the disasters we face will be of our own doing, the result of squandering our opportunities as a free people and diminishing our self-worth as human beings.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.


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